Suki Dhanda is a London based photographer whose portraits of musicians, politicians, celebrities and sports personalities regularly appear in The Guardian and Observer. Themes of identity and belonging run through her work, particularly her social documentary projects around Asian communities living in Britain and the USA. Suki has also shot stories in many countries including tea workers in China, coffee farmers in Rwanda and fair-trade oil in Palestine. We caught up with Suki to hear how she got started as a photographer, navigated lockdown and the art of making your subjects comfortable on a shoot.
How did you first get into photography?
After finishing my O and A levels I went to art college to study photography, then started assisting full time as an advertising photographer in London. It was a good time to learn some skills and also use the studio to shoot my own work. I used to photograph Jazz musicians for a music mag called Straight No Chaser. There was no money, I did it just for the love of it!
Were there any big moments that helped your career?
Getting a place on the Prince’s Trust Mentoring programme proved to be really important to kick start my career. It helped me become more business minded and make the transition from assistant to photographer. Basically I was given a loan to buy equipment and work on my own projects. I went to NYC for a month and created a project on Asian taxi drivers, where I would walk the streets everyday with my Mamiya 7 and hang out with drivers. It helped that I spoke Punjabi! Back in London I slowly started getting photographic commissions. Social media wasn’t around those days, there was a lot of grafting in getting your work seen by the right people. The picture editor at The Observer gave me a lucky break!
You now have regular work with weekend magazines like The Observer and The Guardian, as well as record companies and theatres, which sounds to us like you’ve made it. Do you feel fulfilled with your portfolio? Are there more areas you want to explore?
I can’t say I’ve made it. I may be more settled now with a home and a family, but I’m still on the same journey, I definitely want to expand my client list and work on more projects! Don’t mention the word portfolio – that is continuously work in progress as well as my website!
How should an aspiring photographer work out what specialism to focus on?
I think first you need to enjoy what you do and be inspired: just dont stop taking pictures of things that interest you. I think these days photographers are a lot more adaptable – you could be shooting a portrait as part of an interior which also includes shooting still life, then you may also be asked to film it too! Seek help if you’re unsure which direction you want to take. Talk to other established photographers whose work you may find interesting.
How do you make people feel comfortable for a shoot?
Often it’s not about me making them feel comfortable, the whole environment needs to be considered: the set, lighting, the crew. I also think it depends on what kind of mood the person may be on that day which can affect a shoot. I just try not to be in people’s faces and give them some breathing space. In any case, there’s always going to be a different interaction and dynamics from photographing one person to shooting a group of five!
What are the key components in a shoot?
For me, subject, lighting and environment.
Talk to us about personal projects. How important are they and why?
I’ve been working on personal projects on and off over the years, I just wish I did more! I have been involved in various group exhibitions which has definitely been an incentive to produce new work. It’s been an important way of exploring subjects that I feel very personal about: questions on identity and belonging are continuous themes in my work.
How have you coped with the last year? Has it been a positive or negative experience?
This past year has definitely been challenging from both a work and personal prospectus, as with a lot of people I know, especially who have kids! There’s definitely been an overall lack of commissions. However, 50% of my work is from the Guardian/Observer and they still need pictures. Shoots were mainly shot externally, especially throughout the summer. To be honest, I quite enjoyed being outside. On some occasions I’d have to set up a mini-studio with a backdrop in people’s gardens. I worked a lot more remotely without an assistant for safety reasons, with everything kept to a minimum. I do look forward to when life is ‘back to normal’ and we don’t have to wear masks while shooting. I find that very difficult to focus, especially communicating with the subject.
What advice have you got for your younger self?
To believe more in yourself and don’t hold yourself back, be more proactive. I think sometimes I lacked confidence in my work which held me back from approaching possible clients and opportunities. It’s a difficult one to overcome!