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Laxmi Kaul On Balancing Family, Photography And Philanthropy

The shutterbug mom tells all about her recent trip to Nepal and India, helping to document COMO Foundation’s philanthropic efforts through Leica lens.

The Together – A Journey of Partnership exhibition, a collaboration between Leica and COMO Foundation showcased at The Shopping Gallery Hilton Singapore, may have wrapped up last month but one of the three female photographers involved, Laxmi Kaul, is still recovering from the fatigue of putting the project together.

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We interviewed the 40-year-old mother of two teenagers to find out more about her personal and professional life, focusing on her trip to Nepal and India, together with her son Aditya Kaul, to visit four COMO Foundation partners, namely One Heart World-Wide, Medic Mobile, Little Sisters Fund and Educate Girls.

Laxmi Kaul

Tell us about your background. What you did before photography, what sparked your interest in photography, and when did you get into it professionally?
I started out as a child when I was 8 years old, I was highly inspired by my father whose hobby was photography. He was my first and biggest inspiration, he always has been. I’m completely self-taught, I have never been through any formal education for photography, but I have gone through a few courses to get to know my camera and equipment better.

I really enjoy meeting other photographers, and hearing their stories, and I have learnt a lot about photography from that. I get inspired by everyday situations, by people and their lives, and their stories — regardless of whether they are simple or complex stories. When I lost my father, who was my first teacher, it was difficult for me to get back into photography as I was emotionally attached to photography through him. But a few years later, after I finished my education, got married and had children, I went back into it. But throughout all that, photography has always been inside me. It was only about 16 years ago that I went back into it with a deeper desire. It’s been about a decade since I started photographing professionally, and I haven’t looked back!

What is it that makes Leica different from other brands that drew you to want to work with them?
As a child, I actually started out with a different brand which I used for a long time. It took a lot of effort for me to put that camera aside and move to the rangefinder. I started out with the Leica M9, which was a big and scary jump for me, as I was very used to my DSLR. While my old camera produced very beautiful and commercial-looking images; with my Leica, the images were more artistic, understated and under toned.

Also, when I travel alone to places like the villages in Nepal and India, where there is a lot of poverty, I understand that I can easily be robbed. And if they see me with my Leica and someone else who has a DSLR — I am less likely to be robbed as my camera is much smaller, and people think it is less expensive. Because of its compact size, it is safer, and also less intrusive, which helps when I take portrait shots as it enables me to get closer to my subjects and doesn’t intimidate them as much.

Laxmi Kaul

How do photography and philanthropy go hand in hand?
I think that philanthropy can be shown through photography, and they go hand in hand. It’s like yin and yang: You have to keep sight of both if you are in a project like the one with COMO Foundation, because if you lose sight of one, you lose sight of the other. What good use is an NGO and all their efforts if I am not going to show it in its true light as a photographer? If there is no love or passion and philanthropy, then what good is my photography?

I think it is very important that in charity assignments like these that I don’t lose sight of the main vision, and I cannot let my emotions get in the way. As a mother myself, to see these children in such difficult situations with no clothes on their back and with so little to eat — my emotions were in a constant fluctuation because I felt so connected to them. Being a woman and a mother in that difficult situation, I had to keep my composure and shoot my subject in the correct light, and show them in a way that would get them the justice that they need. That in itself is so difficult, you have to mix a bit of poetry, technical skills and your own experience with your camera. It is an amalgamation of a lot of different aspects, and together, philanthropy and photography are fantastic. You won’t be able to get that feeling or emotion without either of them.

How do you prepare yourself before a shoot?
I don’t do any preparation. While I will prepare my gear and equipment, I am the kind of person who would prefer to be caught unaware and I will not prepare myself for the photography aspect. Unless of course, I have an agenda and itinerary, like my trip for the COMO Foundation partnership. But being the rebel that I am, I still like to have some time to do my own shooting, and believe it or not, a lot of those images are the ones that were chosen for the book. Whenever I am told to do something, I always rebel. How can you tell an artist how to do his art? It’s very difficult for me to see with someone else’s eyes and to shoot under their instructions, instead of my own eyes. This is actually one of the reasons why I am very glad that I am self-taught — because I have made my own mistakes and learnt from them. I didn’t learn photography through someone else’s eyes, and I’ve done it all on my own.

