I am delighted to share my interview with photographer Alpana-Aras King today. Alpana is a San Francisco-based commercial, editorial, wedding and portrait photographer. (Yes, she wears many, many hats.) I first became acquainted with Alpana on Instagram, and as you will see from her words and photos in this interview, she possesses the refreshing combination of talent and approachability. Alpana and I became more intimately connected when I asked her to provide 1:1 mentorship to me in 2016. During Skype conversations I absorbed her wisdom —- she is incredibly generous with her counsel. And as luck would have it, we had the opportunity to meet in San Francisco for a photo walk last June. It was during that long afternoon together that I was privileged to watch a master street and portrait photographer at work.
I first came to know of your work as a family portrait photographer, but as I followed you more closely I noticed you have a deep love of street photography too. Can you tell us what inspires you to photograph street scenes?
Looking back, I remember the moment I fell in love with photography. It was at age sixteen, when I held a 35mm film camera that my father purchased for me in art school. Pretty quickly, it became an obsession to photograph everything including the street life around me. Over the years, my travels have led me toward documenting life on the street, and realizing how much I enjoy it. I haven’t thought of myself as a street photographer, but rather a people photographer.
There is something extremely freeing when I walk down a street with my camera. There is a certain freedom to photograph a subject that might be of interest (using judgement and common sense). There is also the excitement of the unknown and finding stories that you might not otherwise. I am inspired by people. The “everyday people” that may not be represented or have their voices heard. The media is full of people living perfect curated lives. I want to be able to create meaningful photos of people that aren’t typically in the limelight. Often these people are just trying to get by, one day at a time. And they do it with grace and joy. Like the man that lives on the street in Mumbai with all his worldly possessions and still has a smile on his face. These people matter. I want my images to make you pause and think, and not just be a pretty picture.
The two of us had a beautiful walk around San Francisco last June. During our time together I was blown away at how completely fearless you are when approaching strangers to take their portraits. You approached anyone and everyone! I learned a great deal by observing you. Can you tell us what goes through your head as you are out and about in the world with your camera?
It was so much fun to walk around San Francisco with you. I grew up in a country where interactions with strangers were a part of the social fabric, which helped embolden me. I also have a natural curiosity to learn about people and their stories. Recently, I photographed a young man on the streets of New Orleans and sent him some of the images from our time together. He is traveling the world and currently living in caves outside the city of Granada, in a place where freaky people have formed a community. This is pretty fascinating to me, as I couldn’t imagine living in that fashion. In some ways it gives me an opportunity to step into people’s shoes and get to experience something different.
I have also been hugely inspired by street photographers like Mary Ellen Mark, Henri Cartier Bresson, Raghu Rai, Alex Webb, Walker Evans and many others. This quote from Webb sums up how I feel when I am out and about with my camera.
I only know how to approach a place by walking. For what does a street photographer do but walk and watch and wait and talk, and then watch and wait some more, trying to remain confident that the unexpected, the unknown, or the secret heart of the known awaits just around the corner. – Alex Webb
I also think of you as an itinerant traveler. Your adventures give me wanderlust! I’d love it if you would share a few of your favorite travel images and a bit of background of each shot or destination.
By virtue of being an immigrant in the United States, I have some built-in wanderlust. In my first years in the US, I moved almost every two years, starting out on the east coast and ending up on the west coast. I have called San Francisco home since 1996 and found myself rooted here raising a family. Now that my son is older, I’m hoping to be able to travel the world a bit more.
As you might imagine, my home country of India has a special place in my heart. I try to get back once every couple of years to Mumbai to spend time with my family. When I am out running errands, or meeting friends and family, I always bring along a camera or two to document anything that catches my eye. From my last trip, a couple of favorites on film.
While walking down a quiet street, I came across this young mother with her two children. She looked like a child herself and told me that she was a street-dweller. She recognized me from my outings on the street and agreed to the portrait. On my next trip back I hope to track her down and bring some prints to her.
Cuba upon arrival presented itself as an old, familiar place where the time stood still. I didn’t want to make the usual cliche pictures of the classic cars, beaches, and cigarette smoking women. So I walked around Havana photographing people on the streets, and in some cases being invited into homes of strangers. It was challenging and empowering connecting with these people across the language barrier with the intention of telling their stories. A few of these images provide a glimpse into people’s lives against the shifting landscape and optimism about the lifting of the embargo.
And finally, I noticed that you move effortless between digital, film, polaroid and phone. In fact, you had all of those in your bag when we were together! Tell us, what are you shooting with these days?
Haha, It is a bit crazy to have so many cameras and my brain goes into overdrive when I photograph with several at a time, but each camera has a purpose and I love having the flexibility. Nowadays, I primarily use the Fuji XT-1 I purchased last year for most of my street work. I love that it is a very light camera unlike the Nikon d700, which weighs you down after walking around for a few hours. It also avoids attracting unwanted attention. I also love the immediacy of being able to transfer the images to my phone and post to social media. I bring my film camera on occasion when I want to explore something artistically or make portraits. When I shoot film, it is with a fine art approach and I know that I have to be patient in waiting for the results. I use my Contax 80% of the time when I shoot film for personal work or family sessions and use the Holga for fun. Sadly, since fuji discontinued 3000b I haven’t been using my Polaroid Land Camera as much anymore.
If you would like to know more about Alpana you can find her here:
Commercial/ Editorial Website: www.alpanaaras.com | https://www.instagram.com/alpanaaras/
Family + Portraits Website: www.storyboxart.com | https://www.instagram.com/storyboxart/
Also if you live in the Bay Area, Alpana is brewing up a street walk in San Francisco in the fall! If you are interested in joining her, please drop her an email at email@example.com