Live in Technicolour Through The Lens of Alia Romagnoli
When is the last time you stopped mid-scroll and actually looked at an image on Instagram for more than 3 seconds? No, your selfies don’t count. With an iPhone in hand, we are all self-proclaimed photographers with an inordinate amount of filters saved to spice things up because #nofilter doesn’t really mean no filter. In the midst of this seemingly endless tsunami of cloned snaps that flood our feeds, photographer Alia Romagnoli’s powerfully evocative photos stir up emotions that I can’t quite put into words. It’s like a rainbow smacked me in the head and there’s so much to absorb that for a minute I’m transfixed in a blissful daze because if you know me, you know that colours are akin to therapy in my world.
But it’s not just the happy-hues that categorise her impressive breadth of work into a league of its own. Romagnoli weaves together earnest narratives through her camera that highlight the intricacies of South-Asian culture, fashion and traditions in a contemporary context that take into account aspects of her evolving identity. Despite having no prior education or textbook knowledge regarding the field, she was adamant to learn the tricks of the trade alongside navigating a full-time film degree in London for the past few years. Her story is proof that one’s future career options don’t need to be defined or limited to what they studied at university and that art can be a wonderful tool of self-expression in a way that nothing else can.
Over a Zoom call, Romagnoli gives us an insight into journey as a freelance photographer so far and the undocumented trial and errors that take place behind the camera. She recounts her most memorable project so far (spoiler: it’s with Levis!), the power of collaboration in this industry and the insurmountable respect she holds for her subjects who choose to be vulnerable in the face of societal pushback/ignorance.
Q. Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Born and raised in Bangalore, I’m a self-taught photographer and visual artist who likes to shoot fashion and portraiture. Around 6 years ago, I moved to London for college to pursue a film degree alongside which I consciously carved out time to build a photography portfolio to showcase my creative voice. You could find me juggling university classes, developing film and teaching myself different shooting techniques throughout the week. Most of my work is influenced by my upbringing in India and being surrounded by Western imagery 24*7 in London further established my desire to highlight South-Asian culture through photographs.
I grew up in an environment that wasn’t encouraging for those who wanted to take up arts since it is often regarded as an ‘unemployable’ career option. My friends and my mum were really supportive; however, I was very insecure about the expectations that my extended family had from me. There came a point where I was overwhelmed with too many opinions which was scary! Being one of the few people in my class who wanted to pursue arts after school made it all the more daunting and influenced the way I thought. I’ve come a long way since then though and have been able to see value in my own dreams and abilities.
In hindsight, I didn’t love doing a film degree as much as I thought I would, though I tried to make the most of it by learning as many skills as possible that were transferrable to my photographic practice. I really loved investing my time into production design and cinematography, both of which really influenced the style of imagery I like to make. By the time graduation came around, I was in a position to pursue photography full-time. It’s been a few years since then and I am currently back in Bangalore temporarily to spend some time with my family and ride out the pandemic while documenting my hometown and more documentary based work on my personal account/finsta – @aliaromagnoli!
Q. What sort of themes do you explore via your photography and why?
My work is constantly evolving and it has a lot to do with my identity. Being from a country invigorated with so much life, colour and culture, it’s obvious that my upbringing would reflect in the photos I create, however I never consciously made it to be this way. It seeped through as part of my vision quite naturally since I was constantly surrounded by South Asian stories, biracialism, LGBTQ+ narratives and other themes that are close to my heart.
Q. What drew you towards fashion portraiture in particular?
It gives you room – both within editorial and commercial projects – to play around with your aesthetic and fuse together multiple influences. Sometimes, with other styles you don’t have as much creative control. Apart from that, my childhood revolved around a lot of textiles – I remember visiting fairs with my mum who loves embroidery, handicrafts and Indian folk art and being fascinated with the intricate pieces on display.
Q. How does your creative process unfold once the brief has been provided?
For most commercial projects there’s always a brief in place and a certain amount of creative control I’m entitled to. More recently, I’ve started sketch-booking and trying to plan everything out a bit better but a lot of my earlier work didn’t require that and it was a free-flowing process that happened on the spot. I go with my intuition, it’s never with a particular intention. I like my projects to be a collaboration where my team and I brainstorm on themes and colours together and it usually comes together on the day of the shoot. I think when you come with a full-fledged plan and want to stick to it really badly, you deprive yourself of other possibilities. Some of the favourite photos I’ve shot are completely spontaneous or candid – just an idea captured in the moment.
