Photographer Neha Hirve grew up in Pune, India, but that was only one of her many homes. Neha moves a lot. She has lived and studied in the USA, the Czech Republic, Sweden, and many other places. The relationship we have with the land we live on, and the people who are trying to redefine that relationship, are at the center of her work. For her project “In A Light That Is Already Leaving”, she followed a group of ecoanarchists settled in a German forest, while for “Full Shade/Half Sun”, she lived among a community that replants trees in the Sadhana Forest in India. Neha’s photographic work was published in The New York Times, The British Journal of Photography, National Geographic, and exhibited in New York and in Sweden. She was the recipient of the Women Photograph Grant in 2017. And she’s only 28. In a Zoom conversation from her home in Stockholm, where she now lives and studies web programming, Neha told us about truth, storytelling, travelling, and her favorite photographers.
Who are you? How did you become a photographer?
I would describe myself as a visual storyteller, or a documentary photographer. I mostly work with long-term projects, and I almost never work on short reportage commissions. I started out by studying film and working in the film industry for a couple of years before I got my MA in Photojournalism, so I consider myself a filmmaker as well.
You have studied filmmaking, linguistics, photojournalism,… How have all of these disciplines nourished your photographic work?
I did study linguistics, but it hasn’t influenced my photographic work at all, it’s a totally different world to me. But filmmaking and photojournalism both definitely have influenced my work. I feel like my work is a combination of both these disciplines. It’s a kind of hybrid between truth and fiction. Something that bored me when I studied photojournalism was the amount of time we spent trying to define what truth is in journalism, and whether a photograph could be considered a “journalistic photograph” or not. I really reject that idea. I think we underestimate people by trying to implement these rules. What really interests me in journalism is the storytelling. The storytelling aspect of filmmaking really influences my photographic work as well. In my understanding, filmmaking is more liberal and experimental when it comes to approaching the boundaries of truth.
What is your definition of truth in your work?
The truth is a relative thing. I think it’s an important question to discuss, it means different things to different people. Personally I find truth in my work in that I don’t try to speak on behalf of the people I photograph. Journalism traditionally is judged on how “truthful” it is which is tied to a moralistic view – was this photograph set up? Did the photographer influence the scene? etc etc. I didn’t find this question very relevant when studying journalism, and luckily the definition of good journalism is changing. No longer are just a few organizations like world press photo the ultimate definition of good journalism.
How would you describe your aesthetic?
I find it difficult to describe my own aesthetic. I guess I’m trying to create a kind of magical realism, or something as close to that as it is possible to be in the real world. I’m trying to create a feeling of surprise or delight, a sense of wonder, in my images. I almost try to recreate the way a child experiences the world. My aesthetic is quite simple, there’s not a lot going on in my pictures. Or maybe a bit of nostalgia I suppose.
How did you find it? How has it evolved since you began taking photographs?
I struggled at the beginning to find my voice as an artist. I used to be very influenced by certain documentary photographers like Alec Soth, who was probably my biggest influence when I started out. My aesthetic evolved as I got myself exposed to different kinds of photography. The more I discovered new kinds of photography, the more I developed my own aesthetic. It’s been an organic process, there hasn’t been a particular moment when I told myself : “This is what I want to achieve, this is what I want to do”. At a certain point I had consumed enough photography that I understood what I’m attracted to and what I’m not, and that has influenced my own work.
What inspires you? Which artists have influenced your work the most?
Vasantha Yogananthan is a big influence right now. His work is also influenced by magical realism and surrealism. I also really like Katrin Koenning’s work, especially the intimate way in which she photographs the people close to her. I really like Dylan Hausthor, who makes black and white surrealistic images. All these photographers’ work create a story, a narrative, and I think this is why I like it so much. I’ve never worked with photography full-time, I’ve always worked on other projects as well. For example, for the past 2 or 3 years I’ve been working with the Swedish film director Roy Andersson. His work is very absurd, it’s almost like black comedy, and his films have started to slowly influence my work as well. He has a way of perceiving the world as slightly bizarre, absurd and strange, but also a little funny.
How do you work? What are the different steps in the making of a photograph?
It has changed over time. I used to be much more organized, especially because it used to be more journalistic and it is now more interpretive. Most of my projects involved traveling, working and living with groups of people, and all of that demanded a lot of planning. I would do a lot of research and I would work within a specific time frame. I don’t structure myself as much anymore, partly because of the pandemic. I can’t make the same kind of work I used to make, mainly because I can’t travel anywhere. It’s become a very slow process for me. I don’t even think about what a project is going to be, I just photograph on some days and don’t on the others. Then after a few months, I look at the pictures I’ve taken and I try to make something out of them. It has become a very loose, organic process.
Have you ever wanted to experiment with other art forms?
It’s not related to photography, but I’m currently studying web programming, and I really love it. I’m realizing how creative it can be, and how much you can experiment artistically and visually with programming. I would love to experiment more with that. It’s pretty different from anything I’ve done before.
You’re interested in people’s relationship with the land they live on, and you have yourself lived in a lot of different places . What have you learned from those places?
It has made me think about the fact that we as a society have got alienated from the physical place where we live in. It’s kind of the same thing to live in the USA or in India or in Sweden or in the Czech Republic these days, because we are so removed from the physical reality around us. The problem with digital spaces is that they have no dimension, they’re abstract, we don’t experience them in the same way as we experiment physical places. I think we are really losing something as a society because of this. I’m interested in land in my work, and in the relationship between people and the land they live on. I’ve really started to pay attention to this thanks to my travels. To me each place is its own story, its own metaphor.
