Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Jasmin Shah on life as a professional photographer (and three of her favorite pictures)

Born to an Indian father who grew up in Ethiopia and an American mother, Jasmin Shah grew up in Kenosha, Wisconsin. She grew up hearing about different cultures. At Christmas, she remembers eating Indian food, Ethiopian food and a small token turkey. And it opened up her world.

Armed with an innate curiosity derived from her multi-cultural background, she first visited India at the age of 29 as a professional photographer. She recalls it was strange going to the country, knowing it was part of her heritage but not knowing much about it at all. Jasmin took pictures on that trip to learn more about herself.

She's been back several times since, traveling to photograph distant lands in between making her living as a photographer in Chicago. I asked her to share her unique perspective on the Drift and tell us about life as a person who takes pictures for a living.

I also asked her to pick three of her favorite pictures and tell us all about them.

AspisDrift.com: Jasmine, tell us how you got serious about photography

Jasmin: Well, I was pretty good at Math and Science in High School and Mechanical Engineering sounded good. I actually wanted to be an astronaut! But once I got to Purdue it got kind of boring. I realized my chances of being an astronaut were so dim – I would be probably be working in an office all my life. So I started thinking about a change. And once I took a photo class it all changed for me.

There was an opening at the local paper for a position as a chief photographer. I interviewed and got it. But it was very demanding. I remember I ended up doing really poorly at studies that semester!

But I got to go the NCAA tournament (Purdue is big in Basketball). I got to do all these cool assignments when I was only nineteen. My parents saw me on TV. I was the only woman photographer there. I thought to myself: this is pretty cool!

So I moved to the University of Montana and studied Photojournalism.

AspisDrift.com: What's life as a professional photographer like?

Jasmin: I do photography full time as a freelancer. Life is interesting and different. I started off with photo journalism but now I do more portraiture. As a photographer, you are constantly meeting new people. You are in situations that most people wouldn’t encounter. Every day can be different which is fantastic and exciting.

It’s not always the most glamorous. I had to go to the Fish Feeding room to shoot at The Shedd Aquarium. I had to go to a huge landfill in the Western burbs while doing a story about the journey of a water bottle for Red Eye (a free daily published by The Chicago Tribune).

AspisDrift.com: Sounds Adventurous!

Jasmin: Yeah! I get to go to pretty fabulous parties if I happen to be photographing them.

I can be introverted or extroverted depending on the situation. For photojournalism, you need to only be observing. So you step back. But when I’m doing wedding or portraits or photos of kids and families I have to jump out there and be more social.

AspisDrift.com: You've taken all kinds of pictures: weddings, pregnancies, people, countries, even food. What among all this has been the toughest to photograph?

Jasmin: I remember doing a kids’ portrait the day after Halloween. Never again! They were all hopped up on sugar! No, actually really they are all good.

Weddings can be nerve racking because it’s the biggest day of a couple’s life and you are in charge of getting all the pictures right. But when you give the photos to the couple and they get to see it, it’s pretty special because the bride and groom don't really get to see much when they are in the wedding.

AspisDrift.com: I see lots of people, casual and amateur photographers, take great pictures. What do you think are the elements that distinguish a professional photographer?

Jasmin: You need commitment and consistency. When I talk to potential client for weddings and they tell me they met someone who was very cheap. I ask them: did you see that person’s whole shoot and was the whole thing good? Because only a good professional photographer can show great consistency across the portfolio.

AspisDrift.com: My friend Sarboo takes terrific pictures on the cell phone. Most phones are still terrible for photography, but their portable nature makes them really useful. What would be the one thing I should always keep in mind to get the best pictures on a phone?

Jasmin: Yes, quality on the phone is not the greatest and the flashes aren’t good either. So you have to think a lot about natural light. (Good) Light on the subject you are photographing – that is the most important thing.

AspisDrift.com: I've always wanted to ask this: do people expect you to take your personal pictures like a professional too? Let's say you snap the dog or your nephews and the pictures don't come out right. Do you get funny looks?

Jasmin: No one has really said anything negative about any pictures I take casually. But I get lots of questions about which camera to buy. And I know this makes me sound awful, but I don’t know anything about consumer grade cameras. For professional cameras, like say Canon, there are only a few you can afford that you also like so the choice is simpler.

So I’ve recently been thinking I should go to a camera shop and look at cameras so that I have something ready when I get asked.

AspisDrift.com: You travel a lot for your photography. How do you manage your cameras during international travel?

Jasmin: I carry all my equipment with me! In my last trip to India in June I took all my cameras with me. My carry-ons are really heavy – in fact I have to constantly pretend my bags are really light, which they aren’t!

Once I lost all my check-in bags for five days. I hadn’t packed anything to wear in my carry ons! On my next trip to Ethiopia, I am packing at least one change of clothes between cameras.

All my carry-ons are casual (non-photography related) because I travel alone a lot and don’t want to attract attention.

AspisDrift.com: Ok Jasmin, let's talk about three of your favorite pictures you've picked out for us.