Aditya Kaul

Why did you decide to bring your 16-year-old son on the particular trip to Nepal?
It was spring break and he was available and I wanted to bring him to Nepal as my assistant to see how it would all be done, sweat it out, and to teach him that nothing comes easy. However, little did I realise when he came with me that he would take the most amazing photos that just blew me away. In fact, the cover photo of the Together – A Journey of Partnership book was taken by him. During the trip there was a time when we went without food, and it was so cold, but we were both just so happy to do what we were doing that none of these discomforts really shook us up. I was very pleased to see that he has such resilience in him and that he is willing to go the extra mile to fulfil his passion in photography.

What is it like returning back home after an assignment like this?
I have realised that over the years, when I come back from such trips, that they are mentally, physically and emotionally exhausting. I came back to lots of emails and work at home. I wear many hats: My children are both high schoolers and I am very involved in their lives. So when I return, I want to get back into my routine and get involved in my children’s lives again. But I enjoy each and every hat that I wear, and I am loving it because I know that time with my children is always slipping away.

Who do you admire most in championing gender equality?
I inspire myself! Honestly, between the person I was five years ago and what I have become now, I have been through hell and back in so many situations. I almost lost my life in a shoot in Kashmir and I have been in many conflict areas, and I think I have really come a long way. I know it sounds vain to say I inspire myself, but honestly my competition has only ever been with myself. I am just an ordinary human being, I am nobody to compare myself with others. To me, the competition is only within me, and inspiration comes from both internal and external sources. At the end of the day, you have to find that inspiration and love within yourself. Only when your cup is full and filled to the brim, will it overflow, and only then can you pass the love. I cannot be an inspiration to anyone else if I am not first inspired by myself.

Laxmi Kaul

Who empowers you personally and professionally?
Leica has empowered me a lot, in terms of supporting me and telling me in their own way that I do a great job. It is a company that really looks out for their women photographers and I appreciate that. This whole year, they celebrated female photographers and have had these talks by fantastic women, all coming from different fields and walks of life who have one common love for photography.

And obviously, my family — my husband, mum and even invisibly my father — have all also empowered me. Even the people who have put me down and made it tough for me, I think they have empowered me the most. They might have given me grief or hurt me, but they have actually empowered me to have the will to be stronger and better, and to learn from it. My children have also empowered me — not once have they asked why I am going away on a trip, they will always adjust and be supportive. I have never heard them complain.

You’ve had some incredible experiences with capturing human stories. Which are your top three of all time?
My top experience has always been my Kashmir series: Beyond Boundaries. For two years, I spent every part of my mind, body and soul dedicated to that series. It was a very tough area and terrain, but to witness the humanity and see the human condition prevail was unforgettable. I spent so much time there, and given a chance I would go back there again for part two. Even though it was highly dangerous, it was also the best time.

In second place would be Mahakumbha Mela, where I documented their religious festival held once every 144 years. Third would be shooting the colourful festival of Holi, it was very tough on me and left a big dent on my heart but I wanted to show the happiness of the people.

Laxmi Kaul

Has your photography style changed over the years and what do you hope to achieve in photography in the coming years?
Yes, my photography style has definitely changed. The camera itself has also changed so the style has to change. It’s been a long time since I’ve moved from a DSLR to a rangefinder. Anyone who has used it will know what it involves, what mindset and technical skills you need to have. It’s not just art, it’s also your craft. As I’ve grown, travelled and discovered how to use this camera to its best potential, I have also grown in a certain way. My way of looking at things has changed and evolved, and my way of seeing the same scenario compared to three years ago has definitely changed.

I never thought that photography would help me to achieve something. It makes me happy and content, and that’s why I do it. It has never been a means to an end, and I will just keep shooting.

What future projects are you working on?
There are a few projects that I am working on right now but I am unable to share what exactly.

I am still recovering from the fatigue of the COMO exhibition. It has not been an easy project, it’s been both physically and emotionally draining. I’ve been sent to these obscure places which would sometimes take more than 10 hours, where there are no roads. So physically it’s tiring, and when you reach you see all this poverty and hardship, which is also emotionally tiring. For the whole year, I have been doing this every month and I’m still recovering from that. It will take me awhile to come back to equilibrium, because these things stay with me and it is difficult to just shrug it off. I don’t just leave these behind, I carry these people with me in my heart.  

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