Glitter on the Lens: Vikash Kumar Singh
There’s a popular saying that goes, “First become an engineer, then figure out what to do with your life.” Behind every other artist today, there’s an engineer. So is the case of budding fashion photographer, Vikash Kumar Singh.
Vikash Kumar Singh, an alumnus of the batch of 2009 from the Department of Computer Science Engineering, is a fashion and portrait photographer based in London. His works have been published in internationally acclaimed magazines, exhibited in several spots, and have won him several honorable awards.
Being a curious cat, he discovered a newfound love for fashion photography while he was working in an IT firm. Since then, there was no stopping. He went to pursue a Master’s degree in Fashion Photography at the prestigious London College of Fashion. Today, he continues to expand his boundaries as a fashion photographer and explore this art form. Here’s the link to his website.
"Photography is an austere and blazing poetry of the real."
– Ansel Adams
Team MM had an opportunity to interact with Vikash Kumar Singh in an engaging conversation, to gain insights from his experience in the fashion photography industry and the bewildering journey which led him there.
Life Before NITR:
Monday Morning (MM): Walk us through your life before NIT Rourkela, your schooling, your childhood days, etc.
Vikash Kumar Singh (VK): My father was in the Central Forces, so I had to change schools every 3 years. My final years of schooling were spent at Kendriya Vidyalaya (K.V.), Rourkela.
NIT Rourkela Days:
MM: How did NIT Rourkela happen to you?
VK: Like any other typical Indian parents, mine also suggested pursuing either engineering or medical. As medical entrance was a tough nut to crack, I opted for engineering. Computer Science Engineering was one of the emerging fields in engineering and promised good job prospects. I applied for IIT JEE but could not crack that so I joined NIT Rourkela. As I was already familiar with Rourkela and had spent a lot of time here, so it was a safe choice for me.
MM: Academically, how would you describe yourself in college?
VK: Before joining the college, I used to be a studious student. During my B. Tech days, I barely studied. I used to cram 15 or 20 days prior to exams and sailed through with a decent CGPA. Looking back, I feel I could have paid more attention to my academics.
Coming to college was a whole new experience and an altogether different world for me. I was intimidated by the sudden changes around me. One such instance was during the orientation, the Director showed various clips, all of which were in English; as I was not very much into watching English movies, I had great difficulty in understanding that. I aimed to adapt to this new lifestyle and learn. Thus, eventually, my focus was shifted from academics to extracurricular activities.
MM: You were quite active in extracurricular activities too like being a member of the Leo Club, the Convenor of Technical Society, a developer on Monday Morning, and much more. Can you tell us more about your experience? How did NIT Rourkela impact your decision of shifting career paths in any way?
VK: NIT Rourkela’s club culture was rich and diversified; it had clubs for music, dance, dramatics, social service, debating, and a lot more. Like every other fresher, I too tried joining multiple clubs in my first year but could not get into any. Perhaps, the reason was my lack of proper communication skills. I started working on that.
In my second year, I got inducted into Leo Club and got involved in technical and cultural fests. Monday Morning was formed when I was in my second year; here I worked as a developer. The student fraternity felt the need for a newsletter to be aware of the happenings in the institute and raise their voices. We proposed to our Director about this and thus, Monday Morning was found. In my third year, I got the post of General Convenor and was in charge of all the fests. Those were exuberant days.
MM: You grabbed a job offer at Wipro after college. Were you always interested in the corporate world or did you have other plans but had to settle?
VK: Unlike now, we did not have resources to inform us about the various opportunities available after graduation. All we used to hear is some senior either getting placement in a company or taking up MBA. The viable option I felt I had was diving into the corporate world.
As I was always keen on extracurriculars during my college days, even after getting into the corporate world, I continued to be drawn to things outside the monotony of the corporate world. This is where fashion photography also happened.
Heading into the Corporate World:
MM: You were in the corporate world for a good 5-6 years before switching careers. Can you tell us about your time in the software field?
VK: I started my corporate job with WIPRO, and like every other person in the corporate world, I switched to multiple companies every now and then. I was not content with my life at that time. It is not that I was not good at my job, I was fairly good, but there was barely any satisfaction at the end of the day.
One day, I was at a club with my friend, who introduced me to another guy who was a photographer. He is right now one of the leading wedding photographers in India - Joseph Radhik. He shoots most of the celebrity weddings now. The first thing that clicked me while seeing his work is how beautifully these images are conveying a story. That time, the idea of choosing photography as a career hit me. It was not my passion yet but I decided to try it as an option.
