In Pursuit of passion

Ex-banker Kaushal Parikh quit the corporate world to pursue his passion for street and travel photography. Needless to say, the paychecks soon followed. 

By Beverly Pereira

Walking away from a well-paying job is no easy feat. To leave it all behind does come with risks but it can also be incredibly fulfilling, especially if it means that you’ll be able to pursue something you’re downright passionate about. For Kaushal Parikh, a street photographer from Mumbai, quitting his full-time job in the banking sector turned out to be a literal eye-opener. Not only has his passion for photography translated into paychecks, but he also considers himself lucky to be in the profession. Parikh, who specialises in photography on the bustling streets of India and in some of its remotest regions, says, “I love to shoot in India even though I initially used to think that shooting in New York and Paris was so cool.” That’s because, he adds, street photography opened his eyes, exposed him to new people and places, and put into perspective a lot of what most of us don’t even have the chance to connect to.

After pursuing a BA with a major in economics at a liberal arts college in the US, Parikh visited India on a holiday with plans to go back and find a job in the banking sector. It was, after all, the ‘90s, when most Indian parents harboured dreams of their children becoming lawyers, doctors or bankers. Instead, he stayed back to take up an offer from a bank in India. Even though he earned a good salary, he “hated it from day 3 because it just sucked the soul out of me. I quickly realised that I wasn't cut out for authority and office politics. I was starting to find it limiting. I used to come home depressed, wanting to do other things rather than sitting in the confines of a cubicle.”

Yet, Parikh braved the “horrible days of banking” for a good eight years, before he eventually took the plunge to pursue his passion for photography. A good support system in the form of his wife and friends, coupled with the fact that he hated his job to such an extent that he just knew he had to find an outlet, helped him seal the decision to quit the corporate world. “When I got sick of banking in the first year itself, I remember telling a friend that I wished I could do something that would let me travel,” says Parikh, adding that it was this very friend who suggested he take up photography.

Parikh bought his first film camera, an expensive buy for its time, when he was still working at his first banking job. But he wasn't sure of what he could do with photography and, in hindsight, the self-taught photographer describes this period as a gradual process of understanding how photography could fit into his life and how he could work in this field as a way of living. “I taught myself over time and whatever I made by way of my salary would go towards my film camera and developing.” Although Parikh is one of the forerunners of street photography in India, he had entered the profession as a travel photographer. Once assignments from travel magazines started to come in, he took it as a sign to step away from the corporate world. He also set up an adventure travel company with a friend during the dot-com boom. “But at the time I was still scared and so I did an MBA as a backup,” he admits. The security factor got the better of him, prompting him to enter the corporate world yet again, although just for a year. Soon enough, he was reminded of the fact that he couldn’t do the corporate world justice and vice versa. His wife, a lawyer, also couldn’t bear to see him in this condition and urged him to go ahead and do what he really wanted to. “She said that she would support me for a while.” And that’s when he knew for sure that he had to leave the corporate world behind — this time for good.

His tryst with street photography came as naturally as his multiple attempts to exit the big bad corporate world. It was around 2008, when he came across the concept of street photography and the works of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Raghu Rai. “I was blown away because it concerns stuff that you see everyday on the streets. You just walk by without realising that there are these movements between the moments that are so spectacular.” Street photography was a nascent concept in India at the time, and Parikh, who would shoot for at least three hours a day for a good year and a half, sent some of his work to established international street photographers like David Gibson and Richard Bram who gave him positive feedback.

He also realised that for his work to be appreciated in India, he would need to educate people about this genre. Which is why he invited California-based street photographer Eric Kim to conduct workshops in India. Some years later, between 2010 and 2011, Parikh launched ‘That’s Life’, a well-recognised collective that still exists as a place for people from across the world to view street photography coming out of India. He also published the photozine Deep Freeze for a year — yet another concept that was well ahead of its time in the country. Most recently, his self-published photobook Fragments of a Spinning Rock portrays both humans and animals through photographs that strive to depict “how we’re all interconnected and how, in spite of us being unique, we’re all the same at a core and basic level.” Parikh, who says that the book’s release was a cathartic experience, describes the concept that binds these photographs as “one that’s important for each of us to see in order for us to be able to live like decent human beings.”

To those on the brink of pursuing their passions, Parikh stresses on the importance of having a plan with enough backing. “There’s a lot of emotion involved when people tell you to follow your dreams. I believe that, but at a practical level I wouldn’t tell someone to quit his or her job to pursue photography or become a starving artist. If you don’t have a plan to work on your passion, you might end up doing something that you don’t want to do just to support yourself. Or, you might get dragged back into the corporate world. Either way, it again becomes a job you hate.” He believes that one shouldn’t feel too pressured when they decide to take the plunge. “The minute you’re pressured, you start to lose sight of the very reason for which you enjoy this passion.”

It’s also important to start out with a good body of work, says Parikh. In fact, during his formative years, he worked at no cost for NGOs like Akanksha Foundation and CRY — a move that proved to be a stepping-stone for his journey into the world of professional documentary and street photography. “It made me comfortable shooting people and that’s important in the context of what I do today,” says Parikh, who continues to work with CRY till date. Stints such as these landed him in the most unbelievable parts of India like remote villages in the Arravalis, Rajasthan and near the Pakistan border. They also gave him exposure and created a demand for his work in international magazines. “People also need to start taking risks, not disastrous risks, but those of the creative kind. There’s no point in doing something tried and tested because it gets boring. Be a pioneer rather than a follower,” he advises.

Today, Parikh still practices both editorial and travel photography, but street photography remains his true passion. “It has much to do with the whole act of walking on the streets and meeting people at the grassroots level of our cities. That’s what our cities are all about; it’s not about the people working in some swanky offices or living in fancy homes. It has definitely made me more appreciative and a lot more empathetic as a person. My desire for things and my intolerance has really gone down from what it used to be.”

Looking back at his career switch, he says, “I knew it was a risk, but I can’t emphasise how important it was to have had the support of my wife. If I didn’t have the financial backing at the time — I mean, everyone needs a secure source of income — I don’t think I would have had the courage to do what I did. It was also because I had the goodwill of everyone around me. Since the day I quit the corporate world, my wife instantly saw a change in my demeanour and attitude. I’m the happiest doing photography and I wouldn’t change a thing. It still feels just as phenomenal to pick up my camera, head out in the early morning and shoot till night.” Parikh, who will next launch his photobook at the Hyderabad Photo Festival, aptly sums up his decision to pursue his passion by saying, “Photography is an act of painting with light. And ever since I started pursuing photography, my life has just been brighter.”

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