I studied photography at the Rhode Island School of Design, which was a life changing experience. It’s this intense art school where everyone is super talented - a lot of writing papers and putting on shows and spending sleepless nights in the studio. After I graduated I worked in New York assisting photographers including Nathaniel Goldberg, who shoots a lot with Hermès, Dior and Harper’s Bazaar. He’s one of the old school photographers. While I loved my job, I realised I couldn’t be an assistant for 10 years before I got my big break, even though that’s the norm in New York or LA - Nathaniel’s main assistant had been with him for 13 years. I decided to move back to New Delhi but since I’d been away for seven years, it was a bit of a culture shock; however I soon started working with Bharat Sikka, a photographer whose work I admired immensely. It’s funny how it happened - I met this guy at a nightclub and we got to talking. I told him I was a photographer and he said, "I'm friends with one of the best photographers in the country." I thought he was showing off until he told me it was Bharat Sikka, and I went, “Ohh.” (Laughs) I went to see him the next day and it was great; he looked at my work and said, “Awesome, you can start tomorrow at 9.” I assisted him with a lot of advertising and editorial work; Vogue had just launched that year, and he was setting up his first show, which I assisted with as well. Through the entire process, we became, and have remained, good friends.
But it was time to leave Delhi - I think it’s great, but it’s really quite laid back. I wanted to be someplace where I was surrounded by people who were more ambitious and driven and who wouldn't just be happy to say, “I’ve got my car, my driver and my farmhouse, life is great.” I decided to move to Bombay, and I met Cecila (Morelli, founder, Le Mill) who was still atVogue then. I started doing a bit of work with the magazine, and it’s taken off from there. I do films, fashion and a lot of lookbooks.
I think models are great - they know how to pose and give you the angles you want but their faces are a little generic, which is why I love shooting non-models. It’s a bit tougher - you have to get them in that space and they might not have all the poses; it takes a little more time but it’s so interesting to have someone for whom it’s not a job, someone who’s not just coming in, giving you their standard poses and leaving. It’s more of an interaction and to me it’s much more satisfying. One of my favourite projects is a look book I shot for Bombay Electric in collaboration with the girls from fashion label Nor Black Nor White. Priya (Kishore, founder, Bombay Electric) gave the designers vintage saris which they refashioned into contemporary articles of clothing. We wanted to use an older woman for the look book, and they managed to get their friend’s grandmother to agree to it - she was 77 and allowed her nails to be painted fluorescent. I loved it. We used all these old school backdrops and the campaign was such a success.
I’m all for people’s oddities. I’m not drawn to perfection; a perfect face, perfectly aligned teeth. I like the things that people find weird about themselves - the gap in your teeth, or a scar - I love scars! It’s another reason I love to shoot with real people; they don’t come with all that baggage about how they should look. They’re at ease with themselves, and then it becomes about the interaction between you and that person. Not trying to make sure that it’s perfect, but just enjoying creating something. It’s all about simplicity for me - in terms of composition, in terms of what I find beautiful.
I’m not one for that whole pretty, made up look - not on the people I shoot and not for myself. I don’t have a crazy routine. I have very oily skin, espeically since I live in Bombay, and so I use two things: Kiehl’s Ultra Facial Oil-Free Cleanser and Kiehl’s Ultra Facial Oil-Free Gel-Cream. Sometimes I use Himalaya’s Neem Face Wash, which I introduced to a friend in New York and now he’s hooked! He buys it at all the speciality Indian shops because it’s become a bit of an addiction for him. It’s kind of awesome, though.
My makeup routine is pretty simple as well: I use High Beam and Benetint by Benefit, which I know I can put on and leave without worrying about it through the day. I’m not big on eyeshadow - maybe because I don’t really know how to use it - but there is a cream shadow that I love, the Aqua Cream by Makeup Forever. It’s the kind that you can just put on your finger, apply and be done with it. The last time I was on a shoot, the makeup artist recommended Maybelline’s Volum Express Colossal Mascara, and I’ve been using it ever since. And there’s this fantastic Pakistani kohl that is incredible - it wears beautifully, and comes in a red and blue tube. (Editor’s note: she’s not the only one who loves the stuff!) I’m huge on nails as well, and I love anything by Essie. Anytime anyone’s travelling abroad, I’m like, “Get me some Essie colours please!”
As told to Komal Basith.
Prarthna Singh photographed by Komal Basith in Bombay. © Komal Basith
All other images © Prarthna Singh