Zahra Amiruddin: Bitter Sweet Symphony


Where the wind takes us, Arunachal Pradesh, 2017.

Zahra Amiruddin speaks candidly about embracing change, and the difficulties of striking a balance between two passions. Tanvi Dhulia explores.

For Zahra Amiruddin, one of the most pressing challenges of being a writer and photographer is the constant need to be creating. “Whether I’m working or wandering, I’m always looking to make something, and that can become stressful when you’re going through a phase of not wanting to create.” On days like this, a sense of inadequacy threatens to seep in, which leads her to question her resolve as an artist. “I begin to fear that I’ll never create again.” Her struggle with this ebb and flow is one that’s familiar to many of us, and she has found her own way of tackling the doubt that comes with it.

Discovering a New Calling
Family has been a pillar of strength for Amiruddin, and she feels grateful for how they’ve always encouraged her to pursue all interests. She had always considered herself to be a writer, until a college assignment sparked an intrigue for the photographic medium. “I suddenly felt invisible behind the viewfinder,” she said. “It was a good kind of invisibility that made me focus on pieces that really caught my attention.”

It was during her stint at the Mumbai edition of Time Out, however, that she began to see herself as someone who could strike a balance between writing and making pictures. “Although I was a part of the editorial team, the way the photo department functioned always fascinated me.” When Amiruddin asked if she could shoot for her own stories, her editor was supportive. The first article she made pictures for was about Byculla, the neighbourhood she grew up in. “At the time I thought I would try my best and my boss was also encouraging,” she said. “But now that we’re good friends she confided in me that, back then, she never thought I had the eye for photography!” “I appreciate that she never dissuaded me, otherwise I probably would have given up altogether.” During that period, Amiruddin experimented in order to figure out what style of photography suited her. She admits now that it was perhaps too early for her to have grasped the concept to begin with. Her primary focus, at the time, was to deliver images that were good enough to be published.

A little universe, Paros, 2018.

Reshaping Her Vision
“Earlier, I would try to make my pictures appear extremely dramatic,” she explains, referring to how contrast and saturation were often very high in her images. “I had no sense of what made a softer image back then.” Today, her photographs can be recognised for their muted colours and her frequent use of monochrome. There are some distinctive changes in her approach too. “I am no longer trigger-happy. In fact, I prefer to wait before making a photo now. I’m also not as hard on myself when I don’t wind up capturing what I’d first visualised.” In the past, the thought of having missed an opportunity to make a good image would upset her to a great degree. The one thing that has remained consistent, though, is her affinity to negative space.

Amiruddin attributes her growth to the time she spent at The Aegean Center for the Fine Arts in Italy and Greece, in 2014. It was there, that her understanding of the medium and the way she interacted with it, completely transformed. “During my time at the course, something within me switched, and I think, in a way, it set me free.”

She let go of many preconceived notions she once had about photography, and learnt to trust her instincts. “Before that I would try really hard to abide by the rules of the medium, and try even harder to make good pictures. But now, I let my emotions guide me.” However, there wasn’t just a change in her style of shooting, but also what she chose to depict. “I started photographing a lot more abstract subjects, and paying attention to the less obvious moments around me.”

I’m somewhere in-between two islands, Paros, 2018.

Growing Stronger
While she’s adept at using film, DSLRs and her trusted cellphone, Amiruddin’s approach tends to differ based on the medium she’s utilising at the moment. In the case of film, besides having to be a lot more cautious in terms of the limited number of exposures, she is less concerned about maintaining neat lines, and is more prone to make use of deliberate blurs.

Being the most accessible of the three mediums, she finds herself using her cellphone most frequently. The people in her frames often appear miniscule before an expanse of sky, and elements of nature are a recurring theme.

The DSLR, which is mostly reserved for her commercial assignments, is a device she favours the least. “For a long time, I found it difficult to translate my vision while using a digital camera, and I’d wonder if I would ever be able to move past that.” But with constant reminders from friends and mentors to continue shooting have largely helped to set those doubts aside.
But uncertainty can cling to one in different guises. Since both writing and photography can be draining mediums to work with, not being able to meet one’s own expectations can send some into a cycle of self-deprecation.

While some find it helpful to persist with their craft during such periods of distress, she prefers to immerse herself in reading her favourite pieces of literature and looking at images by people who inspire her. She finds this method nourishing, as opposed to letting the voices in her head beat her down further, as she exerts herself in an effort to silence them. It helps her when a rut of this kind coincides with plans to travel to unfamiliar places. Shooting for herself while exploring new territory brings her immense joy. The return of her vitality is reflected in pictures infused with affection, of friends family, and her confidante—the sea.

“I never think of photography as anything independent of me,” she says, while discussing the medium’s impact on her life. “I can’t imagine not seeing the way that I do, or going back to a time when I wasn’t able to express myself through a photograph.”

Zahra Amiruddin is a freelance photographer and journalist from Mumbai. She often finds inspiration through the works of Alex and Rebecca-Norris Webb, Katrin Koenning, Sarker Protick, Arundhati Roy and Jerry Pinto. She finds comfort in spending time by the sea, which is her greatest muse.

This article originally appeared in the August 2021 issue of Better Photography.


Tags: Profile, Mumbai, cellphone photography, Cellphone Profile, Mobile Photography, Zahra Amiruddin