Interview: Paige Silveria
The first thing you notice about Nick Sethi is his incredible energy. He’s like this bright, animated beacon of joy. And it’s no wonder then that his photos are a direct reflection of that — his subjects mimic his vivacity and come to life.
The New York-based artist is mostly known for his candid photographs of people and objects in New Dehli, a sizable collection he’s collated over years of visiting the city of his heritage. However, for the recent group exhibition Good Taste (powered by Budweiser) in New York, curated by Katja Horvat and Paige Silveria, Sethi presented something a bit different. The works on view consisted of a series of bootleg Nike sneakers and a large-scale Chips Ahoy! painting, both a natural progression for Sethi who is suddenly feeling the limits of his photographs in sharing his understanding of India.
Growing up in Florida, you toured around with punk bands. Is this where you began to engage with crowds and use your camera in this documentarian way?
Yeah I think so; it is when I started shouting photos and now that you said in crowds I realized that it is. I started shooting in the most hectic situations in the world; you know, like people jumping on you and having to look out for everything on every side
Like someone is going to punch you in the face.
Yeah! Not necessarily on purpose but like, everything you have can break at anytime. Weirdly, I really like shooting in hectic situations, I shot at a party two days ago and I fell down a flight of stairs.
Are you okay? How did that happen?
I’m fine, my lens broke my fall. The lens half broke which wasn’t cool, obviously.
At least you didn’t break your leg or something like that.
Yeah it was at Mehanata and we were doing like a fashion shoot there, which is a totally insane thing to do. It was at a party that we threw so we could do the shoot. I was walking backwards and someone tripped me at the top of the stairs and I just fell down the whole flight of stairs.
Oh my god.
But yeah, growing up I was always shooting at punk shows which was cool because I feel like shooting in those types of situations, it’s not like a fashion or portrait environment; it makes you very aware of your surroundings. You’re shooting and paying attention to everything else around you too.
Were they real punk bands, or like Blink 182?
No, it was punk and hardcore bands. I like Blink182 also, but it was all small shows and I would go on tour and stuff like that. I went to Canada and the West Coast so I did tour the country.
As a photographer?
I was shooting photos as a way to just go on tour with my friends’ bands. And no one was really making money so they just gave me a per diem that’s the same as theirs. It was cool, they paid me to roadie and whatever. Sometimes I’d make shirts or sell merch and make tips. Definitely not as a working photographer at all.
How did your parents feel about it?
They were okay with it, they’ve always been supportive of stuff that I do. I feel like if you do something at one-hundred-percent intensity. I was lucky to have parents who were like, “We don’t fucking get it and it’s weird as shit, but we understand you’re dedicated to this and maybe it will lead to something.” And it really did; it’s what led to being interested in photography, which is what led to going to India, which is what led to all of the work that I make.
What do you think of the photos you took back then?
I lost most of them, I have some stuff but I don’t really look at them. I’ve been more and more interested in working towards new projects but also going back into old stuff. I just got this archive of my family’s photos of me growing up, stuff before I was born, pictures from India. I’ve been really into going forwards and backwards st the same time and seeing where the links are. So yeah, I think I’d like to use them or have them resurface. I’m just not paying that much attention to them right now.
You haven’t even gotten to the teenage years yet. You’re just dealing with birth.
Yeah, well I’m just dealing with now, but once you have a studio, assistants and people, you can go into these weird, kind of more personal projects.
What are you going to do with your family photos?
I want to do something where I use them with my own photos. A lot of them were taken in India, some of them I’d seen growing up and many of them I hadn’t or I didn’t pay attention to them from a photographic point of view. Now that I’ve been shooting in India for so many years, I look at it now and I’m like, wow some of them remind me exactly of a photo I took—the vibe of the person looks really similar. I’m trying to make a project where they work together and see where the photos connect.
For your photos, it goes back to your heritage. Is there any personal journey you’re trying to seek out with this? Or is this more exploratory outside of yourself that’s just kind of fun and discovering new places?
Yeah, it’s definitely both. It is just wanting to explore the world, but it stems from going to India as a kid and seeing all these things, seeing the way people dress, move about their day, the way they worship things, there’s a third gender there that I’ve seen since I was three years old—everything that’s done there is so spiritual. It all comes from there, then as I’ve been starting to be able to explore these things it’s moving forward. It’s things that I’m learning about now that I’m interested in. Even in that same way of trying to use older and newer, going forward and backward, it’s both of the things and trying to connect them. I’m really interested in fucking everything which sucks because…
Not enough time in the day?
Yeah there’s really not! It’s cool when there’s a lot of projects that are in the works that exist only as ideas. I like things that are super dense that have a lot built into them but that can also be super simple.
Will you give me a brief run through of the history of New Delhi?
My work in India is more focused on my personal interests and history. I learn as much as I need to or when there’s something that’s interesting. In Delhi, I know they’re struggling with having such a traditional system in place religiously and spiritually. India is thousands of years old and there’s just systems that are unchanged. Because of the Internet and Westernization, it’s really struggling to find it’s place between these two totally opposite things. Seeing Hollywood movies and wanting to wear the clothes they wear and having access to it, but you’re not allowed to dress like that. And then you do and not all of society is ready for it. It’s this constant cyclical thing that’s always happening in India. It’s really interesting as someone who is trying to analyze it. I was born here, but all of my mom’s values and the way that she is is 100% Indian so when I go back I’m like, oh this is all my mom, whereas my dad moved here when he was five so he’s a lot more American. I feel like when I go there, I personally have this weird struggle back and forth that is really parallel to the city.
So it is definitely personal?
It’s fully personal. I mean for me to make some kind of portrait of India, it’s been done a thousand times and everyone has covered India.
Your photos have so much more character though. There’s such a different energy to them and engagement with the subjects.
