Monica Tiwari: Intermingled Narratives
Raj Lalwani discusses photography with the young Monica Tiwari, to understand the motivations behind her multi-layered documentary images.
Monica Tiwari’s images are largely within the realm of old-school documentary photography, but look at them closely and you will realise that they are indicative of a very interesting mind at work. A mind that is not satisfied with a straight-on shot, one that wants to tell us the same story, but with a few extra spins.
Layer upon Layer, Brick by Brick
I had always found her frames strangely attractive. I guess that’s an odd way of describing someone’s work, but it was only when I met this 25-year old for some coffee over the viewing of photographic prints that I realised why I like her images.
Ask her any question and she will give you a quick, instinctive reply. Then, she will explain it further. And then add a counterpoint. Almost as if she is building up a larger thought, bit by bit. Her photographs are similar.
Monica’s pictures tend to stir a sense of discomfort, a nagging feeling that there is a lot more to this image than your first casual reaction. Then, you notice another element, there is a clash of mood and you join the dots. And once you sense this pattern in her way of seeing, it’s almost like a puzzle that you want to keep solving.
This urge to weave a story gradually, all come together in the single image. But the germ of this vision probably comes from her love for cinema. “My heart was always set on the filmmaking course at the Jamia Millia Islamia institute. It was only by chance that I used my brother’s DSLR to shoot some still pictures, and realised that I enjoyed it.”
“I do not look at too many photos. It’s a bad habit, perhaps, but I want to search for my own identity.”
These first pictures were actually portraits made as a birthday gift for a friend. Friends and personal connections have always opened new doors for Monica. She photographed a project on her closest friends and it was selected to be shown at the Nazar ka Adda, a photography discussion that regularly takes place in Delhi.
“She was showing this project on her friends and I noticed how her portraits were carefully constructed. It almost seemed like an advertising shoot, in terms of its careful attention to detail and the overall visual feel.” I was talking to senior documentary photographer Amit Mehra, who has been mentoring Monica since the Adda event where he first saw her work.
Lazing, to Go that Extra Mile
“But then, a lot of people do that,” Amit continues. “What I was impressed by, was one particular portrait. She wanted to photograph her friend Ishaan who loved the railways, but lived in the US. She put a placard with his name on a handcart at the railway station. He was present, despite being absent. I thought to myself, here is a young photographer who is willing to think differently and go that extra mile.”
Monica laughs and tells me, “I am a lazy photographer. I keep getting scolded by Amit sir that I should be shooting a lot more. But when I am shooting and spot a potential frame, I don’t mind waiting for hours. I want to keep working on the image in my head, like someone who is constantly tapping away on a window, waiting for it to open.
She ponders a bit and adds, “I like discovery. I want to play with a viewer’s mind. Complexity attracts me. Frankly, the whole process of waiting for every element to fall in place is cathartic. It’s like settling my own mind.”
“Every once in a while, I like to feel empty. To get that knock in my guts that I don’t know anything. And then, I start from scratch.”
At a time when everyone seems to be expressing themselves in visual styles that seem to be a rejection of tradition, it’s refreshing to see Monica’s work. There are no visual tricks… no grain, no surreal blurs, no volatile camera shake that is meant to confuse the viewer as to what one is looking at.
This is straight-on photography, but still, with a point of view that is unique. She balances her personal work with a day job as a photojournalist at The Hindu, but in even the most mundane of assignments, she tries to take an approach that is less direct, and more tangential. Amit Mehra sums it up best, “The most exciting photographers are those who go beyond the obvious. Interestingly, most photographers who do this today, do not include faces within their frames. Monica is one of the few who creates that sense of non-obvious quirkiness, even while photographing people.”
Gadgets and Gear
- While doing her personal projects, she does not like to carry anything more than her Nikon D7000 and its 18–105mm kit lens.
- The onboard flash is her favourite tool. “I enjoy how it makes people in the foreground pop, and then allows me to play with the way they merge into the background.”
Tips by Monica
- Facebook Likes do not mean anything. Find a mentor. Have the guts to show your work who will look at it critically.
- Observe light and geometry. And then marvel at how these two simple elements are used in such different ways by the masters, be it an Alex Webb or a Gueorgui Pinkhassov.
About Monica Tiwari
She says that she is fascinated by anything that makes her think. The Pianist, Amelie and Khosla ka Ghosla are movies that fall into that category for her. One of the winners of the Neel Dongre Awards/ Grants for Excellence in Photography, she worked on a project on Gurgaon, for the same.
This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of Better Photography.