Photographer, educator, and National Geographic Explorer Deepti Asthana’s work focuses on gender and climate issues in India. Deepti‘s slow-documentation approach paired with her own experiences as an Indian woman result in visuals that deeply capture the experiences of the people she photographs. Bringing humanity, care, and attention to her subjects is essential to Deepti‘s documentation process. Read our interview with Deepti to learn about her journey as a photographer.
How did you come to photography? How did you start taking pictures?
Photography was not something I was introduced to as a kid, not even as a young adult. I had a rocky childhood; I grew up in an underprivileged family, my father passed away when I was four. Education was the prime focus for me and my brothers. The town I grew up in in northern India was very unsafe for me as a child, and the house I grew up in was also unsafe. It all felt normal then, but I knew there was a better life for me out there and school & studies became our passport to leave our nest and our town to escape in search of a better life.
Studying and later working as an engineer, took me to large towns and big cities. Looking back, this was the starting point for finding my freedom and expression. I had the opportunity to learn about photography from my colleague, a hobby photographer in London, where I was working for a short stint.
When I came back to India, I didn’t know where to start with photography. I always liked traveling, so I started doing travel photography, travel blogging, and that went really well. I actually established myself as a travel blogger and then I realized it was not the life for me. It was around this time in 2015 that I discovered documentary photography and I thought: okay, this is something that I can contribute something to. I have my own life story and experiences to draw on, that could help me in this genre. At this time, I was living in Bombay and not far from the city, there was this issue of farmer suicide. Everyday, the newspapers were reporting on farmers committing suicide due to failing crops, due to climate change, drought, and debt borrowed by farmers by private moneylenders. I went and reported on this issue and it became my first published story.
Gradually, I started making more stories in rural India and understanding what documentary photography was. I began searching for people in the business who I could talk to, despite being very scared and shy to talk to anyone. I was just trying to be an observer from a distance and see what other photographers were doing. I started applying for opportunities. My first grant was Focus Scotland and then a women specific grant by Serendipity Arts Festival Goa where I had my first exhibition. That was sort of when I started to get the validation I needed to know that photography was the right path for me.
At the same time, my personal life was going through a rough patch. My marriage was not working and I had to make two hard decisions simultaneously: a divorce and a career change. Photography became a gateway for all of my troubles—depression, and everything else. I put all my energy into photography, and photography came to my rescue at that time.
I jumped right into it and the Universe threw me a rope when I got a scholarship to go to the Danish School of Media and Journalism in Denmark sponsored by photo agency VII. I studied there for six months and received guidance. This stint gave me the required validation for my practice and the exposure opened me up to all the possibilities.
You said you got into trouble as a kid, do you mean trouble that was directed at you?
As a kid, I was abused by one of my relatives. I couldn’t tell my mother for a very, very long time. When I did tell her, she couldn’t understand what happened and all the rage and anger just came back to me. Now, I can understand how patriarchy and social conditioning plays a role in women not thinking beyond their family honor. These things happened over and over, and as a result I became a very shy and submissive person. Despite my education and everything, in my marriage I was a submissive person and couldn’t establish the equal relationship I wanted. For me, to get out of those situations and build my life again from scratch…it gives me some kind of comfort knowing that it doesn’t really matter how many times we fall, we can always find strength to stand up and rebuild a better life. Sometimes you have to learn your lessons through these hardships, pay your debt and live life with a purpose. So for me, photography is both life and purpose.
Women in India have often been portrayed as exotic creatures, the focus on their jewelry or dusky skin. That’s the effect of colonialism, I would say. Most often outsider photographers made only a very shallow documentation of women in India.Deepti Asthana
It’s interesting to hear you say all of this because knowing you professionally, you come off as a very confident, self-assured person.
I had to work on myself a lot. I’ve been a hard working student. Life has been a great teacher for me. I was also someone who could not speak a single sentence of English until I was eighteen, so I had to work on my English. I had to work on my skills as a photographer and also on my self-confidence. I have worked very hard to transform from one phase to another in life. People sometimes don’t believe that I come from that kind of background because I have changed so much. At the same time, I feel tired from the inside out. A person who is constantly living a somewhat nomadic life and constantly searching for a home, for peace, and for a place to rest.
