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Vinay Aravind graduated from NLSIU, Bangalore in 2004, after which he worked as a corporate lawyer in Bombay, Gurgaon and Chennai. After seven years in the profession, he switched careers to become a professional photographer. In this conversation with Associate Editor Anuj Agrawal, Vinay talks about what got him to change jobs, his love for photography and how he gets people to feel comfortable under the camera.
Bar & Bench: So you graduated from NLS in? And from there on, where all did you work?
Vinay Aravind: I graduated from NLS in 2004, worked at Ernst & Young in Mumbai, Lall Lahiri & Salhotra in Gurgaon and Poovayya & Co. in Chennai (I helped set up the Chennai office of Poovayya & Co. in 2007) and I specialised in technology and intellectual property laws. I did some fun work and advised a number of ‘cutting-edge’ technology companies on their Indian operations, but I also did horribly dreary stuff like M&A and commercial real estate.
Bar & Bench: Sometime in 2011, you decided that corporate law is not for you. Was there any particular incident that brought about this realisation?
Vinay Aravind: I think from the time I started working I’ve wanted to ‘do something creative’, but never really knew what it was I would do. Towards the latter part of 2010 I decided that being a commercial lawyer was not entirely satisfying and sitting around and waiting for the ‘what next?’ answer would mean I’d never get out of the system, so I just decided to quit and gave the firm three months’ notice (because I really do like the firm and have the fondest memories of working there). It started off as a ‘break’ with the option to come back, but in a month or so I knew I didn’t want to go back. Poovayya & Co. were tremendous in that they gave me this option.
Bar & Bench: At what point of time did you realise that you wanted to do something different? What was the time-lag between the realisation and the actual decision?
Vinay Aravind: The idea of quitting lawyering has been a recurring theme in my head for years, but in 2010 it started to take a more concrete shape. The more senior you become as a commercial lawyer, the less the lawyering skills and your intellect matter, and the more it’s your business acumen and networking abilities that count. This is an unfortunate progression and by 2010 i’d done about 6 years and felt a strong urge to get out. There was no single incident really, just a conviction that grew gradually. I didn’t know what I was going to do next, so I suppose it helped that I’m a die-hard optimist, and I just believed that something or the other would work out.
Bar & Bench: What has been the reaction of your friends and family to your decision? Did you face some amount of peer pressure?
Vinay Aravind: From friends it was mostly support and encouragement. A lot of people told me they wished they could also do what I was doing etc., Family were sceptical. Initially they thought it was “a phase” and that it would pass. When they realised I was serious I think they got a bit frantic, but it’s been almost a year of being a photographer now and I think they’re coming around. Somewhere in the early days I’d sent my mum this e-mail quoting an article, about the legendary photographer Lord Lichfield:
“It was the strength of his enthusiasm for the medium that inspired Lichfield to leave the Grenadier Guards in 1962, where he progressed after Harrow and Sandhurst, to take up a profession that one relative described as “far worse than being an interior decorator; only marginally better than hairdressing”.”
Bar & Bench: How have the last 12 months been? The Hindu article mentions that your first wedding assignment was for a friend. Were you nervous?
Vinay Aravind: The past 12 months have been terrific overall. Discovering photography itself has been tremendous fun. I’m still pretty much a newcomer to the photographic world, I’ve been shooting for a little more than a year, and there’s so much to learn and so much joy to experience by taking pictures.
There were of course hairy phases when my bank balance was precarious and when I was revolving my credit card bills, but things have improved somewhat and financially I’m OK now, and I’m hoping things will, if not get better, at least not get worse!
The first wedding I shot was for a friend, but that was just a couple of weeks after I’d learnt to use a camera and it was not a professional engagement, so while I approached it with a lot of commitment and rigour, there really wasn’t any pressure. It was a great way to learn, and a very picturesque wedding to shoot. Some of my favourite pictures are still from that shoot.
Bar & Bench: Is life as a photographer as glamorous as it is made out to be? What does a typical working day look like? Does a client give you total freedom in terms of content or are there certain photographs that simply must be taken?
Vinay Aravind: Glamorous? Not really. It’s a lot of hard work and it’s a lot of fun, but I really wouldn’t say glamorous. You’re on your feet for hours, jostling for space and position, and bending and twisting your body into weird angles and calling all your reserves of endurance, so it’s tough, and very satisfying, but not really glamorous. I like the fact that there’s a lot of travelling, good food and fun people involved though. There are no typical workdays in this field. It can be anything from a quick 2 hour session to a grueling 15 hour slog, and it can range from great photo-friendly light and conditions to horrible, difficult conditions that you’re battling for every single shot. There’s no template of a regular workday like I had when I was a corporate lawyer.
Bar & Bench: A lot of your photos capture some really candid and personal moments, where the subjects do not seem to be aware that they are being photographed. How do you manage to be so unobtrusive?
Vinay Aravind: My objective is to make the subjects comfortable. I talk to them, joke with them, swap stories and so on and this makes them comfortable, and it’s when the subject is comfortable that the photographer-subject barrier disappears and you’re able to take natural, unselfconscious photographs. I make friends with the people I am shooting so that for them it feels more like someone they know is hanging around taking some pictures rather than a professional photographer. It also helps that I use very basic equipment, and shoot with natural light as far as possible, so there’s not a lot of paraphernalia to intimidate the subjects. (I do wish I had fancy equipment, and if anyone reading this is eager to make a generous gift, I’d very much love a Canon 5D Mk III please)
Bar & Bench: Best thing about this job?
Vinay Aravind: That it’s fun and challenging and varied and involves travel, good food, new people and places and new experiences.
Bar & Bench: Worst thing about this job?
Vinay Aravind: The sheer physical effort and the battering that your feet have to endure.
Bar & Bench: Is there anything you miss about your law firm life?
Vinay Aravind: The security of a steady salary is quite nice I guess.
Bar & Bench: Any advice for law grads or students who are thinking of opting for slightly alternative career paths?
Vinay Aravind: Advice eh? hmmmm. If you love being a lawyer (or banker or accountant or consultant or whatever), stick with it. If you don’t, get out. Life is too short and too precious to waste on spending all of your days doing something you don’t love. You may not have an answer about what it is you will do, but that doesn’t matter, throw yourself in the deep end and you’ll learn to swim somehow. If you have anything resembling a safety net (rich parents, big savings etc.,) then don’t even think twice, just jump. (Apologies for the mixed metaphors)
(Photo couresty Aditya Nair)