Jasmin: This picture (above) was taken during my first trip to India a few years ago. It’s on Dal Lake in Srinagar. There is an Indian photographer who has since passed away – Raghubir Singh. I was looking at a lot of his stuff before going on this trip. It’s all so layered – he has a lot going on in his frames.

In this picture there are four people – a mother, baby, a grandma and a boy playing cricket. I took the picture from a boat on the lake across this house. I like those orange pants hanging in the window. The colors are muted but a few things pop out like the green ball between the legs of the boy.

My last trip to India was as a volunteer for Operation Smile which is a non-profit group. Operation Smile fixes cleft lips and cleft palates. I photographed the mission for them so they could use the pictures for fund raising.

I’ve wanted to make a difference in life and I’m not a nurse or a teacher or a doctor. With this opportunity, I felt like I could make a difference so I volunteered.

I followed this little girl you see in the picture (above) everywhere. She was the darling of the whole mission. She was really cute and happy and excited to see everyone.

I took this last November. I saw her in June again. She remembered me. I almost started crying. She looked really good and it made me so happy.

This picture (above) was taken in Chicago on Randolph Street over the I90-94 freeway. A couple of weeks ago, I was assisting my friend at a wedding (sometimes we help each other out because its much nicer when there are two people photographing a wedding) when this picture was taken.

I shot this with a tilt-shift lens so I got this slim line of focus and everything else was diffused around it. I like that light behind the man’s hair – that was a street lamp!

You once pictorially documented life in Chicago. Let's say someone came to visit this wonderful city, how would you recommend they spend their day?

Jasmin: Chicago is a city of neighborhoods. One of the best things to do is to pick out some neighborhoods and go through them. I live in the Ukrainian Village, I’m close to Wicker Park and Bucktown and I love these neighborhoods.

You get to see people walking and interacting. I recommend people get away from Downtown Chicago at least once during their trip.

You can ride the Brown Line (on the Chicago L) and look at peoples’ back porches and experience the neighborhood in a way you can’t on foot. You get an insight into people’s lives a lot that way. And the food is great in all these places!

AspisDrift.com: Jasmine, its mandatory to pester all guests on the Drift with this last question: can you fold a fitted bed sheet?

Jasmine: Oh, I am horrible at folding fitted sheets. Usually I just do this weird rolling fold with the sheets between my arms and then just pat it down and shove it in the closet. It is definitely not a skill of mine, though nor is it one that I am that concerned with having.

Jasmin's web site


Anonymous said...

You got a real pro photographer to talk to you -- how exciting!!!

I love that she used her techie skills to turn into a photographer! Maybe she can tell us a bit more about that?

And Aspi, how come you didn't ask her what gear she uses -- do you think she might tell us?! Like, what camera body, and what are her four favourite lenses?

Anonymous said...

P.S. Sorry I have more questions than reactions! But I always wanted to quiz a real pro photographer!!!

Unknown said...

svr, ok I will ask Jasmin about that.

Anonymous said...

Aspi, you are on a role these days. Absence of Himesh has been good to the drift.

Loved the pictures Jasmin picked. The first two pics made me tear up. Felt proud for what she has achieved. She seems very cool and chic.

She should do a pictorial book on Chicago.

Unknown said...

Well, we can't have that can we? I'll have to think of a way to bring Himanshu back! Wait, there is the hair post coming up. All will be well then.

Anonymous said...

Aspi, love how you connect with and bring us these really cool people..

Jasmin there is one thing I always wanted to ask..do some people really photograph better than others? we hear the word photogenic tossed around so much.. is this real? give us the portrait pro's take on this. Most lay people have set views on whether they are photogenic or not, this must make for some interesting portrait session experiences :)

Anonymous said...

Well, you are right. Maybe I was in denial since I was missing Himesh so much :)

Anonymous said...

Great interview, as usual. I was esp. touched by Jasmin's description of how she used her talent to change a girl's life. Driftji, you bring out the best in people!

Those of us that grew up using old-fashioned cameras and developing negatives in dark rooms associate photography with romance. It used to be a very thoughtful, tactile, patient art. Now with the new technology, I don't know anymore.

I want to see more black and white again!

Kanan said...

The best part was Jasmin's favorite photos and all about it. I really liked how she shared her personal feelings about them with us. Thanks, Aspi & Jasmin. :)

musical said...

Awesome! Aspi, thanks a ton for introducing us to such wonderful people and work! And thank you, Jasmin!

Totally love her favorite photographs! And i pretty much would love to do what she recommends while visiting a new city: enjoy the different neighborhoods and the everyday life :).

Unknown said...

meena, great question - I should have asked her that.

I love asking people about their favorite stuff. Its less work for me :) Don't have to think of too much to ask.

Once in a while I'll run into someone who'll be on to this technique of mine and will refuse to cooperate.

RBNJ music directorji, how long is this going to take?!

Anonymous said...

Hey that was a really interesting interview!! And I simply loved the Srinagar picture its just extraordinary.