You have titled one of your photographic series “In a Light That is Already Leaving”, after this quote from Rita Dove’s poem “November for Beginners”: “So we wait, breeding mood, making music of decline. We sit down in the smell of the past and rise in a light that is already leaving.“. How can we change this? How can art and people make a difference in the climate emergency?
I don’t know if art can make a difference in the climate emergency. I think only policies and governments can make a significant difference. But I still think that art and people are important because they shape the narrative around climate change, they shape our attitude towards what is happening. We are drowned by a fear-related narrative regarding climate change. People are panicking, people have ecoanxiety, there’s this idea that we’re doomed. I discovered this poem the day before I left to this forest in Germany and I interpreted it as reflection on the fact that what makes us human is that even though the situation feels hopeless, we still choose to create a narrative of hope. We still try to do something even though we feel like there’s nothing to be done. What’s important is that we have hope and we have power. We have to keep that in mind, even though things don’t look so good.
You said of your project “Full Shade/Half Sun” that it was “not so interested in journalistic fact, but attempts to bring up philosophical and existential questions of the ways in which we find meaning in the land we live on” (burn magazine) and that “the project avoids classical journalism and instead attempts to get into the mindset of the back-to-the-land movement, and to bring up metaphors and questions about the ways in which we find meaning in our relationship to our environment” (NOOR). How do you achieve that balance between photojournalism and fine art, between journalism and storytelling?
I don’t know if there’s a balance because I specifically try not to concern myself with that anymore, and I think that’s because I don’t need to. Nowadays people care less and less about whether something is journalism or fine art, and a lot of platforms are opening up for the in-between. Independent magazines, exhibition spaces, and even larger platforms give space to this work that doesn’t fit into traditional categories. It also depends on the project. For example, for “In A Light That Is Already Leaving”, I tried to approach the subject through more journalistic perspective because I felt that in order to do justice to these people I had to make it more about their story than about my interpretation of it, whereas when I’m working on other projects I might focus more on my own experience and my own narrative.
How is photography an act of intimacy, as you defined it in a previous interview?
I guess the idea of photography as an act of intimacy on the part of the subject isn’t that new. It’s a vulnerable thing to be photographed, to allow somebody to really look at you. But I think it’s also intimate for the photographer, because you’re looking at someone and you’re not doing anything else. It feels like telling somebody that you love them when you don’t know if they love you back. It’s that moment when you are giving them your full attention and you’re asking them to surrender to you, but you’re in the unknown, they might not give you what you want, that connection that you seek might never happen. You are putting yourself out there as a photographer, even when you’re not photographing people. You are saying : “This is what I think is worth paying attention to”. It’s a way of saying : “This is who I am, because this is what I think is important”. It’s a really intimate experience.
What was your favorite experience in your career?
I think it was that pandemic actually, photography-wise. I was stuck in my grandparents’ apartment for 5 months and I photographed them. It was my first time photographing people who are close to me. Before that I had only photographed groups of strangers and places far away. I feel like it’s easier to take pictures of people you don’t know, because you know less about them and it’s easier to capture that small amount of knowledge in a photograph. The people close to you feel more complex, so it’s more difficult to take a photograph that really feels like them. I liked the fact that I didn’t have any pressure to create anything, that I could work slowly, and that I could take pictures that matter to me. It has really changed the way I think about photography. I would prefer to work like this from now on.
Is there anything you’d like to accomplish in your career?
I would really like to make a book! I’ve always wanted to do that. I’ve been procrastinating it, I don’t know why, but I really want to! Even just a small zine wold be great.
What would you like people to feel through your work?
Many artists say that they make art for themselves, but for me it’s never been that way. I do enjoy the process, but I’ve always made work for other people to see. For me, making art is about creative connection. It’s about being able to move another person, to get another person to move on the same wavelength as you. It’s wonderful for me when someone sees a picture I’ve taken and feels what I was feeling when I took it. I think that is one of the most powerful connections you can have with another human being.
So you really never make art just for yourself?
There are things I don’t share because I don’t think they’re ready, but no, not really. My work has always been for other people to see. Storytelling is a collective power, it connects people to each other.
What have you been watching, listening to, and reading lately?
I’m currently reading How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell. I’ve just started it but it’s wonderful already! She writes about resistance and dropping out of capitalism. There’s this idea that if you want to remove yourself from society, you have to move somewhere far away, in a cabin in the woods. But you can also resist from where you are. You can fight against the flaws of capitalism just by connecting deeply with the land you live on, by knowing its ecosystem, its history.
What is next for you?
I don’t really know, but I’m making a lot of work about this idea of connecting with the land we live on that Jenny Odell writes about. There’s a small hill outside my house I’ve been paying a lot of attention to. I’ve only lived here since August but I spend a lot of time on that hill and I take a lot of pictures there. I don’t know what it will become yet but I’m trying to work with this idea.
Neha Hirve is a visual storyteller currently based in Stockholm, Sweden. She mostly works on long term projects, and her praxis concerns itself with in-betweens. It lies in the space between decisive moments, between interpretation and fact, between man and his environment, performance and reality, and seeks a kind of truth via metaphors — every microcosm alludes to the larger story of what it means to be human. Recently, she has been interested in the dual role of photography as evidence and myth-maker in creating the narratives that surround certain utopian or sacred spaces.