Gundi Crush__11 May 2021
We sat down with Pretika Menon, a photographer, creative director and set designer who derives inspiration from the cinema, music, street life and stories to understand the challenges of she faces on being a female photographer in India, where she finds her inspiration and her unconventional lifestyle.
A Gundi at heart, Pretika likes to create dramatic scenarios for her unconventional characters, combining her aesthetics with mise en scène to create new stories. She shared with us, some of her motivations for breaking stereotypes, and the importance of the female perspective. Pretika has come a long way, from being a young girl with dreams to being featured in big-shot magazines like Vogue Italia. Let’s dive in!
SK: How has the quarantine life been treating you?
PM: Pretty good. Doing things very differently now, the last 1 year gave me perspective on how I want to live and work.
SK: Do you think your upbringing influenced your choice of career? How would you describe your conceptualization process for your shoots? What message do you aim to send across through your work?
PM: I can’t blame it on upbringing but it may have steered me in the right direction. My parents were quite liberal with me when it came to academics. They didn’t try to push me towards the typical career choices (thank heavens), they could see very well that I was inclined towards the arts. I was quite a misfit in school and college and that gave me an outsider’s perspective on things, I could step back and look at reality and then choose my way. The environment had quite an impact on me, I saw the male gaze all around. I definitely wanted to create work that showed the world from my view. The stereotypical cliches didn’t do anything for me so I was constantly seeking faces and characters that went against the odds.
"The stereotypical cliches didn't do anything for me so I was constantly seeking faces and characters that went against the odds."
SK: What does your typical working day look like, especially since the pandemic hit?
PM: Before the lockdown, it felt like I was living in a bubble, and felt like there was no pandemic. Extremely grateful. For the first time I made sure to give myself weekends off. Sundays were always beach days. Saturdays were to meet friends or explore. Weekdays I liked a routine and structure. I woke up early for yoga classes, spent the day working on my computer/shooting or searching for locations/cooking. Evenings I cycled or walked around for a couple of hours and then back home to tidy up and finish calls and personal work. It was quite stress free, almost like a calm before the storm. I had just finished a big project so I was basking the glow of it until the next one started and things got hectic again.
WHEN WE WERE YOUNG - A photo series by Pretika Menon
SK: Your photo series “When We Were Young” really caught our eye, what was the thought process behind it?
PM: That was my first personal project in Bombay once I shifted base from Bangalore. It was supposed to happen at a warehouse where I bought my cupboard. We set up for 3 hours and as soon as we did a light test a bunch of men burst into the warehouse and kicked us out. So we took the set to my flat and did what we could, very differently! Haha. Merrilyn had really caught my eye- young, beautiful and self assured, I guess the idea was to portray the no f*cks given attitude of someone who enjoyed themselves unapologetically.
SK: Where do you draw inspiration from your work? Do you have any personal favourites?
PM: Movies, music, cycling around and finding a nice location.. Lots of “Eureka” moments when I would see something or someone and that inspires a story.
SK: What has been your most exciting project recently?
PM: I shot a video at home with my previous flatmate, a story that truly hit home. It’s not out yet but to give you a gist, it’s about daddy issues and the patriarchy. We really put all our angst into it and I can’t wait to see it out there.
Pretika Menon's work
SK: What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
PM: I’m an extrovert, I love to meet new people. There’s a lot of curiosity, and I get my fill from all the characters I meet and create. The deep end is that it’s not always pleasurable, you can’t hit it off with everybody.
SK: What has been your biggest challenge along the way?
PM: People management.
SK: Tell us about the burden of being a female photographer in the media industry today.
PM: I wouldn’t call it a burden. More of an itch that hasn’t gone away.
There’s definitely an idea or opinion that men are better technicians. I’ve noticed that most male photographers are gear heads so they really talk shop about gear and that seems to be a big sign to clients that they really know everything. I don’t talk about gear, I use equipment I am comfortable with and for me it’s always been more about the mood and story, set design and concept than what gear I’m using.
There’s been many moments when I get passed up for opportunities that go to my male contemporaries. Or the lightmen aren’t as attentive as they would be for a male photographer. Or the clients and team try to control the process and turn me into a human tripod. Celebrities and clients are more interested in working with male photographers. In the structure of things everybody looks up to men and like taking orders from men. So a lot of the gigs don’t come my way. But there are enough woke clients who want to see a woman’s perspective and those are the ones I want to work with.
I’ve also been sexually harassed in the workplace plenty times. This happens less and less now as the people I want to work with are more aware. Most people don’t think too much about it but it used to weigh me down. When I got kicked off a job for not sleeping with the director it sent me spiralling for a bit and I didn’t want to work with the cinema industry after that. For a while I would stop pitching for work. Leaving Chennai was good for my soul and my career. You have to go where people see and appreciate you.
"There are enough woke clients who want to see a woman's perspective and those are the ones I want to work with."
SK: When was the last time you fought the patriarchy (recently)? How would you describe that experience?
PM:I was on location out of town for a project and I reminded my client about my advance payment. The client asked me what the amount was and then tried to convince me that I had quoted less and tried to haggle and bring my price lower (after rates were discussed and I had sent the invoice). This would not happen to a male photographer. (In my opinion)
Some of my clients are difficult and will try to diminish me when they can. I counter it by standing my ground and pretending to be daft about what they are trying to do. As much as I want to fight all my battles I’ve learnt to pick them and I don’t waste my energy fighting. I don’t have time for ego battles. I know my next contract with them will have more clauses in place so that this doesn’t happen again. As an experience it can be quite deflating but I’ve learnt to not take it personally. I also question myself on whether it’s patriarchy or if It’s just bad business ethics or a client’s forgetful nature. Clear communication and being calm is key.