Shriya Samavai

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Q&A

L+A: What was it like growing up in Indiana?

I have a very tenuous relationship with where I’m from. There are parts that I loved and others that were frustrating. I always found the landscape beautiful - it’s so open, it’s green, it’s quiet. We’d go for drives past cornfields and we’d hike in the woods. But being a minority in a small town in the Midwest wasn’t easy. I felt like an outsider a lot and I was very eager to leave and move to a city. I will say that I feel lucky that I got to grow up in a place that was kind of boring; it wasn’t super competitive the way New York is and I had a lot of time to think about what I was interested in and experiment with different things. I had a lot of time on my hands so I became involved in things like photography, mixed media art, and writing. I would take photos around the house, and even though I knew they were bad, I’m happy I got to work on something at such an early age that I knew was important to me.

L+A: Tell us about your first job upon graduating and where you’re currently working?

After graduating I worked for a small company called Dusen Dusen which is based in Brooklyn, NY. They make really fun and colorful clothing and home goods. About a year and a half ago I started working at Supreme doing merchandising and buying.

L+A: How did you land a job at Supreme?

I’ve always been obsessed with streetwear and it’s always been the most accessible part of fashion for me -- I can’t afford to buy Celine right now! One of the women who works at Supreme has her own clothing line called MADEME and she makes really sick things. I had reached out to her to photograph her clothes for Rookie Magazine where I used to frequently contribute. Once I met her I found out she runs production at Supreme and I stayed in touch with her. About a year or two after I met her, Supreme had an opening and the rest is history, it was very serendipitous!

L+A: How is it working in SUPREME a male-dominated brand?

Our demographic is mostly male and teenage, but it’s very refreshing that the office has a lot of women and it's not only guys. Also for what Supreme is, we’re really diverse in our representation -- our skate team has a lot of people of color. I’ve learned so much about pop culture working for Supreme - we feature a lot of New York City-centric artists, especially those of color, who I was never exposed to in Indiana.

L+A: Do you have a favorite medium to work in?

It’s hard to chose. I love writing, it’s what I’ve been doing for the longest. I have poems I wrote in the 3rd grade. But photography is the thing I have put myself into the most and is really outward facing and easy to share. I’ve also been reading my writing at poetry readings as well as DJing, which I started to do when I was in college. I feel like get something different from each so it's hard to pick a favorite!

L+A: Where do you get inspiration?

I’m really inspired by Patti Smith, she’s so dope! She’s in her early 70s and is still performing and writing books. I'm inspired by her longevity. Her debut album came out when she was nearly 30 and I love that she wasn’t so young. Then she was out of the public for a while when she moved to Michigan to raise her family and came back to NYC afterwards. It seems like she’s done all of the things she’s wanted to do and that’s so inspirational to me.

I’m really inspired by my friends too - especially the community of color that I’m a part of here in New York. Despite the difficulties we all face, my friends carry on and make really important work that motivates and inspires me to share my story and my work with the world.

“People get so caught up in trying to accomplish goals by a certain age”

I find a lot of creative people are obsessed with being the best in their field, and I’ve been like that myself, but you have to realize if you're doing something and it's not making you happy, you shouldn’t be doing it. You have to think about what you’re getting out of it. If you're doing it for fame, that's not going to be the thing that keeps you going because that's short-lived. However if the thing that you're doing makes you happy and is positive and impacts someone else positively, then that's a reason to keep doing it. I know it’s so hard for people coming up now because social media is all about numbers and not about the actual value of something.

L+A: How do you describe your style of photography? Do you direct all of your photographs?

I try not to direct too much - I love catching people in their element. My goal when shooting portraiture is that I want the subject to look at the photo and feel like it’s a good representation of themselves. That’s why I choose to typically let people do their own thing when I’m shooting. That's all obviously easier said than done, I’ve definitely had situations where I’ve made what I think are really beautiful images of the person and they look at it and go, “Uhh, do you have any other ones that you can show me?”. We all have really crazy standards for ourselves! But as a photographer it’s my job to be patient and kind so I can have a connection with the person I’m shooting. I like to compliment the person and make them feel confident so they can open up and feel comfortable with me. That’s when you get photos everyone is happy with.