But that’s just my personal experience with India—the people in the pictures, working with that kid Bob, everything about them I’m like let me just let myself guide the project.
Tell me about meeting Bob.
He was the first person I met that inspired me to shoot there. In 2011, I went to India for three months and it was the first time I went there specifically to photograph. My parents were living there temporarily for two years so I was staying with them. I got there and I was taking pictures of everything, there were these elephants walking down the side of the highway and I was trying to shoot them. This little boy kept purposefully getting in the photos. His pants were falling down and he’s holding them up cause they’re like five sizes too big. The elephants left and the pictures of the elephants were kind of whatever, but I was like that kid was kind of cool. After they left, I shot some more pictures of him flexing and doing all this weird stuff and he had this energy. I went home and got them developed and I was like, wow these are actually great; they’re with someone and they’re of something and it’s me and this kid making these pictures together. I didn’t think I would ever see him again but he lives under this overpass that was right where my parents lived and I saw him the next day. We just started hanging out everyday and it went from taking pictures of him to pictures of his family, to other people on the street, and then eventually he would just take my camera and take pictures also which is something we’ve been working on for a lot time, this exchange. Sometimes I even take photos in a fashion context and I’m like, how would Bob take this picture? He’s just so good and it’s someone who really doesn’t know or give a fuck about what they look like, if they’re in focus, if there’s film in the camera. Obviously I can’t be at that level, I can’t be hired for a shoot and be like fuck I forgot the film you know, but trying to get fifty percent there and just go and feed off energy. I hang with him every time I go there, his family has really taken me in.
Can you speak with them?
Barely. A lot of people in India are from Calcutta and when there’s elections, politicians will bring people to Delhi from other cities to have them vote for them. They get the promise that they’re moving to Delhi and it’ll be great and then they will just dump them on the street. There’s not really an infrastructure to support more people and it’s one of the most crowded cities in the world. I believe that’s what happened to them. Their dialect is very different from the Hindi I can understand and speak. But it’s just energy. I’ve spent so much time with these people. My mom and I share a SIM card there and this one time she got a call from Bob’s sister. She picked up and the girl was like, “Hi is Nick there?” And she’s like, “No, this isn’t even Nick’s phone. Who is this?” And the girl is like, “It’s his sister.” So they just refer to me as their brother. She called me after and was like it’s so cute that this girl called and referred to you as her brother. Bob and I still work together. I’ve put out two zines about him, one zine of his photos and hopefully more.
Have you always been so open and engaging? Do you think the camera helped with that or have you always been so gregarious?
I’ve always been a little bit like that. You kind of have to be if you’re shooting. As a kid I was into very specific things. I was outgoing with my friends and stuff, but if you’re into punk, you’re usually kind of angry. When you go to shows, you release all your energy and do backflips on people’s heads and then go home. I think shooting photos, especially in India, you just put yourself in situations where you have to match people’s energy. In photography, what I try to do is match the energy of the situation. If you’re shooting a rapper and he’s stoned as fuck, you can’t be an insane person. It’s going to turn them off. When I go to India or if I’m at a show and in an environment like that, there’s so much energy around that you try to be a part of it. It’s you and the environment constantly pushing each other to see what can become more insane. In a fashion shoot, it’s cool because the people involved usually understand that they’re models. They know that they have to do the same thing and match the energy that I put into it. I try to start high and if you’re a good model, you know that the photographer is trying to get you to move and explode.
You are now expanding into more objects and ephemera. How does this open your practice?
I always liked stuff.
Yeah just stuff, little things and whatever. At a certain point when I was in India, I was collecting stuff that I thought were for reference or things that a photograph wouldn’t do justice. It feels weird, or it smells weird, objects that are so much about the object. I started bringing back these things as references for photos and then I realized it’s not really a photo thing. The whole thing of them is that they’re physical objects and they move and get traded. Like with the tattoo sheets, every time they’re Xeroxed, something gets added to them. I was like letting myself make stuff with them and understand I’m not just a photographer. I have fifty of these weird bootleg shirts and don’t need to do anything to them. A photo makes it less impactful. It’s the actual thing of what it is; is perfect. You just put it on a hanger and it just hangs there and it’s there for people to look at and think about and analyze. I’m still finding my way in that respect of what things are perfect as is versus what things need a next step from me. Just to show a bunch of framed Xeroxes isn’t really that impactful for me. It’s like, where’s the next thing? For me it’s painting them, painting them in the state that they’re in, which is hand-drawn and Xeroxed and traded several times. I feel like they’ve had such a life span already that me painting them and enlarging them and painting the noise from the Xerox too gives it a next thing and then they’ll get shown and photographed and that’ll take them into a digital space. And it just kind of keeps moving. I think doing one or two steps as an artist gives it the next step that it needs. When I first started making physical work, I was inclined to do the most. And then I would make things and I’m like, this just insane and too messy and it doesn’t read what I wanted it do say. So I dialed it back. I think taking a photo is trying to represent an idea or a feeling of some situation and sometimes that’s easier in a photo because you can’t bring a situation to people.
What do you think good taste is?
I think personally it’s being able to appreciate everything. Usually when someone says you have good taste, it means that you like nice stuff—that person appreciates a good meal and they have a good palate—not necessarily just what’s expensive, but being able to appreciate the whole spectrum. A lot of the stuff I like is like the shittiest stuff, but I also like really nice stuff. Being in a position to like both of those things is appreciating the imperfections of things as much as the perfections. New York gives you a sense that you can do anything you want, and if you don’t do it perfect, that’s because you didn’t do it right or enough. But going to India, you can’t do something perfectly. So it taught me instead of trying for the perfect, it’s about appreciating the things that end up being weird and fucking cool. If you can appreciate things in the whole spectrum then, that’s what it is.