A couple of years ago, Supriya Lele was given a copy of The Coast – a photographic essay of 199 pictures by Delhi-based artist Sohrab Hura. Shot in the depths of an inky night during religious festivities in a coastal village, it reveals the undercurrents of social hostility in modern India. Hura treats the line between land and water as a point of ecstatic, ecclesiastical release. Meanwhile, with her radiantly provocative clothes, the London-based Lele has cultivated a curious balance of eastern elan and European grunge. She bookends each season with a trip back to her homeland of India and this, her A/W 2022 campaign, was a stimulating meeting of tendencies. This conversation discusses a body of work that mixes Hura’s own archive with new pictures of Lele’s clothes. They proffer a part of Lele’s psyche that we haven’t seen before. In the darkness and grit of Goa at night, we sense danger, but also magic and euphoria.
Dal Chodha: I’m interested in this pull that India has on you. You keep returning and shooting your collections there. Why is that?
Supriya Lele: Taking my work back into the context of where my family are from is really important. I am literally revisiting it with my work and it’s different each time. Otherwise the collection is always in Europe. I show in London and sell in Paris or Milan, but it doesn’t often go back to where a lot of it is rooted. I need to touch base and recontextualise the work and doing it with other people helps to do that. Even though I'm a “brand” – I hate that word – and even though I'm making product, there's always an ebb and flow in the creative process. I felt this quite intense need to pull it into India again this season, but not in the same way that I had done before, in a semi-sentimental way. It needed to feel more present, more current. More raw.
Dal: Sohrab, I see a kind of anti-romanticism in your work. I don't think it's necessarily the subject matter, but it’s there in the way you’re capturing the world around you. Do you see your pictures as raw?
Sohrab Hura: When I saw Narmada, the project Supriya had done with Jamie Hawkesworth in Jabalpur, I actually kind of liked it. I don't personally want to categorise it as being romantic or anything, but I understand where Supriya is coming from when she says that. What I noticed from all of the shoots she’s done is the presence of water. Somehow water keeps repeating itself in a lot of my works too. Think about how Supriya is using words like ‘ebbs and flows’, it picks up on a certain energy. I noticed that she'd worked along the river for Narmada and, of course, there's a certain calm flow with a river. The sea became a landscape to explore something with a different energy.
Dal: This is the first time you have worked with fashion, isn’t it?
Sohrab: It was a chance for me to understand the balance that clothes can bring to a picture. I'm at an interesting point with my photography because I'm thoroughly bored of it. Working on this has jumpstarted something within a landscape I am familiar with. I knew that I wanted to shoot in the sea because I know it, but I wasn't consciously trying to make it raw. Playfulness is important to me and somehow the sea allows for that. It allows for something unexpected. I don't think I'm a very good director and very often when I have something already conceived in my mind, it turns out shit – the sea was there to rattle me a bit.
Supriya: There was an energy there that definitely felt different. It feels powerful and I guess, semi dangerous. It just felt right to be going to the sea and in a more obvious way, the collection includes these fishnet embroidery pieces that were very apt, and these lantern bags. Working with Sohrab was just like vibing it out, seeing what comes. I've always been attracted to working with people who aren't necessarily from a fashion background. It's not like going into a studio setup with hair and make-up and production where you do the shoot, and it looks great and that’s that. This is a lot more spontaneous. It’s risky. You can get magic in those scenarios.
Dal: Earlier you had a resistance to the word “brand”, why is that?
Supriya: It's me in my studio with two assistants just trying to get things done – I prefer working in that way because it makes me feel more creative and more connected to my work. Thinking of yourself as a “brand” feels clinical – I want to be a good designer. I want to make good work.
Dal: Sohrab, you lied when you said you hadn’t shot fashion before. I would say that any image with clothing in it is pretty much a fashion image – that’s definitely how a generation is reading pictures today.
Sohrab: I would actually agree with you. It’s not necessarily a lie, but I am using the term “fashion photographer” just to isolate this experience. In the end, like you said, anything with clothes can be fashion depending on how one looks at it. Even when I talk about my process, I use the words “folding” and “stitching” …very domestic words. Even today, the clothes I’m wearing have holes all over them. I feel like something not so perfect, something a little broken. Torn. That's me. It’s because of my mum that I recognise this idea of care through clothing.
Dal: I read somewhere that you took up photography as a kind of therapy to cope with your mum’s schizophrenia. Your first two books Look It's Getting Sunny Outside!!! and Life is Elsewhere were about her.
Sohrab: Yes and clothes became a big part of her illness. Somehow, they reflected her condition and her mental health. Those books were made at home and in them the clothes repeat according to her mood. In the end, even work like The Coast had this fashion and personality throughout it. The clothes throughout hold symbolic meaning around gender, caste, and religion. Maybe it hasn’t been that conscious in my work but there have always been these undercurrents of meaning.
