A Conversation With Ulka Chauhan

Bastian Peter Interviews, The Collective Leave a Comment

It has been a refuge for me during difficult times and a safe space to explore a multitude of emotions of motherhood, conflict, hope, love, isolation and resilience.

Ulka, it’s a great pleasure to welcome you here today and to be able to interview you. You are a Swiss street and documentary photographer with Indian origin.  You grew up in Bombay but have lived in Leysin, Boston, NYC, Stellenbosch, Aargau and currently divide your time between Zurich and Bombay. I think you have a very interesting and unique point of view. Your photos show a wonderful mix of two contrasting worlds of Switzerland and India.

I am totally happy to have met you on social media and I instantly knew we had to introduce you to our audience. Shortly after this interview, Ulka became a part of the swissstreetcollective.

When and how did you start with photography?

I am also incredibly happy to be interviewed by you.

My love for photography began in the early 80s when my dad gifted me a red Olympus camera. I was down with chicken pox and was in home-quarantine, but I enthusiastically photographed everything in sight. Since then, a camera has been my constant companion over the years. Recently, in August 2019, I had a turning point when I went on a photo tour to Masai Mara.  That is where I discovered my passion for the craft.  Soon after that, I did a street photography workshop in Istanbul.  Since then photography has become somewhat of an obsession – in a good way.  I love it because it has helped me navigate the challenges of life.  It has been a refuge for me during difficult times and a safe space to explore a multitude of emotions of motherhood, conflict, hope, love, isolation and resilience.

© Ulka Chauhan

From India to Switzerland to America over to Africa and back again to Switzerland and India.

How do you manage this leap between the cultures?

Although I was born and grew up in Bombay, life took me to various places across the globe. I did my high school in Leysin, undergraduate studies in Boston and worked in advertising in NYC. Then personal life took me to the Stellenbosch winelands outside of Cape Town and then back to Switzerland to Kanton Aargau. Currently I divide my time between Zurich and Bombay. All these leaps across continents has been a valuable part of my overall journey in that it gave me tremendous exposure to people and places.

This is interesting, because most of us don`t have that constrasting jumps in geography.

There is a big difference in how I approach street photography in each country.

Where do you feel the biggest differences in candid street photography and how people react to it?

There is a big difference in how I approach street photography in each country. In Switzerland, people are very concerned about privacy, so I respect the personal space of my subjects and use a less intrusive approach in my work. I maintain a good balance between the subject and the environment. In India, on the other hand, it is possible to get more up close to the people and capture their emotions and expressions. Both approaches are very different from a visual and story telling perspective.

© Ulka Chauhan

Do you prefer one country over the other in terms of street photography?

I love being able to shoot in both India and Switzerland.  Both contrasting worlds – one of chaos, the other of calm — keep me inspired and motivated. This contrast manifests itself in my photography both visually and thematically.

© Ulka Chauhan

Do you ever have an issue with the fact that street photography is still relatively unknown in Switzerland?

No it is not an issue at all. In many ways, the fact that street photography is still relatively unknown in Switzerland makes it more unique and appealing from both a photographer’s and a viewer’s perspective. There are some excellent Swiss street photographers and although a relatively small community, everyone is extremely friendly and supportive of each other.

And how is the genre received in India?

Street photography is tremendously popular in India. There is not only a large number of Indian street photographers, but also a large number of international photographers who come to India to capture the exotica of the place. The constant bustle on the streets makes it easier as a photographer to blend into the crowds.

© Ulka Chauhan

On occasion there are people who will come up to me and question why I am photographing without consent.  In this case, I respectfully try and explain the art of candid street photography.

So, the people are rather used to photographers on the streets, as it sounds. Thats a huge difference, if compared to Swiss cities of course.

Would you say your experiences with people on the street are rather positive?

My experience varies depending on which city I’m shooting in.  It is always a bit easier in bigger cities like Bombay and London.  In a smaller city like Zurich it can be a bit intimidating.  When I first started shooting in Switzerland, I always felt like I was crossing the invisible line between public and private sphere.  On occasion there are people who will come up to me and question why I am photographing without consent.  In this case, I respectfully try and explain the art of candid street photography. But these situations are few and far between.  For the most part, I can get away with pretending to be a camera obsessed tourist.  

I definitely know what you are talking about.

What are your goals in photography?

My goal is to continually evolve as a photographer.  And also to continually create work that is meaningful and touches others. 

© Ulka Chauhan
© Ulka Chauhan

Are there any destinations you definitely want to visit?

Well, I have a lot of destinations on my list, but I want to evolve my photography in a more deliberate and focused manner. My two teenage daughters live in Switzerland and so I am constantly commuting between Bombay and Zurich. In terms of photography I would like to go deeper into these two places instead of skimming the surface of several destinations.

That said, I do get the travel bug from time to time…and love to travel and participate in photo workshops in destinations I haven’t already been.

Thats totally understandable, both because of the family aspect but also clearly on the creative side.

In this process, would there be a genre or technique that you would like to try but haven’t yet?

I am currently in the process of exploring documentary photography under the guidance of a Lisbon-London based documentary photographer and with a Swiss photography mentor. This feels like a natural evolution of my photography journey. Even in my street photography I enjoy working on series that have elements of a visual narrative. I would like to create work that lies at the intersection of street and documentary photography – to tell stories of topics that capture my intrigue.

This rangefinder system has changed the way I photograph.  Being a completely manual system, it really forced me to slow down and shoot more mindfully, which I enjoy.

© Ulka Chauhan

My last question is technical. Gear is not the most important thing in the street photography genre. Nevertheless, it has its place, of course. What kind of camera do you use and why?

I’ve always had an emotional connect with the Leica brand because my dad was a huge Leica fan. He had several Leica M cameras over the years, which he passed on to other photographers within the family. I came to acquire his last Leica camera, which is when I got hooked. On my recent trip to London in September 2020, I bought the new M10-R. This rangefinder has changed the way I photograph.  Being a completely manual system, it really forced me to slow down and shoot more mindfully, which I enjoy. 

Thank you very much for the interview.

Thanks for the interview, Bastian! I am honoured to be published on the swissstreetcollective.

Ulka Chauhan at the swissstreetcollective | Website | Instagram

Interview written & conducted by Bastian Peter

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