Like any other photography beginner, I started with clicking pictures of flowers, birds, sunrise, sunset. After that, I moved to the portrait world. Initially, the plan was to try my hand at this for a month, but this was the missing puzzle piece that I was looking for. So, I continued it.
I was in Chennai at that time, and one of my friends introduced me to a fashion photographer. His clicks were quite typical of Indian fashion photography - glamorous and polished. However, that ignited more interest in me towards this particular domain.
After that, I moved to Bangalore, where I found my first teacher - Anand Sharan sir. Although he was not a popular name as a fashion photographer, he made me understand this art better. Fashion photography, as I knew it, was all about glamour, defined by Commerical photographers like Daboo Ratnani in the Indian space.
Under his guidance, my focus shifted from glamour to stories. Now, I was more into telling a story through the pixels.
MM: At what point in your career did you realize your inclination towards fashion photography? How did you manifest this choice?
VK: In Bangalore itself, after getting the training from Anand Sharan Sir, I kept on shooting for different things. I shot portraits, fashion works and kept on exploring. I also started shooting for fashion editorials for magazines. But there was something missing as a part of completeness. I was not totally satisfied with the way I was shooting. I could always feel that I need something extra to justify why I am shooting this? or what is the need to click to this picture? or what I am trying to show through this click? I was missing that WHY? Part. I felt that I needed someone to teach me that WHY part. I realized that I need proper teaching regarding this field. I had a talk with Anand Sharan Sir and he advised me to get enrolled in some proper courses related to fashion photography.
MM: Leaving behind a well-built career and diving into pursuing a Master’s degree in Fashion Photography is not an easy feat. Especially when it’s the London College of Fashion. How did you pull it off?
VK: After having my basics cleared under Anand Sharan sir, it was time I looked for a better opportunity to push my passion further. I started researching rigorously for various opportunities. All this was while I was still having my job. The money I earned was spent on shooting for editorials and refining my art. My job was the safety net I needed to pursue my dreams.
After exhaustive research, the London College of Fashion was my first preference. However, getting through their Master’s program demanded a solid portfolio. I neither had the time nor need to pursue another Bachelor’s degree, this time in Fashion Photography - I was around 26 then, and also, I already had a good hold over photography by then. My sole purpose was to build on the skills that I had acquired and learn how to perceive photography as an art, rather than as a skill i.e. to delve deeper into the theory than the practical aspect of photography. So, a Master’s degree was my go-to.
There was an agency in Bengaluru that handled Indian admits into the London College of Fashion. To get through, I needed a solid portfolio and a strong Statement of Purpose (SOP). The faculty at the agency helped me with the SOP, while I worked on my portfolio. For a fashion editorial, you not only need models but also stylists and makeup artists. I employed the best ones present in the industry at that time, the salary I withdrew from my job helping me with this. So, I shot the editorials to build a notable portfolio.
My interview process consisted of 5-6 rounds of interviews and spanned for over 2-3 months. They were hesitant to admit a student who is not hailing from an arts background, especially for a Master’s program. The course offered hardly 15-20 seats, as against the hundreds of thousands of applications received every year. During one of my later interviews, the interviewer, a faculty at the institute, gave me invaluable advice to not only work on my portfolio and SOP but also come up with a project I would like to work on if enrolled in the course. It was in the final stages of my application process that I left my job to focus on working on my application and increasing my chances of getting through. So, finally, I got through for the Master’s degree in Fashion Photography at the London School of Fashion.
MM: Studying abroad, though a dream for many, remains a dream when finance comes into the picture. How did you manage the funding for the degree?
Getting through was indeed a dream come true. I cried happy tears and had a little celebration with my friend. It took me a few days to come to terms with it. When the offer letter came with the total amount of fees and living costs, it was mind-boggling. Through the euphory of getting admitted, I hadn’t prepared for this. Having no other option, I requested my admission to be shifted for a year and joined the software domain, once again.
I switched companies and joined a firm that offered me a hike in comparison to the previous one. I saved some amount from my job and took a loan, as my savings were insufficient to cover such a huge amount. So, that is how I managed to end up at the London College of Fashion.
Realizing the Dream:
MM: London College of Fashion is quoted as one of the leading centers of fashion education in the world. Tell us about your time there.
