Nick Sethi spent 10 years photographing people in India, from street kids in Dehli to the hijra community of Mumbai for his latest book, Khichdi (Kitchari). For Here Magazine Issue 6, he spoke to us about his process.
Ten years ago, Nick Sethi was visiting his family in Delhi, India, when he met six-year-old Bobicol. “I was trying to photograph elephants on the highway when a kid ran up to me—his pants were too big, so he was holding them up with one hand,” remembers Sethi. “He wanted to be in the photo so bad that he was getting in the way.” They ended up hanging out the whole day, and then the whole trip; slowly, Sethi got to know “Bob,” his family, and his community.
When he first moved to New York City, after growing up in Florida and spending his senior year of high school in Delhi, Sethi photographed punk bands and worked as a fashion photographer’s assistant. He’s since shot for Purple, Vice, and Vogue Japan, though it’s his work in India that feels most personal. He’s published projects with fashion brand Hood By Air, shooting their clothes in India using Bob and his friends as models.
In 2013, Sethi released his first book, called Pul Ke Niche, which translates to “Under the Bridge” in Hindi, a reference to where Bob and his family lived. “I can’t understand Bob’s family because of their dialect—their accent’s kind of crazy,” says Sethi. “I can barely communicate with them, even though I’ve spent so much time with them.”
But what he lacks in verbal conversation Sethi makes up for with imagery, especially in his latest work, also published by Dashwood Books, called Khichdi (Kitchari). In it, he explores India’s identity as it applies to gender, technology, and the balance of eastern and western cultures. It’s perhaps Sethi’s most honest work, and a culmination of his many other projects.
“I wouldn’t even really describe it as photography necessarily,” Sethi says of the book. “It is a photographic project, in the way that it manifested, but for me, it was just an experience—a way to question things and observe things.”
So you were working on this project for 10 years?
It was ten years of shooting, but I think it stemmed from a lifetime of going to India. I was born in the U.S., but the rest of my family was born in India. I’ve been going since I was a little kid, and I kind of hated it at first. It’s a place that, the more you grow, the more you appreciate it. But if you’re a kid, you’re like, “Cool, there’s only five channels on TV.”
Tell me about your process for capturing photos for Khichdi (Kitchari).
Sometimes I give my camera to people to take photos, or I hand out these little point-and-shoots. My last trip, I gave this one to Bob, and I just said, “Go shoot,” you know? It kind of levels the playing field, and it’s not so much that I show up with a big camera and make them do stuff. It’s a thing that you create together. For this book, Bob and his brother also took [distorted] photos using Photobooth, and I gave my phone to them so they could take selfies and face swaps. It’s something that people do a lot in New York, but they don’t really do it in India yet, because that technology isn’t as prevalent. I try to keep it interesting, to keep changing the photography and technology and relationships.
How did you land on the book’s title?
Khichdi is an Indian dish made from rice and lentils, and I actually hated it growing up. It’s everywhere, but it’s not celebrated or considered a delicacy. It’s oiled together, so it’s kind of mushy, and you get it when you’re sick—it’s given to old people because it’s super easy to digest. I don’t think the book is necessarily easy to digest, but it’s this weird mishmash of stuff that’s beautiful in its own way.
Aside from the fact that you have a family connection, what keeps drawing you to India?
India’s such a cool place, because everything challenges itself. Things can be two opposites at the same time. Like, people can be ultra-poor but ultra-happy, or the same object can be made as one thing but used as another thing; for example, billboards or packaging material can be turned into housing. Everything gets repurposed there, and it kind of speaks to the Indian idea of reincarnation. You kind of feel like nothing’s ever done, it’s all cyclical. It literally runs on magic, you know? Even though it’s such a pain sometimes, it works.There’s a reason why everyone who’s ever been there comes back saying, “It’s insane.” It’s the weirdest, coolest place on Earth.