Having previously been living between London and Berlin for four years, British Indian photographer Vivek Vadoliya is now based in the former city. “Berlin was where I started my career in a sense,” he says. “I decided to take the plunge and do photography and filmmaking when I was there. I quit my job and just went for it.” His distinctive and personal work spans fashion, documentary and portraiture, and often explores identity, as he turns his lens to the communities and subcultures he finds most captivating. We speak to him about his portfolio and his SS22 shoots for TOAST, as well as his upcoming book, Mallakhamb, which captures gymnasts performing aerial poses on ropes and poles.
What would you say is the theme underpinning your work, for example, the Brotherhood and Sisterhood series?
I'm always trying to celebrate ordinary people. For me, that looks like people who may be marginalised, and that's not necessarily limited to race or colour, that can be in lots of different ways. I'm interested in people who you might walk past on the street. I love that the camera allows me to slow down and have a conversation with people and make a portrait of them and celebrate them.
“I always try to paint the world as quite an optimistic, warm world. Because that's what I feel when I see people.”
That's one of the reasons I went back into photography and I discovered what I was really trying to do with it. But also it's a way of meeting people, and to understand the world through what my camera captures. There is always this sort of tint that I have with it, I always try to paint the world as quite an optimistic, warm world. Because that's what I feel when I see people.
Is there anyone from the Brotherhood or Sisterhood series who has a particularly interesting story?
Yes, Sisterhood is based on these really interesting girls from Bradford. They are young women who work in a theatre collective called Speakers Corner. A lot of their work is really about bridging the divide between different types of people within Bradford, through theatre arts projects. They were making a show at that time, which was about these Islamic boys who modify their cars. It was called Peaceophobia, and was about Islamophobia in Bradford.
Sisterhood is really a celebration of predominantly Asian and South Asian Islamic women in Bradford, to show them in a different light to how they are often perceived. It was also to celebrate the north. I think that the media often paints this world as 'the grim up north'. Actually, I found my experience of it to be very beautiful. I really believe that, in that series specifically, the Yorkshire Dales and some of those environments are absolutely picturesque, stunning environments and it's as much about celebrating those places, but also seeing people like these women occupying those spaces, which you don't normally see so often.
What drew you to Bradford, do you have any links there?
Yes, a really good friend of mine, Neesha Champaneria is a stylist and she's from there. The reason I started going there was because of her, but also my sister lives there. She studied in Leeds and ended up moving to Bradford. So I've had a chance to really get to know it over the years through those people. I feel like it's a place that I really like escaping to, and I'm making more work there.
I’ve also filmed a documentary about Bradford, specifically about a grandson coming back to have a big conversation with grandma post-pandemic and discovering that his granddad was a famous Islamic poet. He understands the world and his home through his grandad's words. There's a really interesting part of the film, which is talking about how migrants came to Bradford during that time and why they came then, and what that experience was actually like, told through his grandma and his granddad's words.
Sounds amazing. Would you say it's linked to the Brotherhood series?
Brotherhood is really one of the first portrait series I made when I decided to give this photography thing a go. There is a sort of overarching theme in some of my work, which is about masculinity. I really made that series as a way of understanding masculine figures, specifically in British South Asian culture. Brotherhood is about the spectrum of masculinity.
How did you go about choosing the people to capture in the series?
Some of those people were close to me or within my network. It was very sporadic and spontaneous. I spent time talking to them all and invited them down to have a sitting with me. I shot all the portraits in a couple of days. It was very affirming that I wanted to continue doing photography. At that point, I realised the power that I could actually have with the camera, and that it could actually help me understand and see the world in a different way.
And what do you find really important for a portrait? Do you pay attention to the clothing, the composition?
Firstly, where possible it's the conversation and the actual connection that you have with the person. It's about that person's identity coming through, whether that is through clothing, through conversation, the light or their environment. It's just trying to capture as much of that as possible. For some portraits, that can also be trying to capture someone in a natural environment, or sometimes it can be a little bit more posed, presenting that person in quite an empowered way. That's what I try to capture within my work.
