Alisha Vasudev is not only obsessed with photographing the rich, diverse environments of India, but also capturing the people who inhabit it.
How does one person tell the story of a country of 1.3 billion people, numerous rich and diverse climates and ecosystems for animals and people alike, and hundreds of regional dialects and languages? For Mumbai-based photographer and 2022 National Geographic Explorer Alisha Vasudev, 38, the answer is simple—you just wait and see.
“I remember taking my first photograph when I was six,” Alisha tells Shutterstock. “It was a picture of my parents on a boat while we were on vacation somewhere. It’s kind of fun to realize that what I was into when I was seven or eight years old is what I’m doing today, which is a mix of art and science.”
For almost 20 years, Alisha has been traveling throughout her native India, observing and documenting the ways humans interact with their environments, be it bustling cities or rural farmlands. Her background is in geography and rural development, and she boasts a passion and skill for using data and mapping to make sense of the world.
But photography, a latent interest of Alisha’s, became her true calling when she realized that simply having all the knowledge in the world didn’t matter if she couldn’t find a language-agnostic way to share it with the people of India. It also mattered to her that the stories being told about India and its people were diverse, free from stereotypes, and an accurate reflection of a more modern country.
“I’m very mindful of portraying India in a contemporary sense and as I see it, as opposed to how it may have been visually documented over the years,” she says.
Today, the curious and detail-oriented photographer utilizes her science background and constant observations about the human experience to tell a story about the real people of India—where and how they live, and how they experience the world around them.
Her work with The Create Fund is born from a desire to truthfully portray India’s people, and create a stock library that accurately reflects the Indian experience.
Below, Alisha Vasudev walks us through her unconventional path to photography, and the curiosities that have fueled her eclectic and award-winning journey.
Shutterstock: Let’s start at the beginning of your journey. How did you get into photography?
Alisha Vasudev: I would say my life path has been diagonal—it cuts across disciplines and genres and time. I’ve mostly lived in urban cities in India, but since I was 19, I’ve traveled to rural India very often. I typically spend about 50 to 60% of the year working in rural India.
That began when my parents put me on a bus and said, “You need to understand the country that you live in and you need to understand the context—city life is not the only life that exists in this country, or even in the world.”
So, I was encouraged to go out and learn how a country like India works. I’ve been doing that for almost 20 years now, but I haven’t even scratched the surface.
I’ve studied geography. I have a degree in environment and rural development, and I worked in the rural development sector for a very long time, working on issues with water and natural resource management from the angle of poverty and livelihoods.
And, somewhere down the line, I made a switch to photography because I felt that working as a researcher didn’t really cater to my visual sense of doing things, or my visual curiosity. I also felt that the amount of people who could access my work was a very, very small population, because we were writing very technical reports and I was doing very technical research.
I wanted to use a language that did not need literacy because that’s something I constantly encountered in my travels—not everybody can necessarily read or write, and also India has so many languages that something in one regional language may not even apply to another. That was the realization that forced me to pick up the camera.
SSTK: Can you share a bit about your creative process?
Vasudev: A lot of my work is driven by curiosity—I’m quite a nerd. For me, that’s the first point of any project. I’m always wondering why things are the way they are, and the motivation for me to photograph something is like a visual bookmark so that I can deep-dive into it later.
In terms of photographing people, I’ve been doing non-profit work for a very long time, because I had a background in rural development before I worked in photography, and that’s where I started documenting people.
For me, dignity is very important, as is showcasing people the way they are without any interventions. Hopefully, my work reflects my interactions with people. It’s not me telling them to look a certain way or do a certain thing—it’s just them being who they are.
SSTK: What are your favorite stories to tell through photography?
Vasudev: Human-environment interactions are integral to who I am as an artist. They’re integral to my curiosity, to my practice. I am a geographer by training, and so much of geography is about looking at how the physical environment and human environment manifest and interact with each other.
One thing I love to shoot are pockets of nature within cities.The spaces may be beautiful and they may be well designed, but it’s how people inhabit those spaces, how people use and occupy those spaces, that’s most interesting to me.
And, as bizarre as this might sound, I think a lot of man-made objects also do have natural origins. Even an urban center is an environment, because all our raw materials are sourced from natural resources.
I like to see how these two interactions—the natural world and the man-made world—come together, and tell that story with my photography.
SSTK: Can you describe the type of work you created with the support of The Create Fund and what you hope it will achieve?
Vasudev: Before I started my collection for The Create Fund, I spoke with a lot of friends who work in the advertising industry in India, and I asked them what their challenges were with stock photography. Many of them said that very few stock photos of India and Indians were taken by Indians themselves.
The other challenge I seemed to hear a lot about was how the content seemed too posed or too happy or it was too well lit or it felt too perfect.
Because I photograph in natural light, I like to photograph scenarios as they’re happening—I want to draw the viewer into the scene. And, that’s what I’ve tried to do with this stock imagery as well.
I think it may be a little bit messy and maybe a little layered. It might not be as clean as a lot of other professional images, but that’s sort of my style and that’s what I’ve tried to bring to this body of work with The Create Fund.
Additionally, I was really excited for this opportunity to try and redefine a lot of gender stereotypes and roles. I really wanted to go about portraying strong women and women in leadership roles throughout the collection.
There’s still a bit of work left to be done, and I’m also looking to work more with the LGBTQIA+ community because that’s very, very important today in India.
I also think the way grandparents are portrayed is really outdated. Today’s grandparents are pretty hip and fun, and they’re busy traveling and they’ve got lives of their own, and they’re zipping around all over the place with trendy haircuts and they wear very trendy clothes and all that sort of stuff. So, that’s another stereotype I wanted to challenge. I think it’s just a tip of the iceberg.
I do sincerely hope that I am successful in letting people tell their stories and share their versions of life and reality. And, like I said, I think India has a history of visual documentation, but not necessarily from people within the country. So, I’ve been very mindful of showing India not only as I see it, but also other Indians see it.
India is such a vast, expansive, multicultural space. Initially, I was overwhelmed by how I was going to do it justice, but I think my collection [with The Create Fund] is a great starting point to start the documentation and diversification of stock imagery from India.
SSTK: Where would you be excited to see your work with The Create Fund?
Vasudev: Aside from everywhere? Just kidding. I think it would be really exciting to see Indian brands use my work because I know a lot of times the imagery used by brands is not of Indians.
And, if smaller Indian businesses or brands use my imagery, that would be really fantastic, because a lot of these smaller brands are doing very exciting things.
I think the creative industry in India in general has been doing very, very exciting things over the past seven to ten years. So, if I could see more Indian brands use my work, that would be really fantastic.
SSTK: Other than your partnership with The Create Fund, what else are you working on right now?
Vasudev: I am working on a National Geographic-funded project where I’m studying the impact of the changing monsoon patterns. I love weather and I love the monsoons.
I also have a large body of work about clouds, and I am hoping to turn it into an immersive exhibition of some sort. That’s been a project that’s been very high on my wish list for a while, and I think I’m ready to start working on it now.