Apeksha Agarwal’s photograph 3 Nuns Crossing the Street, VT Station, Mumbai won first prize in our Healing Power of Art in Isolation show. Agarwal is a NYC-based photographer who, before Covid, principally worked in fashion and beauty, shooting colorful editorials for brands and magazines. However, the pandemic forced a shift in her focus. She flew to India to be with her parents just before the country went on lockdown, and these stark black-and-white images are the result. If you’d like to see more of Agarwal’s work, including the rest of the images in her Mumbai Lost and Found project, please visit her Artist Page, her website, or, if you’re in the NYC area, see 3 Nuns Crossing the Street at Photoville through mid-November.
Agarwal with her work at Photoville in Brooklyn, NY on 9/18/20 (PC: Rutvik Katuri)
What themes do you address in your work? Are there any motifs/symbols that you like to use throughout your work?
I’m primarily a fashion and beauty photographer. The image that you are showcasing at your gallery [3 Nuns Crossing the Street, VT Station, Mumbai] is from a project that I recently shot in India. Previously, I was working on a beauty project, and as soon as the pandemic hit and we went into a lockdown, I no longer had access to models, makeup artists, hair stylists or a team of crew members. I live in New York and as soon as we went into lockdown, my parents flew me back to Mumbai.
Soon after I landed in Mumbai, India went into lockdown as well. At that time, I thought to myself, this is never going to happen again. The entire country is in a lockdown and no one is going to be in the streets, therefore I should definitely be documenting it. This is how I started my journey towards photographing the eerie emptiness and silence that had overtaken this otherwise chaotic, visually dense city during the COVID-19 pandemic.
I photograph people, and that’s what I love to do. When I started photographing this project, there was one element of life that I would look for in every image I created. Be it a person, or a dog, or a cat, or anything else. Every image has one element that your eye navigates towards. That is what I look for in all of my images, the one thing that stands out.
Nuns Crossing the Street, Fort
Can you describe the relationship between your work and mental health, whether it be your own mental health, that of viewers and consumers of your work, general concepts, etc.?
After lockdown, for the four months I was back in India, I felt extremely misplaced. [In terms of mental health,] my art is an outlet to how I’m feeling in the moment. No matter what I’m feeling or going through, I don’t want to stop creating art.
In my previously photographed fashion and beauty work, I have mostly worked with colors. However, the feelings and emotions during the time I was photographing led for this project to be one of black-and-white. The extent to which my mental state was altering the way I perceived this project is what draws a relationship between my work and mental health.
Victoria Terminus Station
Where do you draw inspiration from?
My fashion and beauty inspiration comes from the classic photographers like Richard Avedon and Irving Penn. When I shoot editorials for magazines, I study a lot of photographers like Peter Lindbergh; Bruce Weber; Patrick Demarchelier, or even photographers that are not primarily related to the photography that I do, like Ansel Adams. But I draw most of my inspiration from the people, the nature, the buildings around me. So not only do I study a lot of photography, but I draw inspiration from anything and everything that I see; feel and hear.
Market in Kala Ghoda, Fort
Can you describe your artistic process?
I work in the digital space and photograph everything with a mirrorless Sony digital camera. My process involves—pre-editing in Capture One, retouching and post-production in Photoshop, and cataloging in Lightroom.
What is your most notable piece? As in, your favorite, or one with an interesting story behind it, or a piece that especially frustrated you, etc.
For the first time, when I was documenting this project, I noticed a change occurring in me. There is one photo of a homeless woman sitting outside the VT train station under the arches that overwhelmed me. I had never seen the city in such a quiet state, it’s always crowded, it’s always full of people, and due to this emptiness, this was the first time I had the opportunity to notice and appreciate the architecture. My other favorite photo from the project is of the three nuns crossing the street.
Homeless Woman, Victoria Terminus Station
What do you hope that your work conveys?
The first thought would be that any piece of art should have a mysterious quality to it, it shouldn’t just give away a hundred percent. It should spark a desire in the viewer to want to stop, look at the artwork, and allow them to feel, if not all of it, at least part of what the artist was feeling when they created it.
Most of the images from this series remind me those I’ve seen of the city from the 80s and 90s. When I created the image of the nuns crossing the street, that’s what I had in mind. Thereafter, when I published this image and people started viewing it, they also viewed these images from back in the 18-1900s and not from the current day.
So, for this specific project, I wanted to showcase the way I looked at Mumbai and the way it looked during the pandemic.
I did not have a photographer’s permit but I would still step out, I would pull out my car, every day, and I would photograph the city. I was constantly apprehensive about being caught by the police and having my car impounded but I kept going nevertheless.
As a documentary photographer, you know you are compromising your safety in order to properly document what others are not willing to.
Carter Road, Bandra West
Given the overwhelming response and appreciation I’ve received for this series, I’d like to and see myself continuing working with black-and-white images and in the documentary space in the future. I also see myself marrying my fashion work with this kind of photo-journalistic outlook to bring about a twist in my work and the photography world in general.
I also have some new black-and-white work created in New York that was recently featured in Vogue Italia. In my four years of studying and pursuing photography, this is the first time I’ve explored documentary/street style work and I have to say, it’s here to stay!