And do you find it easy to take photos of close friends and family or is it more difficult than taking photos of strangers?
Somewhat more difficult in a sense, because I know them as people. Sometimes I go into a portrait when I don't know someone and I can react to a comment they make and try and capture them in a specific way, or I can be really stimulated by the environment and capture them in that space. But I think when it's friends, it can sometimes be difficult because you know them in more depth, and that can be hard to capture.
Do you show the subjects their portraits, and what kind of reactions do they have to them?
I do afterwards. For personal work, I try and shoot as much analogue as I can. I've started doing a lot more analogue printing myself – I've got a couple of dark rooms that I use to process, mostly in east London. Because of this process, it means that you can't always review stuff at the time. So I get a chance to spend time with images. I feel like with digital files, you do often throw them away a little bit and they get lost. But I think with film, there's that process of looking and looking and looking, which I quite enjoy.
Tell us about your upcoming book, Mallakhamb. How did it come about?
I shot that on my last trips before the pandemic in Mumbai. It's about these kids that perform an art practice called Mallakhamb. They use wrestling grips and suspend their bodies, doing yoga poses on ropes and poles. It's quite a traditional art form, that's maybe not been celebrated enough. There are a few more people now turning it into a bit more of a sport and showing that performance side of it.
I think it's a really incredible practice and a really beautiful way of moving, suspending and celebrating the body. For me, that's what it is about. There's also a really interesting language that comes from yoga, which is so deep-rooted within India and has been taken globally in all these different formats across the world. I think this was a different way of presenting it in a sense as well – there's a sense of Indian identity within the way they move their bodies, which I think is really beautiful.
How did you come across it and know that you wanted to capture it?
I found it through some friends and we all went down to check it out and speak to the gymnasts. I was in awe of it and just went to photograph it. It's so intensely hot to shoot in the daytime, and they train either early in the mornings or late at night. So I shot it in the mornings, and there was a beautiful warm light which was absolutely stunning.
I think the sense of movement in the images in the book is reflected by the photos you took for TOAST as well. I was wondering what your inspirations were for the TOAST shoots and if you could talk about the process?
Working with Katie Callaghan [TOAST Head of Brand Creative] was incredible because she's got lots of beautiful references. And also working with stylist Ali Toth (of Ali + Aniko) was great because he has worked with TOAST so much. We were able to build a nice language together and work with the artist. A lot of my references were Georgia O'Keeffe, I'm pretty obsessed with her and spent some time at Ghost Ranch (where O'Keeffe spent summers) when I was in America a few years ago. With model Jan de Villeneuve, I just got those vibes from her so much and she also loved Georgia O'Keeffe, so we were able to really connect on that.
Jan was able to move in that sort of way and channel some of that feeling, but she is also just such a powerful character. It was about bringing some of that out with her as well. She's got such a striking, incredibly powerful face. And with model Hyeseon Jeong as well, she just looks effortless, and was able to move her body and was really up for collaboration there as well. Then, working with set designer Andrew Lim Clarkson, he was able to make some sculptures and beautiful arrangements. I think about some of my work sometimes as a bit of a filmmaker, so it's giving people actions and things to do to capture those sorts of movements.
What are your plans for the coming year?
I'm shooting my second book already, with a friend of mine who is from Bradford. We've been shooting the Whitby Goths, from the Whitby Goth Weekender. It's going to be really fun. Besides that I'm planning to go to India at the end of this year to make some more work, and I've been doing some music videos. I also might be shooting a cookbook in Italy with all these grandmas.
You're so busy!
I think I'm maybe too busy. My mind's everywhere at once and I just want to make so many things. I'm not very good at sitting still. I think when you feel something you just have to make it and capture it as soon as you feel like that, otherwise you'll just sit on it and never make it at all.
Interview by Alice Simkins.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Photographs courtesy of Vivek Vadoliya.
Preorder Vivek’s first book, Mallakhamb, soon via his website.