*A new interview series with a play on “20 questions,” where I try to mix it up with different questions. Some serious, some not so much. I’ll also be focusing the series on some of the best street photographers from the cities I visit around the world during my 100 Cities project.
Between leaving Vietnam and some work in Russia, I decided to stop in Bangkok, Thailand. Bangkok has become a hotbed of talent in the street photography genre and fortunately I was able to meet much of this talent after guest speaking at the Street Photo Thailand Workshop. Photographer Rammy Narula, who is part of the Street Photo Thailand team, was kind enough to not only show me around Bangkok, but also to thankfully take on this edition of “20 Questions.”
Rammy is a member of the APF Collective and a very involved member of the street photography community. Light, shadow and color play a noticeably important part in many of the scenes he captures, as he uses them to not only enhance his photos aesthetically, but also to enhance the strength and focus of what he captures. His work is clean with every detail in the frame flowing together, while blending the candid humanity of everyday life into photos that are visually pleasing too. Rammy recently finished his first book, Platform 10, which really showcases his style using light and shadow in an artistic way.
So now to learn more about him, it’s time for 20 Questions in Bangkok, Thailand with Rammy Narula…
20 Questions with Rammy Narula
Before we get to the 20 questions, please introduce yourself. Your name, where you’re from and one interesting thing about you?
Hello! My name is Rammy Narula. I am from Bangkok, Thailand. The one interesting thing about me is that I’ve been growing my beard out. My beard has turned mostly white, but my hair is still naturally black, so I’ve got a two-tone thing going on. I think that’s pretty interesting, don’t you? 😄
1. What is your earliest memory of photography?
My earliest memory of photography would have to be of my Dad when I was a kid. He was a camera fanatic. He would take pictures and videos of my brother and I growing up and used to own a bunch of film cameras as well as one of those large video recorders you had to carry over your shoulder because they were so heavy. Sometimes I think he enjoyed the gears more than the photography itself, so maybe that’s where I got my gear-headedness from. Haha.
2. What do you think drew you to your preferred subjects in photography?
I think it’s my curiosity of people’s behavior in general and how that plays with the environment. Whenever I see people do something or behave a certain way that feels a bit unusual or it feels like it sticks out, I would wonder what they’re thinking about and I like to fill in the answers with my own imagination by framing them in the context of what’s around them. So it’s fair to say it’s my emotional response of what people are doing that gets me going.
3. What advice would you have given yourself when first starting in photography?
To really enjoy the process. Because I’ve come to believe there isn’t really a finishing line and you can do so much over a period of time if you just focus on what’s in front of you. I think I pressured myself a lot when I started out. I wanted to get good really quickly and I imagined there was the top floor that I wanted to get to as fast as I could. These days I see it more as an everyday thing. You do a little bit everyday of what you want while believing it’s a part of something bigger that you cannot touch today but can still feel the growth. To get to where you want to go while also enjoying it and not feeling the strain. Who wouldn’t want to know that that’s actually possible when they start out? Haha.
4. How has your photographic style evolved over the years?
Whoa, where do I begin! I started from taking simple close up portraits of random people on the street. Then I got bored with that and wanted to include more environment so I learnt how to step back and shoot a bigger scene. That got me into environmental portraits and social documentary for a while. I also tried to shoot models in studios and outdoors. It became an expensive hobby though, so I decided to hit the street and just keep things simple. I wanted to take photos of people and it didn’t matter how or where because I wasn’t planning to work to earn money from it. I started learning how to take more interesting photos from various places – workshops, books, videos, street photography groups. These days I’m incorporating more color, light, and shadows into my work. I like a challenge so I hope to keep finding new ones to try out because that’s how I kept evolving, by challenging myself constantly.
5. What is your preferred set-up (gear) when hitting the streets for photography?
I’m a self-confessed gear-head and have used several cameras but the last year or so I’ve settled on the Fuji XT1 with a prime 23mm lens and the Leica Q.
6. When you’re looking at a photo, what makes a photo good, or even great?
Anyone who knows me or my work will also know that I’m borderline mental about composition. A photo has to have nice lines and shapes, clean background, no distractions, no overlap, with beautiful light and color for it to be considered a good photo for me. A great photo, though, needs something extra. A moment, a character, something that gives it a point of interest. It has to be something that makes me go “Hmm!” when I look at it. If I don’t feel something about the subject or the connections in the photo, it won’t hold my attention for very long even if it’s super well composed.
Not So Serious Questions:
7. You get one superpower for photography, what would it be and why? (You can’t choose invisibility!)
I’d like to have a mind control ability. I would love to tell people what to do and how to behave. And if I can move objects too, that’d be even cooler.
8. You also get 3 photography related wishes, what are they?
Well, my 3 wishes last year were that I complete a project, make a book, and have an exhibition for it. Right now, I have the project completed, the book ready for pre-order and the exhibition coming up, so my wish now is for my work to make a difference. Not just for people to like the work, but for the work to make an impact once it goes to a wider audience. I want people to feel something when they see my work. If it makes people feel like picking up a camera, or makes them want to come see the spot where I took the photos, or start making up stories in their head beyond what’s on the photos, that would be awesome. Having people feel or wanting to do something, anything, once they’ve seen the work. If not this project, then perhaps the next one. I will always strive to try and make that happen.
2 Speed Rounds (Give the first answers that come to mind)
This or That:
9. Instincts or Planned?
10. Shoot alone or with others?
11. Gritty or Pretty?
12. Influential Photographers
13. Photography Books
Too many, but my favorite ones are:
Anything by Harry Gruyaert
“Cafe Lehmitz” – Anders Peterson
“Exiles” – Josef Koudelka
“American Color” – Constantine Manos
14. Important Qualities for a Street Photographer to Have
Courage, curiosity, and confidence in yourself.
15. Where do you like to photograph most in your city, Bangkok, and why?
The central train station. I love everything about it. The characters, the light, the lines, the color. It’s a slow moving place making it feel like you can really get into it at your own pace. People are friendly and don’t care about photographers so much, so you can really try to capture the essence of the place without worrying about what your presence is doing to it.
16. I know you’re a big fan of photo books. Give me one that inspires you and explain why?
My favorite book has to be “Roots” by Harry Gruyaert. Even more than the photos, it’s his story that really inspires and resonates with me. Gruyaert always talks about the difficulty he had early on photographing his home town. Because he lived and grew up there, he was less excited by the sights around him, even if they were interesting to others. He found more success photographing when he travelled and it took all the traveling to get him to start seeing his hometown in a different way. The time spent away gave him a fresh perspective.
It’s inspiring for me because I’ve never made it a secret that I struggle to shoot at home in Bangkok. Everything looks the same to me and I don’t get excited by much. Most of my earlier photos on the street – the ones I get excited about – were from when I travel as well. On some scale I find myself struggling exactly the same way Gruyaert describes. I have a secret wish to live away from Bangkok for a while, not forever, simply to explore and also to make my home town exciting again.
Roots is a collection of his work from Belgium. His evolution and how his views of it changed as time went by and he started seeing more outside of his country. I think I may have to follow his methods somewhat for me to be able to get the most out of my hometown and it’s why I find his work, his books, and his stories inspiring.
17. You’ve completed a few photo projects/series in the past, including “Life is an Act” and “Platform 10.” What attracts you to working on photo projects? And do you have any in the works now?
Well, “Life is an Act” didn’t really start out as a project. It was a culmination of the photos I had taken in that sort of style. Candid street portraits of people in their elements. In Black and White. I framed them in a way that felt like they were my actors on a stage, and together all of them felt like part of an act. The second act may come in the form of color, when I have enough to put together.
“Platform 10” was a bit different. I had been shooting at the train station for 4 years when I found myself on one particular platform at a particular time that had this sort of backlit mood to it. I challenged myself to see how many photos I could make under the same condition for as long as they didn’t feel repetitive. The result was a much bigger project than I initially anticipated, as it also recently became my first book.
So the fact is neither really started out as projects, but more of an idea that came about and I just kept shooting them until I felt I had exhausted the want to do it. I think that’s how I would define how I work. I shoot until I stumble upon an idea and I exploit it for all I can manage. Then I put it together if I can. Right now I’m in between. I’m shooting and waiting for the next idea to hit and drive me again.
18. How did the decision to turn your Platform 10 project into a book come about?
It happened pretty organically. In the first month of this project, I took 3-4000 photos and knew I needed help. Professional help. I was recommended to get in touch with David Carol and he quickly became a big motivator keeping me focused and helping me edit the work. I finally met him in person in New York late last year when he had just established a new publishing house, Peanut Press, and I was also introduced to his business partner, Ashly Stohl. She had just recently made and sold out her book and I thought that was just awesome. I love books anyway and it didn’t take much of a trigger for me to want one of my own. A few weeks later I asked David if he and Ashly would be interested to make my book and they said yes, and the rest is as you see now. David knew the work inside out and they both have treated the work like it’s their own which really helped the process. The book is now available for pre-order and will be shipped in early September.
Behind a photo:
19. I read somewhere that you almost threw out your “Pilot” photo, which has since become one of your most popular photos. Tell me a little about that, and how challenging do you find editing (curating) your own photos?
Haha. I initially felt I may have shot it too close. Like, “whoa, that is close!,” maybe it doesn’t really work and no one would get what I tried to do. I marked it 2 stars and showed my wife later and she said that’s awesome and she immediately understood the humor in it. I later showed Torsten Hendricks, a very close friend who sees most of my work, and he said that photo had to be my top 3 photos of all time! I was shocked. Mostly because I was surprised they actually understood my intentions.
So here’s what I’ve come to realize – you can sometimes be too much in your head about what you saw and made a photo of. Sometimes the idea you had doesn’t come through, and sometimes it does, but you’re too close to see it clearly. Having someone close to you who knows you and your work to help you edit your photos is crucial. They know you, your sense of style, and are more objective because they’re not emotionally attached. I have always believed in tough self censorship, but since this incident I also started believing that having your work edited by an outside eye can really take it a step above.
The Final Question:
20. You have only 3 photos left on your last roll of film.
In the first direction, you see a group of children carrying colorful balloons.
In the second direction, you see a group of models walking to a fashion show.
In the third direction, you see a group of circus clowns taking a smoke break.
And in the last direction, you see a group of protesters.
The light is perfect at all 4 locations. What do you do?
I would have to use a process of elimination. I have many photos of people smoking, so I’ll let that go. I have no interest in photographing protests and anyway that requires more than 3 shots for sure, so not that either. A group of beautiful models walking together sounds like something I may come across again, so I’ll skip that. That leaves me with the kids with balloons. I don’t have any photos of anyone carrying balloons in my portfolio, and in good light the balloons will look beautiful, so I’d shoot 3 images of that from different angles and hope I have one great one. :)
Another big thank you to Rammy for the Interview, and for anyone who would like to see more of his work, check the links below!