Lens On: Sahar Gilani

Sahar Gilani is the young photographer in London capturing femininity, youth and the artificial intertwined with the natural.

From “Fruits of Life”

In the age of social media, almost everyone uses photography to document their daily lives. Yet despite the constant stream of #avos, #selfies and #sunsets, it takes more than just an Instagram account to really capture the zeitgeist, let alone confront modern day perceptions of femininity and growing up. Enter Sahar Gilani, the 23 year old photographer with a unique eye and a bucket- load of talent, whose images capture the transient nature of youth and beauty in such a way that we just had to meet the girl behind the lens.

From “Liz”

Gilani’s youthful and brightly coloured photographic style flits seamlessly between the whimsical and the realist. Her newest series, “Liz”, is an unapologetic celebration of the authentic, modern young woman. We’ve included some of the tamer images from this series here, but, a lot of Gilani’s work is so NSFW that you’ll have to check out her website to view the project in all it’s (very naked) glory. Gilani’s photos beautifully encapsulate strength in vulnerability; the naked models stare down the camera in a subversion of the male gaze that mark the photographer out as a formidable feminist.

Elsewhere, Gilani’s work embodies a kind of nostalgia for childhood and innocence paired with a sexual curiosity and awareness that captures the transition from girlhood to womanhood. Check out the image of the mini mouse cup unassumingly positioned next to the photo of a rampant rabbit in the “Pink Flesh” series and you’ll see what we mean. Beyond capturing fierce women and every day objects, Gilani is interested in juxtaposing nature – from flowers, to fruit to potted plants – with the artificial elements of an urban environment. We caught up with this talented LCC photography graduate to talk intimacy, illustration, the internet and more.

From “Pink Flesh”

How would you describe your work to those that have never seen it? 

I’ve always found this question difficult to answer in complete accuracy as my portfolio as a whole varies from a black and white series on brutalist architecture, to still lives of a fuchsia dildo adorned with fruit and flowers. It’s undeniable that they are worlds apart!

In terms of my most recent work, I’d describe it as a vivid explosion of flora, nudity nostalgia.

Much of your work celebrates femininity and the female body and you often photograph female subjects. There is also a definite grappling with the sexualisation of women in your work. Are these conscious decisions? 

I think it’s very much been a subconscious decision. I grew up in a household where it was four women to one man, so femininity is something I have been allowed to freely explore and become accustomed to from a young age. I remember visiting art galleries and always being very drawn to the female subjects of the renaissance period. The women in the paintings did not fit today’s beauty standards, yet they still radiated sex and enticement, whilst still maintaining a playful innocence. The appreciation I had for the female form grew and manifested itself within my own work. As a teenager I became very in touch with my own body and sexuality and began photographing myself intimately, for no ones gaze other than my own. I felt truly empowered, which inspired me seek out women to photograph in the same light.

It’s upsetting to me that the nude female body is often sexualised in every format regardless of the context. The over-sexualisation of women and the male gaze is something I have always consciously tried to avoid within my images. When I am shooting a woman in the nude, I want her to have complete autonomy over her body and her actions. I find that having a relaxed attitude and not overly directing my subjects keeps away the “sexual” narrative that unfortunately often tends to come hand in hand with the stripped body of woman.

Although there are an impressive number of portrait series in your portfolio, many of your photographs capture ‘still life’. Do you prefer photographing human subjects or objects? 

A part of me wants to say I prefer photographing objects due to the more relaxed nature of the process, but I think it’s that I am just more accustomed to taking images on my own. I feel at ease, in control and less worried about the outcome considering there isn’t someone else eager to see the final image. Nonetheless, I feel a lot more accomplished when a portrait I have taken has come out well in comparison to a still life. It’s a more demanding role for the photographer due to the added pressure and impending factors to consider, such as facial expressions, body movement, how the subject is feeling, and so on. These factors can affect the mood of the image as a whole, so my attitude and approach does differ greatly between the two.

You sometimes turn the lens upon yourself. Would you say that the Sahar of the photographs is your authentic self or more of a persona? 

The girl you see in the images is 100 percent me. A great deal of my work surrounds my personal life, documenting my memories, rendering them tangible and accessible for me in the future. That being said, because I am the one taking the picture, I do not appear in my images thus meaning I am visibly absent from my own memories. The viewer is seeing the image from my eyes, so to swap around the perspective and see myself in the world’s eyes is a nice treat from time to time.

