I’m often asked ‘how I found Photography,’ but I’d like to start this about how Photography Found Me. It was a series of coincidental events, endless discussions with my sister, a ton of support from my husband and friends, and circumstances which made it look like this could really happen, that ended up with me launching Sneha Mohanty Photography (SMP).
I’m Sneha Mohanty, a lawyer by qualification and training (I sometimes still end up writing super terse do-this-else-I-will-sue-you type emails which are softened up on review), who has now shifted to full time professional photography. I don’t have any formal training in photography. I have, however, invested enormous time and resources in teaching myself with the help of a number of works by a number of masters in the field, brutally honest feedback from reviewers and countless hours of research and practice (as a result of which my husband now resorts to ducking whenever he sees me loitering around with my DSLR as he’s usually my target for practice shots).
As a child I always enjoyed the creative side of things as much as I enjoyed the analytical and logical side of things. I loved writing and I also loved chatting about the Constitution to anyone who would listen and had a special kind of love for arguing all sides of an argument (typical traits displayed by 14-year-old-to-be-lawyers). That’s why I chose to study law at NLSIU, Bangalore, and I wouldn’t change a thing about it. My law school years were my best years, it re-wired my brain and taught me how to unlearn and learn.
I liked my work as a corporate lawyer post law school. I worked hard and on a number of interesting matters in the Projects team at a large law firm in Delhi. It was all good, but beyond a point I felt I needed a change, as I love variety in work and new challenges, so I left my cushy job without any concrete plans of what next.
That’s when Photography found me; through tiny steps, inconspicuous coincidences, serendipities, and serious consideration.
Four months before I left the firm, and a couple of days before I left for a trip with my girlfriends to Goa, I felt the spontaneous need for a new camera. I already had a camera so, in retrospect, it wasn’t quite logical but more instinctive. While strolling through a mall, out of a group of 5-6 salespeople at the store, one particular person appeared out of nowhere while I was gazing aimlessly at the Canon digicams. He held the Sony RX-100 in his hand and told me I should buy it. I asked him what’s so special about it and he said it has the lowest f-stop value any point-and-shoot camera then had in the market and you can take gorgeous photos with it. He taught me a few controls very quickly – all of which puzzled me – but I liked the look of the photos I clicked with it at the store and I bought it. All very harmless, just a random semi-fancy camera purchase by a lawyer headed for a trip – or so I thought. That camera turned out to be a high-end, one of the best point-and-shoot cameras in the market with manual-mode shooting capabilities – perfect for a beginner level photographer. Needless to say I was very pleased with the output of the camera and realised subconsciously that I could explore photography from a different level, though consciously I just thought these pictures are so much ‘nicer and prettier yay!’
Fast forward 4 months, post quitting law firm, when much dwelling happens on what-next. I tried looking at policy jobs – lot of options interested me, but nothing sparked my interest or could get me obsessed. One of the things I was looking for was variety in the nature of work which would allow me to grow and express myself fully. I saw a ton of people around me preparing for the civil services. I thought this could be good for me as I’d get variety (different postings every couple of years) and I’d have time to also pursue my hobbies and interests. Except, a couple of months into preparations, I simply didn’t get a good feel about the choice I was making. I looked at other options within the law – none of them really interested me in earnest. If anything, the ones which I found interesting still seemed like a compromise to me. I wanted to do something which resonated with me at a deep level, which I didn’t have to justify to myself as being ‘the right choice’ – I should know that it’s the right choice. I couldn’t lie to myself any more. None of these options felt like the right choice to me and I didn’t know consciously what was.
Meanwhile, through this, I was navigating the manual mode of my RX-100, and clicking pictures every day. Throughout my life I had photographed people that had usually resulted in people asking for more. My sister, an amazing graphic designer by profession and my guiding light, helped me understand that I should explore my creative side. Photography was always something I loved and pursued as a hobby, but had never given it serious consideration as a career. But why not? After all was said and done, the truth remained that I still loved Photography, spontaneously, and was already self-driven in pursuing it. The idea of starting, managing, and growing my own venture appealed to me, as it was challenging enough, as well as allowed the necessary creative freedom.
I wandered into the same shop I’d bought the RX-100 from and inquired about buying a particular Nikon DSLR which I’d read about. The same salesperson who had sold me the RX-100 appeared out of thin air and dissuaded me from buying the Nikon, and asked me to consider the Canon system (this again turned out to be the correct choice for me, later). He told me several things which puzzled me and which I thought required further consideration. I went back home DSLR-less.
I spent two weeks researching on and studying DSLR systems. I also spent those two weeks majorly shooting with my RX-100 in raw, processing with Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, wandering around the city like a kid having an absolute blast. That’s when I felt like I needed to face the truth. I couldn’t ignore it any more. I could not turn my back on what my inner voice was saying loud and clear. When I quietened the noise of confusion around me, mostly created by social expectations, I could finally hear the soft whisper of my soul.
I decided to become a full time photographer just before buying my first DSLR camera. Sometimes I thought I was mad, most of the time I felt extremely happy, excited and couldn’t wait to do more. I have seen numerous google search results of “lawyer turned photographer”. Those stories spoke to me. I felt exactly the same things they did. And it was comforting to know I’m really not the first lawyer who’s turning to photography seriously. If all those people turned their dreams into plans, so could I.
When I bought my first DSLR, I slept with my tutorials printed out, and woke up at the crack of dawn to shoot. I’d have disturbed sleep wherein I’d actively dream about the kind of shots I wanted to create. Golden hour was my favourite time and I would head out every evening without fail. I’d wander around nurseries, parks, gardens, malls, walk around in my colony and shoot, practice, shoot, practice. I used to shoot the myriad birds around my colony, and water from taps to learn shutter speed (essential for wedding photography). I used my dining chairs and large cushions (separately) to learn angles and composition (useful all the time). I used my Ganesha paper weight to learn depth of field. I used a pipal branch on my terrace to study backlighting (amazing for portraits). I used streetlights to create bokeh from a moving car. I was obsessed. I’d get back home and spend hours devouring resources on technique, watching tutorials by my favourite photographers, and read innumerable interviews by photographers whose work I loved. I’d spend hours processing my raw image files to make them look just the way I imagined them when I shot them. I was consumed with it. I was growing. I felt like a person with aims, dreams and plans again. I didn’t know this or feel this then, but the more I worked on it, working out the granular details with seriousness and executed my plans into action, I saw that this could really happen. And it was happening indeed. The seriousness of thought, and the practical implementation is what clinched the deal.
Once I started working on my portfolio and simultaneously on a lot of back end work like trying out various vendors for my fine art prints and coffee table books, I realised that I was thoroughly enjoying the ride, and it helped that the feedback I got, from people I worked with for shoots, was very positive.
I became a photographer when I decided to face the truth, and quietly follow the soft whisper of my soul.
– Sneha Mohanty
Sneha is an ace lawyer turned photographer from Bhubhaneshwar. She lives in Delhi with her lawyer husband and her 10,000 cameras. Find her work at www.snehamohanty.com and https://www.facebook.com/snehamohantyphotography.