Dal: You said earlier that you were bored of your work – what do you mean by that?
: I've been a bit bored with the medium of photography itself but that’s a very healthy state to be in. I’ve had these repeated points of boredom where I've been more drawn to moving image, but it also has a lot to do with repetition. The moment I feel that something is repeating itself, it gets boring. I want to reinvent to keep myself busy, to feel playful. I think this idea of being playful with the work and to take risks is what Supriya was talking about.
Dal: How did the shoot go from your perspective?
Sohrab: We went with certain expectations, but we also wanted to leave space for the unknown, which is where the sea comes in. We consciously chose to shoot at night because that makes a landscape more unknown. You feel very isolated but it's also a time of magic if you allow for it to happen. We want the work to have its own feel, its own mystery and moments of doubt.
Dal: How did you approach the casting? Do you see the people in the pictures as characters?
Supriya: It's less about characters in the narrative sense. Even when casting shows, we like to see each woman as her own person in the outfit she would wear. And the same goes in the campaign – they've each got their own identities, their own thing going on.
Dal:And we cannot see any of their faces – why is that?
Sohrab: Because this issue was about the body, and we were interested in exploring these half-spaces where the body is hidden. Quite a few images became too much about one person, so like Supriya was saying, it was more about trying to find a seamless merge between what we worked on and the work that I've done in the past. Something a little more mysterious and a little more doubtful. There’s a picture of a woman wearing a white dress standing in the sea and she is turned away from the camera. In front of her is a wave that hasn’t fully formed – you don’t know if the wave has occurred yet. We didn’t want the landscape to reveal too much either. My own dilemma was, how do I justify making these photographs?
Dal: Do you mean that in terms of not wanting to repeat yourself?
Sohrab: Exactly. Am I taking a formula and creating something disjointed by projecting another work onto it? Or am I finding a thread from work I've done in the past and extending that forward? I've been documenting my home for the last 15-20 years. It's a big privilege yet one of the most difficult places to be photographing because you know it too well. Nothing really sticks out. Supriya didn’t want to romanticise anything, I don't know what that means but at the same time, I’m conscious that there is a danger of that because we are in Goa. Everything looks beautiful. We didn't want things to necessarily look beautiful because I think that’s often a mask that deceives us. A lot of my works have been done over a 10–15-year period so in a way, it was a very artificial way to compress all that time into something.
Dal: Supriya, Sohrab mentioned boredom but then he also just brought up the luxury of time. I guess one of the biggest learnings for him is how ludicrously fast and consumptive the fashion industry is. We’re always thinking about the next picture, bag or shoe. The pictures we’re talking about are over, you’re now onto the next collection which will be shown in a month’s time. We’re always forgetting to be in the thing in the moment.
Supriya: It's a tricky one because I am somebody who gets bored really quickly. We’ll make something, and I will hate it and then might fall in love with it again. My process is always quite last minute, so I start my collections quite late. I need that pressure to cook something. I think if I had too much time, I wouldn't put work out.
Dal: But do you crave more time?
Supriya: I always long for more time but that's the irony of this industry! I'm always like, “if I just had one more month…” but I know I wouldn’t use it. It's amazing and inspiring for me to hear Sohrab talk about his practice and having these longform projects – I wish that fashion could be more present like that, because it's only when I look back at things I've done that I appreciate them. In the moment, I was over it. I guess I feel like I really have to do these creative projects with people who have different approaches because it keeps me grounded. If I didn't, I would be churning out collection after collection and it wouldn't feel right.
Dal: So how would you spend this imaginary month?
Supriya: I would probably over-develop work! But I do think a really important part of my process is making a lot of shit. You make mistakes and through them you learn something, or an accident happens. I'm not very good with very controlled processes, I feel like it sucks out the joy. That’s how I work, a lot happens in fittings and on the body quite quickly because it's about what feels right.
Dal: What have you've learned from Sohrab?
Supriya: He looks very deeply and intelligently at things. Hearing him talking about the symbolism of clothing refreshes my brain. It has made me feel really connected to my own practice, like, okay, I can start thinking a bit more deeply about certain codes or things that I've touched upon in my earlier work. To check in again with myself rather than thinking you’ve just got to make a collection that’s got to be really cool and sexy. It has to feel more grounded and rooted in something.
Sohrab: I remember in the evenings when we were in Goa we didn’t talk about work. We talked about everything that leads to our work. Supriya had this healthy angst or a kind of self-doubt. I'm always considering my work – and I presume it’s the same for her – but quite often, the work is just a residue of something much larger.