You’re both a photographer and an illustrator. Do you have a preferred medium? And do you think you’ll ever combine the two in one project? 

My interest in art began with a love for drawing and painting. I only began taking photography seriously when I was about 16, which is when I started studying it at school. Drawing to me was something I would always do in solitude, whereas with photography, I would go out and explore. With photography, I could see something beautiful and capture it in an instant in its correct form, whereas with drawing I could never get the likeness correct and would be sat hunched over my desk with a rubber for hours, scrunching up bundles of paper and getting wound up by mistakes. Don’t get me wrong, I will always be a lover of traditional art means and love doodling, but I feel like photography is now second nature to me after all these years.

Combining the two is definitely something I’d like to try again in the future, as my previous attempts were only small experiments. I have recently been in conversation with a painter who would like to collaborate on a project incorporating both mediums, so a cross over of the two could be something that will be happening in the future!

How did you get into photography in the first place? And what or who are your biggest artistic inspirations? 

Before I owned a camera, I used to write in journals and collect objects that held significance to me. To most people, the treasures I stored beneath my bed in shoeboxes were disposable, but to me they were indispensable fragments of memories. As I grew up, my interests expanded and I readily ditched my pen and paper in exchange for a camera. Photography enabled the memory to be born again. I could go back to it, and most importantly never forget it, immortalising it forever.

It’s overwhelming to pinpoint a particular person or thing that has influenced me artistically as the list of books, films, people, places that have inspired me in some way or other is endless. However, the three that come to mind instantly in relation to my photographic aesthetic are William Eggleston, Martin Parr, and Henri Matisse, who are all celebrated for their vivid use of colour.

What does your essential photography kit consist of?

A lightweight point and shoot I can throw into my bag and a handful of Fuji Superia film! I find compact cameras freeing and I carry one around with me everywhere I go. The notion of being able to click the shutter and capture the moment within second is liberating. I can freely shoot my journalistic material with ease and the process is not elongated by external equipment.

Do you see social media as an integral part of being a young artist in this day and age?

I have a love hate relationship with social media. In one way, I am grateful for it because it has enabled me and other young artists to broadcast our work on a larger scale. But there can also be a downside to displaying your work online. Artists let the Internet peep into their personal lives in the name of art, for no gain, hoping the exposure will eventually lead to something substantial. But the reality can hit hard sometimes. I’ve spent a considerable amount of energy, time and money on my art and still till this day have never been paid for any photographic work I have produced. And it’s the same story for many other young artists. Praise and a virtual pat on the back is all good and well to an extent, but it can be very discouraging when you are continuously exploited due to how easily accessible art is online and the fact that artist’s will work for free to gain experience.

Unlike other “normal” jobs, there seems to be no time limit to how many times you can gain experience and work for free before you are considered worthy of being paid. I find that social media has made it even harder to obtain any sort of financial gain in the creative field due to this. People so often see creativity as a hobby, but for many of us it is our career choice.

You’ve said on Instagram that your favourite pictures are those “spontaneous snapshots” of friends and elsewhere you’ve mentioned using your camera as a kind of journal. So I think it’s safe to say that a lot of your work is hugely personal. Do you prefer to document these more intimate, “close-to-home” kind of stories rather than ones where you are an outsider looking in? 

I think it is safe to say that I feel more passionate, and at ease when capturing the more intimate moments I share with the people I surround myself with. I’ve always been too shy and introverted to photograph strangers (unless I know they cannot see me!). The people that I am close with are so used to me carrying my camera around with me that they aren’t very taken back when I whip it out to take a shot. I’ve always believed the act of taking the photo in an instant is the purest form of documenting, as nothing has been adjusted due to the presence of the camera in itself, so ultimately it does suit me more when I can capture someone who is comfortable enough around me to not notice me pulling the camera out and taking the image.

Now that you’ve graduated, what are you up to? And what’s on the horizon for you artistically? 

I have a few projects and collaborations coming up in the pipelines, but my ultimate goal is to save enough money to travel and see and photograph as much of the world as I possibly can – equipped with a camera and rucksack full of film, of course!

From “Fruits of Life”

From “Liz”

From “2016”

From “Femme”

From “Pseudo Paradise” 

To see more of Sahar Gilani’s work, visit www.sahargilani.com

Kathleen Johnston
Lens On: Sahar Gilani

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