Pictures That Tell a Story

Nick Fleming talks to ISF

About Nick Fleming

Nick Fleming is a photographer based in London. He has given lectures at both the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Royal Geographical Society, and has exhibited at the Indian High Commission.


Nick Fleming

1. India and London are the two main locations for your work. How similar or different are they for taking photographs?

London and India have largely been the focus of my photography over the years. London, because I lived there and so much of my day-to-day work centred on the city, while India was a place I started a personal project on over twenty years ago and remains a country that I revisit at least once a year. For me the process of taking photos is fundamentally the same wherever I am. My approach and intention, whether on a pilgrimage in the Himalayas or a street event in London, is to make a picture or series of pictures that tell the story in a simple, elegantly impactful and meaningful way. The physical constraints of time, access to what I am photographing, and how familiar I am with my surroundings and the people all, of course, play a part in the result.

2. You stress a need to take your time over certain shots. Could you elaborate?

I feel strongly that it is essential to invest time in the photographic process. My projects in India have involved spending long periods living amongst monks, sadhus and nihangs for example, and that in turn requires travelling with them, attending festivals, visiting ashrams and monasteries. I honestly don’t think there is a magic short cut to this approach if one endeavours to produce meaningful photographs, of intimate moments, without recourse to artifice or some sort of stage management. The people I photograph must feel comfortable with me being there and I must be comfortable being around them. In most environments I have found that this mutual feeling has to be somehow re-established on a daily basis before even thinking about taking my camera out of the bag. Some of the people I have been around have been unpredictable and sometimes difficult to read, thus patience and a slow approach has been an absolute requirement.

3. You’ve photographed the Kumbh Mela – India’s gigantic religious festival – several times. How have your experiences there changed over the years?

I first went to the Kumbh Mela in 1998. I was photographing an old wrestling coach whose akhara was in Old Delhi. Guru Hanuman, a venerable grandfatherly figure in Indian wrestling circles, had been invited by a sadhu to attend the event for a special puja and blessing. We arrived very early one morning and I spent the day photographing him bathing in the Ganges and in the company of many sadhus and assorted Hindu pujaris. The experience was a great introduction to this colossal festival and I have been drawn back to it on five more occasions. The sheer scale of the gathering is the thing that hit me initially and that feeling has never really gone away. However, I wanted to learn what compelled so many to be there, what lay beyond the relentless stream of humanity, and understand a little of what goes on inside the encampments that house the sadhus, pilgrims and mendicants. It is an occasion where the Hindu faithful salve their spiritual yearning and meet with the divine orders. A time where wisdom and teaching are propagated and disseminated. Gradually over the years I have got to know some of the holy men and witnessed a little of what their attendance is all about. My experience has deepened each time, and although I am often surprised by a random spectacle, the whole thing is a little less bewildering than on that first occasion over two decades ago, when I first stepped into a scene of biblical breadth and complexity.

4. Both your Indian and British work tend to focus on traditions. Why is that?

I once photographed a potter who made and fired traditional earthenware, who said to me, ‘It is so much better to drink from a cup or eat from a plate you know the provenance of, rather than a mass-produced item made for the same purpose.’  This craftsman, who came from a line of family potters, for me personified the concept of tradition. Often the preservation of method, thought and action gives us an opportunity to make sense of the present. Tradition in the form of continuity, heritage and lineage is the cornerstone of many of my photographs, particularly the Indian ones. Why do I photograph anyway? A photograph is many things, but it is above all a memory. How do you photograph a memory? Well, you make it memorable for a start, but I am motivated to record certain ways of life that in my short career have changed fundamentally and forever.