Photographer Harshvardhan Shah on isolation, identity, and finding community
By Siena Oristaglio on July 18th, 2018
Harshvardhan Shah is a queer South Asian artist and photographer based in New York City and Mumbai. His work has been featured in Refinery29, PANSY Magazine, Subvrt Magazine, and more. We chat below about his upcoming projects, how his work inspires other people to feel comfortable in their sexuality, and his personal definition of success.
To start, what project or projects that are you currently working on that you feel most excited about?
I'm going back home to Mumbai for a while during the summer and I'm always excited about having a change in my surroundings since I spend a lot of my time between New York and going back home during breaks in my college semester. I'm hoping to photograph a series and meet new people from the queer community in Mumbai, especially since I've really enjoyed making photographs there in the past. I don't want to reveal too much until it's actually organized and planned out, but I'm trying to capture more stories and have some kind of documentary feel to it.
What is one challenge currently you are grappling with in your photography practice? How are you addressing it?
I think being from Mumbai and having the opportunity to study in New York has dramatically shaped who I've become these past few years, and I've always used photography as an outlet for my emotions or anything I'm going through in my life. My relationship with home has been pretty complicated these past few years as I don't feel as free and comfortable as I do in New York with how progressive people are towards the queer community. In a lot of ways coming back home is challenging, as I don't feel as comfortable or safe. I was born in Mumbai and it literally is my 'home', but I spend most of my time in New York on a visa for college, and that's where most of my friends are too. I'm trying to figure out how I can photographically present the feeling of loneliness and isolation (possibly through self-portraits). I often feel as if I don't necessarily belong to either place or feel settled, but at the same time find strength and inspiration from the two to keep going.
What is one reaction you hope audience members have after viewing your photographs?
A lot of people have told me that seeing my work really helped them feel more comfortable about their sexuality and embrace their femininity as a brown/Indian person. That makes me feel so great as it's something I've struggled with for a long time and it's so freeing to get to that stage where you make decisions only for yourself and for your own happiness. I think if people are encouraged to be themselves and feel like they can do whatever they want, instead of what society expects them to do, that's amazing.
Success means something different to every artist. Can you describe a time in recent history that you felt that you succeeded creatively?
I think being able to form a community of artists I've met through photography has been so rewarding. A big reason as to why I continue to work with a lot of South Asian artists is because it's so hard for people in our culture to become artists. A lot of families are so traditional and want to encourage their kids to pursue science or something "safer." So many South Asian artists I meet have many similar stories and it's such a great feeling to know there's someone else who feels the same way about breaking the barriers we've been held under for so long. I think the fact that I've been able to be a part of so many people's creative journeys is wonderful. I channel a lot of my emotional energy into my work and it keeps me happy and productive. So for me, if I've been able to connect with somebody, and learn something from them and push myself to keep improving with my skills, I feel like I've succeeded.
Whose artistic work most influences and/or sustains your creative practice?
I'm really drawn to all the music I listen to. I recently saw M.I.A's documentary and it was amazing to see more of her story as she's someone I've looked up to for a long time. She's also been one of the very few brown people talking about the middle ground of belonging to the east and the west and I find myself thinking of my own identity in a very similar way since I keep going back and forth between Mumbai and New York. Her work and activism has really inspired me. I also love Lykke Li, she's so honest and raw with her emotions; you can tell she feels deeply. We're both Pisces so I guess it makes sense.
Harshvardhan Shah is an artist and photographer based in New York City and Mumbai. He is currently enrolled at The New School and studying culture and media. Most of his work revolves around the themes of South Asian identity and the LGBTQ community.