VK: It was one of the most exciting and hardest times of my life. London College of Fashion, being one of the top institutes of fashion, offered courses for everything related to fashion like fashion styling, fashion marketing, fashion merchandising, and a lot more, makeup. They had students enrolled in bachelor’s and master’s programs and faculties who were a part of outstanding fashion hubs.
It was a confluence of talent and learning. One of the most significant things to take away was how people created and perceived art. Every semester, we were given a topic on which we had to shoot. The way every student interpreted the topic and presented it through their lens was sensational. Exposure to newer ideas and newer perspectives expands your horizon and inspires you every day.
I had never thought of a fashion editorial about ‘Skin Deformities’, ‘Fear’ like the fear of water, fear of closed spaces until students took it up.
A student from Siberia covered a fashion editorial about her childhood when her hometown was struck with war during the change of regime.
It was exhilarating to know how much gravity a few thousand pixels can hold.
While this was exciting, it was also quite a task to be at par with my peers. Coming from a technical background with limited exposure, it was daunting.
I still remember my first day, when the faculty gave us the topic for the semester ‘Windows and Mirrors’. When asked where I could find models, he told me to figure it out by myself. With zero prior knowledge on how to get subjects for my shoot, it took me time, straining work, and help from my peers to get it right.
MM: What was a defining moment in your journey as a Master’s student?
VK: A moment that has stuck with me to date is when one of my colleagues, after my presentation of a semester, commented that I had become a photographer in a year. Someone, with 6-7 years of experience, acknowledged me, who has just begun, as a fully moulded photographer was rewarding.
Another such instance is when I went to the School of Visual Arts, New York, as a part of the Student Exchange Programme. It was after my Master’s thesis and I had to present my final work to the agents of some eminent names in the industry. I was shaking with nervousness. People in this field are very temperamental and have an attention span of about a few seconds. If you cannot make an impression in the first few seconds, it adds up to nothing. I showed them my work. At the end of it, the agent of Steven Meisel commented that I should resort to fewer words as my photographs spoke louder than any word could.
Into the Industry of Fashion Photography:
MM: After your degree, how did you transition into the industry? What did the journey of becoming a good and successful fashion photographer look like?
VK: It would be a lie if I said that I have achieved everything I want. The struggle is still on.
The one thing that nobody teaches you in college is life after college. It is important to acknowledge and prepare for what comes after next. You no longer have the comfort and blissful ignorance of college life.
Having had a taste of both the technical and artistic world, I can safely conclude that the life of an artist is tougher than that of an engineer. Nobody hires a photographer unless you are shooting for a catalog for huge companies. Photographers are roped in by freelancing. Let me tell you, there’s a long queue of photographers in the industry. This is not to demoralize anyone but to acquaint one to prepare for the realities of the industry.
After the completion of my degree, I was under the impression that there would be a long line of people wanting to hire me. However, that was not the scenario. Nobody cares about your degree. You receive offers to work through word of mouth. There must be credibility in your work for your clients to vouch for you for your next project. In the industry, trust matters more than talent.
Editorials for big fashion houses and magazines are shot once a season and a huge amount of money is involved. The hired photographer must have harmony with the whole crew. People avoid risks in such situations and thus they hire people who have built a firm base of trust.
I struggled for almost two years without any notable work. I realized that it would take me a long while to land up good projects and meanwhile, I had no financial cushion, whatsoever.
My advice is to start early. If you have your passion figured out, start early and pursue it till you have the financial support of your parents. Once you’re on your own, you have to first put food in your mouth before you work on your passion.
Call it luck, but the IT firm, where I was working before leaving for my Masters, called me regarding a vacancy in their London office to be filled in urgently and they couldn’t find anyone to fill up the spot. I was in a dilemma whether to stay back in India and keep hustling or go to the humdrum of the software world. I did not want the lack of money to burn a hole in my passion.
Ultimately, I took the hard pill. I decided to join the company as it would not only provide me with a financial backbone but also put me directly in the epicenter of the fashion industry - London.
Monday to Friday, I code and on weekends, I photograph. I focus not only on the finesse of my art but also on finding the right contacts and building trust.
At the end of the day, the software world has always provided me with the support I needed to chase my passion. I still have a long way to go when I can finally leave the IT world for once and for all and pursue fashion photography full-time.
MM: Several of your works have been published in print like Vogue Italia, Timeout, Lucy’s. Your work has also been exhibited in and around the world and won you numerous awards. Tell us about it.
