Vinesh Kumaran is a portrait photographer who relocated from Fiji as a child and grew up amongst the rich cultural diversity of South Auckland. After finding his passion for photography at art school Vinesh has gone on to create a number of projects consisting of both personal work as well as commercial. We talked to Vinesh about cultural awareness, approaching strangers for portraits and experimenting with lighting.
© Vinesh Kumaran ‘Joe and Linda Tzou’
Tell us a bit about yourself, how you got started in photography and what you like to shoot.
I freelance as a photographer and love taking portraits.I guess my first exposure to photography was during my first year at art school. I wasn’t too sure why I went to art school but I think I was drawn to photography as it was a new medium for me and I liked the idea that I could make photography into a career.
Your photography style seems to be based around the stories of diverse New Zealanders. Tell us about the motivation behind your portraits.
My family relocated from Fiji when I was very young and I’ve grown up in South Auckland and I call New Zealand home. I capture the photographs of people around me in my neighbourhood and community. I think we are fortunate to be living in a country that’s rich in cultural diversity. I’m thankful that my work leads to documenting what we (New Zealand) is today.
© Vinesh Kumaran ‘Kusum Kanji’
What are some of the challenges involved with shooting diverse people with a range of different cultural identities?
Growing up in South Auckland, I’ve been surrounded by people from various cultures and backgrounds where I’ve gained lifelong experience and cultural awareness.
How do you initially approach your subjects to be photographed?
When it comes to photographing someone I haven’t met before, having some examples of my work tends to reassure them to be a part of a project. Being able to find an appropriate time to talk to them is crucial as time is very precious to people.
© Vinesh Kumaran ‘Poly Cheak and Chanthou Ly’
Do you have any specific routine to make subjects feel comfortable in front of the camera?
I don’t particularly have a specific routine, but I feel it’s important to have some common ground. It could be letting the person know that you are also just as nervous as them and that you may also not like having your photograph taken.
Many of your photographs are lit in interesting ways. Tell us about your approach to lighting both natural and artificial.
I always try and imagine what the portrait will look like before it’s photographed. I try and replicate this either by using lighting gear or the natural light available.
© Vinesh Kumaran ‘Sefo Feterika’
Are the locations you choose to shoot your subjects in on purpose or accidental? Tell us about how you choose the backdrop for your portraits.
For the “How much does this cost?” series, I knew I wanted it to have a particular style and feel so all the portraits were photographed in a similar way where the person is standing or sitting inside the shop. Mangere Town Centre is unique with its interesting shops and I wanted to capture each portrait to show the personality of the store owner and the shop itself.
Many of your portraits are shot front facing. Can you tell us about that.
I like the simplicity of having the person in centre-frame looking back at the viewer. For me, it gives a feeling of 'them looking at us' more than 'us looking at them'. So there is a sense of ownership, authority and respect.
© Vinesh Kumaran ‘Steve Ahn’
Your work is very colour focused. Talk about your perceptions of colour.
For me, an interesting portrait would be someone with a bit of character and a lot of that would be whether they are wearing a particular style of clothing or something that stands out.
You’ve shot both in the commercial world and for personal development. Talk about the differences between the two from your perspective.
In my experience, both work hand in hand. A lot of my commercial work has come from my personal projects. I’ve had clients who have commissioned me on commercial jobs to replicate what I have photographed in my personal projects.
© Vinesh Kumaran ‘Vinod Kumar’
What advice would you give to young photographers about shooting portrait work?
I’d suggest to photograph more and often and try out different scenarios whether it be using different light sources with lighting equipment or natural light. Another great source of learning is online tutorials found on YouTube that talk about different lighting effects and how different results can be achieved. The most important thing I think is to be able to capture the person that you’re photographing in a way that represents their personality.
How important is social media and how does it affect the way you create?
In 2017 I challenged myself and photographed a portrait a day of someone I had never met before using only my iPhone camera. This was a year-long that was posted on my instagram account. This series lead to a solo exhibition in 2018 at a local café in Otahuhu. I had to use available light as well as have limited time to scout for interesting backdrops. I think it’s important to always show new content on social media. You never know the opportunities that will come about from people who see your work outside of your website.
© Vinesh Kumaran ‘Yeuzhen Zhaw’
What are some of the various shooting techniques/mediums you experiment with?
I try and experiment with different lighting techniques but sometimes the simplest light source can be the most effective. For example, when I photographed someone beside a light coloured wall the light bouncing off the wall created a soft side fill. With new camera gear I always try and learn the various functions, so when I’m on location the technical stuff becomes secondary. This gives me more time to focus on having a conversation with the talent and making sure they’re comfortable in front of the camera.
Which part of photography do you like best ie. Shooting, editing or something else?
I like the process of getting people together to create an idea. With my current show, there were various people in different organisations involved such as the Mangere-Otahuhu local board, Mangere Business Association, Studio Six, Creative NZ and of course the shop keepers.
© Vinesh Kumaran ‘Yonghwa and Heaseun Woo’
What things do you do outside of photography that informs your creativity?
I like to keep fit. Keeping an active body and mind keeps you motivated especially when there is a lot of downtime in between projects and commercial jobs.
What’s your dream project?
My dream project would be to fly around the world and photograph people from different cultures and backgrounds.
Gear Talk…What are you shooting with and why?
A couple of years ago I needed to upgrade my gear and I decided to invest in a Sony A7RII with the 24-70mm G series lens. What I found valuable about Sony was the eye detection function, which would auto-focus on the person’s eye. With my previous camera I would always have to check my focus especially when shooting with a wide-open aperture. With the Sony I could focus a lot more on interacting with the person in front of the lens without worrying if the frame was sharp or not.
Vinesh's current exhibition 'How much does this cost?' is on now at Mangere Arts Centre till 15th June 2019
Find more of Vinesh's work: