We could write endlessly what makes India so beautiful and different from all the other countries you've ever been to. But this time, we will let Souleyman's Messalti stunning photographs do all the work. His recent trip to India has proven once again that the people of India are what makes this country so special and unique. Enjoy these vivid portraits and learn more about Souleyman's beautiful work. In this interview, he will share more details on this amazing trip and reveal how it has influenced him as a person and as an artist.
Hey Souleyman! How’s 2017 treating you so far?
Hey! 2017’s been mainly focused on editing work so far. I’ve just returned from a 3-month trip in India and brought back hundreds of gigabytes of photos and videos with me. I’m spending the first few months of the year in the South of France editing and organising it all - before flying back to London in March.
What made the biggest influence on your personal photographic style? How were you developing it over the years?
I’ve always been curious about people; their stories, their looks, their behaviours, their outlooks on life…generally what makes them who they are. I remember knowing I wanted to get into documentary photography the first time I saw Steve McCurry’s work - I must have been 10 then. I was so impressed by the sense of connection to his subjects and the subtlety and beauty with which he depicted certain issues, it just made sense to me.
Then I moved to London when I was 18 and quickly started working on Humans of London, for which I interviewed over 500 passers-by. I think this project was more of a challenge to myself - I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and see whether I was capable to interview and photograph as many Londoners as possible. It went on for about 2 years and gave me the confidence I needed to practice photojournalism; I got used to go up to strangers, talk to them and point my camera at them!
What are the perks of being a documentary photographer?
The excitement of the unknown! You never know what you’re going to work on, where that’s going to take you and who you’ll end up working with.
When you document people and their real-life stories, how does it affect you as an artist and as a person?
Different stories have different impacts on my life. I don’t think any of the stories I’ve worked on have left me completely untouched; they’ve made me grow and evolve as an artist, but also as a person - and they’ve made me understand and accept the complexity of human beings. There is one story I recently worked on that made me feel extremely sad, angry and quite powerless whilst in India. I worked on a short documentary about acid attack survivors; meeting, interviewing and spending time with the victims was a life-changing experience.
On a personal level, it made me put things into perspective and realise everything you take for granted in your life could be taken within seconds, without warning. On a wider level, it made me realise something had to be done in India - socially to improve the victims’ lives and governmentally to regulate the access to acid (which is basically a cleaning product available in most stores) in the country.
You have had the pleasure of visiting India and photographing people all over the country. What amazed you the most during your stay in India? With such a diversity, what would you say all of these people have in common?
I was amazed by the cultural and religious heritage India holds. You come across celebrations, traditions and processions pretty much everyday and in the most unexpected corners. Traveling through different parts of India can feel like traveling through different countries. A few hours train ride and you’re in a completely different place; language, climate, landscape, fashion vary massively.
When it comes to the people, it’s hard to pin down a common trait since the country is so big and diverse. The thing I would say Indians have in common is their hospitality and pride in their country. The best human experiences I’ve had are with locals inviting me into their homes for dinner or chai and telling me all about their traditions and family. I’ve also met a few people who just took me places and introduced me to people they think I should speak to and photograph. I enjoyed the fact that nothing had to be planned in advance, I’d just go out and randomly meet people who made my experience incredible.
One of your projects was a 15-minute documentary exploring the world of strippers in London. What inspired you to make such an interesting yet controversial project?
I was inspired to make a film about the East London Strippers Collective from the very first time I met its founder, Stacey Clare. We met through a friend and she told me about the working conditions they were trying to improve, as well as the stigma and misconceptions attached to their jobs and how they were trying to shift it. I like to stir perceptions and challenge discriminations through my work and believed their cause was one worth fighting for, so I got on board.
What does this film represent for you?
It was the first film I directed after finishing my Masters in Documentary Film! Working for such a big broadcast company (Channel 4) felt like a huge challenge, as well as a huge chance at such an early stage in my career. Altogether, an invaluable learning curve.
Whilst in Mumbai, you were photographing people at a train station and capturing every single emotion and their movement. What made the biggest impression on you while shooting this project?
It’s this melting-pot of different feelings, emotions and constant movement - one that you can only find in very specific places such as train stations or airports - that drew me to work on this series. Mumbai being the busiest railway station in the world, I was genuinely stunned by how grand, vibrant and culturally rich everything was - and that’s what I wanted to depict.
What’s next for you when it comes to work?
I’ve just finished editing all the photos I shot whilst in India and just started working on the films. I’m putting together a short video filmed in Varanasi - the oldest city on Earth and the spiritual capital of India - and a documentary about acid attack survivors. That’s probably gonna keep me busy for the next few weeks.