As a person of color photographing other people of color, we’re discussing the things that we struggle with and have overcome. I love it because it ends up being a therapy session where we get to talk about what we’re working on, or what we do and don’t feel good about. In the 30-60 mins when I’m shooting them and they open up to me, we realize we’re here to support each other, and that's when we get a great photo.

“Representation is so important to me, it’s what drives my portrait photography”

If someone can already see themselves represented in media, I don’t need to be the person to shoot them, someone else can do that. However, when I see someone who is marginalized in any way by society, that's who I want to work with. I just know what it was like to grow up and not see myself anywhere and how difficult it is because it makes you feel as though you're not worthy enough.

L+A: How did you parents reacted when you told them you want to work with photography?

They were not jazzed at first! But when my dad was younger he did a lot of photography, so I got it from him. For him it wasn’t about making art and more about documenting what was going on in his life, so I think he never really saw the images he was making as art and it was more practical. When I was in grade school I focused mainly on math and science classes; my dad is a professor of chemical engineering, my mom has 3 masters’ degrees in different types of math and computer science, and my brother has a masters in engineering and is working on his PhD. So there was always a push towards science for me.

A friend and I had started a clothing line my sophomore year of college. I was still studying engineering and we were going to all these gallery shows and concerts -- it was then that I had the realization that art is what I’m supposed to be doing. I became so uninterested in the subjects I was taking in college to a point where I didn’t even want to go to class, which is the last thing an immigrant parent wants to hear. I told my parents I was unhappy studying engineering and my dad said, “You can study anything you want, you just have to graduate.” So for me, this was a perfect time to take up art.

I’ve now created a life for myself here in the art and fashion industries and my parents are more accepting of it because they see it can be done. They were worried as any parent would be that I wouldn’t be able to make money, that I’d be unhappy, that I wouldn’t have any stability in my life.

L+A: Is there a project you would like to complete or begin in the future?

For the past year I’ve been photographing people who are genderqueer, so people who are non-binary, agender, transgender, gender nonconforming -- basically anybody who doesn’t identify as cisgender. I’ve been doing that really slowly, and I’ve published half of the images while holding on to the other, and I’m still actively scouting others to shoot. I still don’t know exactly what form I want the project to take, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time.

There are so many genderqueer people in other countries but we don’t really talk about it. My family is from India and I wasn’t aware of the fact that there are genderqueer people there until two years ago. I want to go to other countries and talk to queer people and hear their stories. It’s so crazy because even a couple hundred years in India, if you were transgender, you were celebrated within a lot of communities. Then after British colonization, the structure of the binary became a lot more rigid, and queerness was criminalized. Learning these histories and sharing these stories could help liberate marginalized people everywhere.

L+A: What was the hardest thing you’ve had to hear as a creative?

I think a difficult realization after college was that I couldn’t be a full-time photographer here. It is something in my heart of hearts that I want to do, but right now, it can’t sustain me financially. It’s hard to find out how much you’re getting paid for something when you know you should be getting more.

Like when you ask for your day rate and they cut it down by 50%, that is so frustrating. The creative industry is a winner-take-all, there are like five people shooting all the campaigns and music videos and the rest of us are trying to grab whatever we can. I wish companies, brands, and publications were more open to working with people who are a little smaller but still do amazing work.

L+A: What advice would you give young people of color who want to go into photography?

The biggest advice I have for somebody in any art field is to keep making work, because the more you make, the better you get. Nothing is going to just fall into your lap and you have to have that portfolio of work to back it up. Don’t be afraid to email editors, look up someone online and ask them questions. I’ve emailed so many photographers and writers and I’m so thankful they took the time to respond to me and answer questions.

L+A: What’s the best advice you’ve received from a woman?

My mom gives me the best advice. One thing she said recently that stuck with me is you have to take care of your mental health. When you let that go, everything else falls by the wayside. I’ve started exercising, I’m eating well, going to sleep early, and paying attention to my body. I can be a better artist and a better member of my community when I take care of myself.