VK: Eminent magazines work to invoke emotions and narrate stories through print media. Before sending your work to publication houses, you must be clear with your brief. First, explore an idea, research it and decide how you’d like to present it through your lens.
After finalizing the story you’d chase, you hire a team of models, stylists, actors, makeup artists, and more. Depending on what your story demands, you choose whether to shoot in a location or the studio. Then, you select about 8-10 photographs, compile them and send them to various publication houses.
If your work resonates with them, your work will be published. Finding an exhibition slot for your work, winning awards, and getting your work published not only gives you free marketing but also gives your future clients a token of trust before you can work with them.
MM: Who and what are your inspirations?
Inspiration comes to me from everywhere. One cannot restrict oneself and expect to find inspiration. The beautiful mundanity of life inspires me every single day. As an artist, you should acknowledge your art growing through the years. With time, the stories I choose to tell through my photographs and the emotions I capture evolve. So, my source of inspiration always keeps on shifting. The key is to be more open.
India is a diverse and vast country. With every few hundreds of kilometers, you find a new dialect, language, cuisine, attire, lifestyle. Every street and corner here carries stories and inspiration for an artist. The best works are inspired by the realities of life.
MM: You pursued a career that is quite unconventional in terms of being an engineer and may have faced some criticism as well. Did you handle any criticism?
VK: Facing criticism, especially when venturing into a space like this, is pretty common. Those who do not understand your work and your drive behind it will always try to pull you down.
There’s a quote in the movie ‘The Pursuit of Happyness’ that goes…
“Don't ever let somebody tell you... You can't do something. [...] You got a dream... You gotta protect it. People can't do somethin' themselves, they wanna tell you you can't do it. If you want somethin', go get it. Period.”
You should not let someone, who doesn’t dream the same as you, have authority over your thinkings. I faced several hurdles myself, but what matters most is I kept working towards my passion.
MM: Before and after joining the industry, how did your perspective change about fashion photography? What misconceptions were cleared?
VK: Indian fashion photography is inclined towards glamour, rather than the story. To me, those photographs look hallow and lack depth. A good photograph must make the viewer stop and stare and must stir emotions inside them. After getting to experience this art form firsthand at London College and then through the projects I took up, my perception completely changed. As I explored more and more, I realized how powerful photography is and how we can tell a story through it.
MM: What would a normal day in the life of a fashion photographer look like?
VK: The majority of my time is spent editing photographs. Also, a fair deal of effort goes into communicating with multiple people, interacting with clients, and explaining to them how you think you can solve their issues.
Assume a designer has created a collection based on a tale she has imagined, such as a collection being inspired by a certain childhood dream or childhood recollections of strolling around the village. So, for shooting an editorial:
- You must put yourself in their position and visualize what she really wants to see, then provide a mood board of how you want to tell your tale.
- Establish the concept, carry out research on how other photographers have done it, and create mood boards to present to them.
- The client will then further the process while incorporating the suggested adjustments. It's important to understand how people feel since it's their tale, not yours. So you must first comprehend the client brief, as well as what they desire, before considering how to proceed.
- After that, you must gather a team to work with, one that is acquainted with the project and you are comfortable to work with.
- Next is hunting for an appropriate model. You seek the model agencies and relay the availability of models to the client. They'll determine which face is appropriate for them. Since you're the one who will bring the picture to life, you should also recommend the client. The client will have a concept, but it will be up to you to advise how to turn that notion into reality.
- On the shoot day, we have to prepare the studio, the lighting, and everything else. And then at the end of the day, take photographs and edit for the remainder of the day. The shooting duration is 8 hours, however, the editing time is much longer.
The success of a shoot or editorial is determined by the people who partake in it, as well as our overall collaboration. If we don't adjust the frequency among ourselves, we'll end up with something undesirable.
MM: What would you say you love about being a photographer?
VK: The freedom to enter my world, my dreams, and then bring them into reality, the photographs that I can show to others, is one of the things I love most about being a photographer. I have the nicest feelings whenever I live my dream.
MM: Having worked with the who’s who of the fashion world in notable projects, where do you see fashion photography, as an art form, heading?
VK: I feel fashion photography has always been the same. As an art form, fashion photography has always dealt with contemporary events, concerns, and scenarios. It used to be about equality, women's empowerment, and other such issues. It has now turned its focus to environmental challenges and more technical topics such as NFTs.
