Jyothy Karat is a filmmaker and photojournalist based in Bangalore, India. She completed her Post Graduate Diploma in Professional Photography from Light & Life Academy in 2007. Here is the full interview with Jyothy.
Where did your journey as a visual storyteller start?
In 2006, I joined LLA with a vague idea on what kind of photography I wanted to do. I specialized in travel, fine art and photojournalism at LLA. My past experience in writing made photojournalism an interesting field to pursue.
Before LLA, I only had a vague idea about photography. The course gave me a firm grounding in the technical aspects of photography. In the years since, I haven’t found another institute doing that.
Although the technology and the industry has changed a lot in the last 2 decades, some things have remained timeless – like Iqbal sir’s class on lighting.
What did you do in the initial years after graduating from LLA?
After graduating from LLA, I was working as a photo editor for AOL. My job was to curate content and figure out what kind of pictures go where.
This gave me a good understanding of international media. At that point, AOL was a pioneer in the new media revolution and I got a great chance to work with international teams and talent.
Working in such an environment exposed me to the visual culture prominent in the media space. It helped me understand how to speak to a global audience.
While I was working as a photo editor, I was trying to shoot as much as possible on the weekends and within 2 years, I had built a portfolio, and decided to start freelancing full time.
What was your experience like as a freelance photojournalist?
In the initial days, I attended a workshop for 30 emerging photographers under 30 in Asia. This was a good entry point into the world of photojournalism. I got a chance to learn from industry bigwigs.
I didn’t have any contacts to start with, so I would go to bookstores, find magazines I liked and set up meetings with their editors. I ended up working with some of these editors for the next decade.
Lonely Planet had just launched in India, and I was lucky to work with them.
Most people applying to these projects were specialized in a particular genre of photography. But because I was from LLA, I had a good foundation in all fields. This actually gave me an edge.
To work for a magazine, you need to be a jack of all trades. No matter what the subject, you have to come up with good quality work.
It was a competitive field and I really slogged for those 10 years.
My clients included Lonely Planet, Outlook Traveler, NatGeo Traveler, Outlook, Open Magazine, Indian Express, Forbes, Fortune.
It was an intense and hectic period. When you are running so fast, you can’t see the bigger picture. There’s very little time to do personal projects.
There is no space to grow when you live assignment to assignment. You’re limited by what the magazine is envisioning.
I did work with some good photo editors. But they also have tight deadlines. So they’ll push you within the timeframe, but seldom to your full potential.
In a decade, I have traveled 20+ countries and got to meet some very interesting people. I learnt to dive, surf and shoot underwater. All those experiences changed my worldview.
Even now, I don’t know how much photography can change people, But it definitely changes the person behind the camera.
What have you been up to more recently?
I realized at some point in my journey that I wanted to have a voice of my own. When working for magazines, you are ultimately illustrating their story.
Many of these stories are portrayed using typical Western narratives. Photography in that sense was limited.
Space for photo essays was less in national/international space.
By then, video was taking preference and I got a grant to study multimedia journalism in the Philippines.
I started doing documentary films – and it felt like I had more voice. It also gave me the chance to tell stories that I care about and are important to our society.
What I love about this medium is that people I am covering have more space to tell their own stories.
Apart from these documentary films, I do take up photography projects from time to time, especially long term projects.
Tell us more about the field of photojournalism, how it has evolved and where it’s headed?
Earlier, you had your portfolio and your job was to convince the editor that you’re skilful and multi-faceted.
When I started in the industry, there was a mentality that photographers cannot write and think. So they were not involved in the story.
The challenge was to convince the editors that you can tell the story.
Now it’s all changed. The lines have blurred. When the transition happened, the quality was affected because photographers were writing and writers were photographing, so one field suffered either way.
With the internet – everybody has to do everything. Social media is the big game changer. You can potentially have a large audience. It has democratized photography.
But it also promotes mediocre work and becomes self indulgent. Just judging your caliber based on the number of followers is something I find sad. I was lucky I just escaped that since I was already established by that time.
Today, marketing and editorial content is merging, and naturally, marketers like to find people with more followers. That does become an issue.
Navigating social media is a difficult thing, especially if you’re just starting out. But I still believe that if you do good work, people cannot ignore that. The work will speak for itself.
Tell us about the stories that you like to cover.
When I started pitching stories on my own, I was looking to work with international organizations. My focus was on sport, women empowerment, and a few other trending topics.
Over time, I started giving more thought to the things happening immediately around me. I realized that if people like me don’t tell these stories, who will?
I also had an excuse to research some pertinent topics like air pollution and animal human conflict in Nilgiris. Then it became more personal – finding stories I wanted to tell. Stories I care about and want to make change. I am not an activist or scientist. I am a storyteller. This is my way of giving back.
So now, I am trying to get them interested in the stories I want to tell, instead of trying to cater to the international publications’ tastes.
When I started out, I didn’t care about too many things. To those starting out, it’s ok to not have a particular cause. It will come eventually.
But don’t fake it. Be honest about what you do. If you’re doing a story just to sell it, it’s fine, just do good work. It’s important to be authentic.
Tell us about your experience as a woman photographer, in a field that has historically been dominated by men.
When I started, you could count the number of photojournalist women in India on one hand. But now there are a lot more opportunities for women, especially under 25/30 years.
It is actually a great time for any woman wanting to get into the field.
Of course, women are still discriminated against and underestimated.
But in my experience, those are only at the beginner level. Once you reach a certain level, people only care about your work.
I was once hired for a project in Bhutan. Because of my name, they thought I was a guy and got shocked when I showed up.
If you go internationally, you’re not going to be treated any differently from any other person. You’re treated as a photographer competent to do the job. That’s it. Focus on being the best you can at the job.
Check out Jyothy’s work at https://www.jyothykarat.com