My mother used to earn hardly anything, like 25 USD a month. There were three of us siblings and we didn’t have a house of our own. We had a terrible, terrible life. More recently, going through the divorce wasn’t easy, my mental health was not good, I lost access to my dog, most of my mutual friends, I had limited money and no safety and security to rely on. At the same time, I’m proud that I could keep going forward. I found meaning throughout my life through spirituality and also through art.
How do you feel like these experiences, the hardships that you’ve endured, have affected your photography and you as an artist?
I think my work has always been about my life. In my work, I report on the women of India and their stories which have a very deep connection to my life. I learn from them, and they learn from me, that’s how I see it. It’s important for me to tell their stories. I was not able to tell my own story, because I was still stuck. It is such an irony that, you know, I was going through a crisis myself but at the same time I was available to provide some help to others.
Everyone needs that care and attention, that is something universal across culture and region, and you have to give them time. You have to bring your humanity into your work and your daily interactions with people.Deepti Asthana
The documentary stories that I did in Uttarakhand on teenage girls and then in Rajasthan on women forest guards were long term projects that I did for four or five years. I got to know these women really well, like inside out. I was sure that these were the only kind of stories I wanted to do because there was hardly anyone doing women centric stories in rural India in a deeper way. Women in India have often been portrayed as exotic creatures, the focus on their jewelry or dusky skin. That’s the effect of colonialism, I would say. Most often outsider photographers made only a very shallow documentation of women in India. Sometimes, there wouldn’t even be the name of these women mentioned, or any details about their life. That deeply angered me. It is disrespectful to their life and hardship, I thought. Their lives are complicated, dealing with patriarchy and dreaming of a better life while also carrying the weight of family honor. It is a tough territory to navigate. I related to it through my own experiences. If a professional documentarian reduces all that struggle to an Indian woman smiling at camera, it is a shame.
Tell me about your long term project documenting the water crisis in the western Himalayas, and how the crisis is impacting women.
It’s a project which is supported by the National Geographic Society. In the villages of the Western Himalayas, all the work is pushed on women. They have to take care of fields, they have to take care of the home, they have to take care of their siblings, they have to go and collect wood. Elementary school girls lift big vessels on their heads and walk for 4-6 kilometers. “The weight of the water”, which is also the title of the project, is on these tiny shoulders. Eventually not able to balance it all, they quit school. Additionally, the issues relating to climate are not improving nor is the issue of extreme patriarchy in the region. My hope is that this project is a testimony of their struggle and makes a real impact on audiences.
Given your background and your personal story, would you say that your ultimate goal with photography is to highlight the plight of women in India?
Absolutely. At the same time, I am also delving into conceptual work which is based on my life. Lately I have been working on two projects relating my experience of love, spirituality and nature which I call “Tree story”. I also have a project, “The Sweet Kiss of Monsoon Nights” where I explore the night as a woman, a privilege and right which has been snatched from me as a kid and as an adult.
Women’s stories will always be my focus though, because the world needs these stories. It is the way to educate people. I know people who live in the cities are living very different lives, but if you go to smaller cities and villages, this is the story of every household. Anyone who has lived an underprivileged life will tell you this has happened to me, they will not be surprised. When you come from that kind of background, you go through multiple hardships. That was my experience: the struggle for education, the struggle for safety, the struggle to choose my career, the struggle to choose who I could marry.
I think my work has always been about my life.Deepti Asthana
For me, it is very important that I am now in a position to tell these stories. I have a way to communicate this. I have come across from the struggle and now no one can stop me. A lot of women, they will not talk about it. They believe that these are secrets which should be hidden.
I’m curious, for you having had the experiences like a lot of the women you are documenting, what do you find is the most challenging aspect in doing this work?
I think it’s the emotional baggage. If I was not carrying this kind of emotional baggage, I could produce so much more work. Some of the time, my mental health is not in a good state. I want to be free mentally so that I can do my work, but be a little lighter in my head. I am seeking professional help now as I can afford to, and I also feel no shame talking about it.
Besides your camera gear, what do you find a necessity to bring into the field with you?
I feel that I read people deeply due to my own life experiences. I’ve learned it’s really important to give people time and attention, and really listen to them before you start working with them. Everyone needs that care and attention, that is something universal across culture and region, and you have to give them time. You have to bring your humanity into your work and your daily interactions with people.