Art has always been and will continue to be a mirror of the world. Only the world has changed, and hence art has evolved; otherwise, nothing really has changed.
MM: People in creative spaces are often told they should do work for free to get experience and exposure. Is that still the vibe in creative industries these days?
VK: Yes, it is undeniable. What I've always asked in this situation is, "What's in it for me?". If you're obtaining something that's equivalent to the money you would have otherwise received then you can work for it.
If you have a project from a non-profit organization that doesn't have a lot of money and your work will be utilized for a good reason, you may consider working for free.
However, if a designer asks you to do it for free, that is cause for caution, and you should decline. Never answer yes if they state they don't have a budget set out for a shoot but would make profits out of your product. Such bad practice is prevalent all around the world, but especially in India.
One of my designer friends approached me and requested that I cover her fashion show. As a result, I photographed the complete collection as well as the fashion walk. Another designer was impressed with my work and requested that I photograph their work. When I inquired about the fee, they stated that they are searching for someone to work for free at this moment because they do not have a budget. I declined.
People will take you for granted if you work for free once, and they will ask you to work for free again in the future. So, if you really want to work with someone, or if you love their work, or if you just want to work as an assistant to learn, and they say they won't be able to pay you, see if you can justify the takeaways. Even if he isn't paying me, if he is teaching me what he knows, then that will be my capital gain.
MM: What should one charge as a freelance photographer? Especially if someone is just getting started, how do they know how to value their work?
VK: In this case, there is no right or wrong answer, but I will share my ideas on the matter. It is dependent on the type of work you choose to accomplish. The pricing is determined by who you are shooting for and where your work will be utilized. You should charge based on the answers to these questions. If someone uses your photos for marketing purposes, you should surely charge according to the market value of such works, conduct some research and look at the charges demanded similar previous photos.
Also, never believe that if the market trend is ₹ 10 and you do it for ₹ 2, you will get the job. That will simply undervalue your work, and the next time someone approaches, they will merely ask for the same cheap price, and this cycle will continue. As a result, you're losing ₹ 8 every time.
MM: Can you share some of your fondest memories during your college days?
VK: I have a lot of recollections from my college life. One of them is being elected as the General Convener. I witnessed 30 men sobbing the day results were out (giggles). Another achievement was receiving a degree from Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam.
I had put in a lot of effort to secure his presence as the Chief Guest for our technical event. I had worked with Professor SK Sarangi, our then-NITR Director, to make that happen. But he was unable to do so owing to work schedules. Sarangi sir had assured me at the time that he would bring him to our graduation, which he did.
So that was one of the most memorable occasions. Canteen, SAC, sitting on those stairways chatting and discussing, movies and Mud-Holi - there are too many memories that I’ll cherish lifelong.
MM: Are there any regrets, be it in your college days or your career?
VK: College regrets will be that I should have studied more since, certainly, that was the period when you could sit and unwind yourself without thinking about the future. In college, time moves slowly and you may try out different skills. I don't think I have any regrets other than that. At my college, I had a great time. In my professional life, I believe that if I had studied more, I could have secured a high-paying job, had a stronger financial cushion to follow my passion, and things would have moved more quickly.
MM: What have you got coming up in the future that you are super excited about?
VK: I have a few meetings with agents here in London. I'm eager to learn where my present profile falls short and how to enhance it. In addition, I'm attempting to learn videography.
Fashion photography, in my opinion, is somewhat less in demand since, in terms of catching your target, people are creating more reels, videos, and movies because they have a longer attention span. As a result, companies are on the lookout for someone who can do both. I also have a love for cinema. So, in addition to taking photographs, I envision myself creating videos. As a necessary consequence, I'd want to understand more about it.
There are also plans to learn some part-time cinematography abilities. So, after this COVID situation stabilizes, I'll learn more about it, and I'm super excited to paint my dreams in brighter hues.
MM: What advice would you give to the readers who want to pursue their passion in this domain?
I'd advise getting started as soon as possible. Never, ever, EVER, allow anyone to affect your personal style. Don't be afraid to be influenced, but don't duplicate either. Continue to work on your side hustles until you attain your goal. There's no shame in doing something else to sustain yourself while you pursue your dream. Don't let it go. Continue to strive for it.
Team Monday Morning wishes Vikash Kumar Singh luck for all his future endeavors and that he continues to chase his passion!
Designs By – Insha Mustafa