Q. Tell us about your most memorable project till date.
Hands down, that has to be the project I did with Levis in 2019. I was approached by the brand to put up my work on display at the Levis x Queer Britain photography exhibition called ‘Chosen Family’ that also championed the work of 3 other queer creatives during Pride Month! I decided to shoot my series in a living room, without any fancy studio lighting and include younger representation of LGBTQ South-Asian communities. Asking people to vulnerable in that way is not always easy and I am eternally grateful for the cast and crew who were involved.
Also, prior to this project I had never exhibited my work and that made this all the more special. It’s very difficult to network in this industry and gauge whether you are ready to be in this sort of space to present your work physically – be that by selling prints, making a seal or being part of an exhibition.
Q. Having no formal education in the field, how did you build your knowledge around the technicalities of professional photography and its accompanying equipment?
Like most photographers, I suffered from a severe case of imposter syndrome when starting out! It took me a long time to confidently call myself a photographer. Even when I got my first job, I didn’t think I was deserving of that title. In the beginning I used the Internet to learn everything (and I still do), along with assisting other photographers on shoots and absorbing learnings by merely watching them. Photography as a craft takes years to learn and to get good at it you have to be open to the idea of assisting for a while before establishing yourself. It definitely isn’t the only path (especially with the boom of social media) which allows younger photographers to showcase their work in a more accessible way. I do believe that getting mentored from people in this field has an irreplaceable value though!
What a lot of people expect is to be good at things immediately, your first project may not be what you envisioned it to be – at least mine wasn’t! I remember struggling with my initial imagery but it is important to remember that we all start somewhere. What helped was sticking to a simple philosophy – if I have access to equipment then great, when I don’t we make it work. You don’t always need the biggest and most fancy equipment to make good photos
Being on a budget, I’ve always bought second-hand cameras via EBay or thrift shops for as long as I can remember. The most important thing is knowing your camera in and out, feeling comfortable with it and that comes with practice. The more confident I was with the equipment I already owned, the more comfortable I felt on set.
Q. What helped you find your niche as a photographer?
I never went in search of a niche, I just found it along the way while making stuff that I liked and which felt ‘me’. Although, I did become more aware of what my niche is perceived as when bigger projects started coming my way that were specific to the kind of work or stories I’d been showcasing so far. Honesty is a huge part of my work, you have to be able to relate to what you make and hope other people will be able to as well. It is hard sometimes though when people try to pigeon-hole you in a particular niche, because it can sometimes be tough to break out of it.
Q. How was the pandemic affected your workflow and are you currently working on any projects?
When the pandemic began I was really burnt out – it had been 4 years of intense freelance work. When you keep going, it’s easy to forget why you started or remember the reasons behind why you enjoy something. That’s what happened with me. Because we were all forced to stop, I spent a long portion of lockdown just taking care of my mental health. I didn’t touch my camera for months and stayed away from social media. A lot of my inspiration seemed to be coming from Instagram, I had started comparing myself to other photographers who were putting out fabulous work every day and this didn’t put me in a healthy space. Distancing myself from social media generally has been really positive but now I’m excited to get back to projects. Sometimes, finding the passion to keep going has to come from inside. No one else will push you.
Q. Putting a price to your work is tricky, especially in this industry where conversations around money are minimal if not non-existent. How did you figure it out?
This is still a struggle and I’m still trying to figure it out. Money isn’t a topic that artists talk about openly and gaining information on it is difficult, particularly when you don’t have an agent. I’d suggest first figuring out how you want to sell your stuff – is it through prints or licensing. I know it’s hard to put a price on your work and most of the time I feel like photographers are underselling themselves (myself included). Also, another thought that looms around is that if you don’t do this for X amount of money, the brand will get someone else to – the cycle never stops but it is really important to value your work and set boundaries
Q. Any advice for aspiring photographers reading this?
Experiment with what you already have. Don’t feel like you are missing out on something good just because you don’t have access to fancy equipment. Create with the resources on hand and you will eventually find out your visual style, aesthetic and the things you like shooting. Think about what you want to say as a photographer. When I started, it took me a while to figure out what I enjoy, especially because I was scared to work with other people. There was a lot of self-imposed pressure and doubts about whether my skills were good enough and the consequences of not being able to deliver good work.
Shooting my friends and family first and then building up a portfolio really helped me work through those feelings. You really need to be clear about your intentions from the get-go and be honest because most people can see when you’ve put your soul into your work as opposed to delivering something based off what’s trending or popular online.
Don’t forget that it’s OKAY to dabble in multiple domains or change your mind about things. Don’t put so much pressure to love every single thing you do, because it will come and if it doesn’t that’s fine too. Based off my experience, I can say that what you choose to study isn’t always what you’ll spend the rest of your life doing. Life isn’t linear and you can do a bunch of different things – you are not answerable to anyone except yourself. Just remember to always have fun and be passionate about the work you are making!