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Vivek Vadoliya - Beauty Through Differing Lens

Growing up in Asia, where skin whitening creams were encouraged and photography heavily retouched, British Asian photographer and director, Vivek Vadoliya, felt immense pressure and confusion regarding how he should look. This harsh reality later became the positive driving force behind his art.
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© Ifrica shot by Vivek Vadoliya for Ace & Tate

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Through the Eyes ⏤ Vivek Vadoliya

Vivek’s work is a reinterpretation of beauty conventions. His vision was to create a “new lens of beauty”, by studying different bodies, skin tones and forms, and celebrating that which makes us different.

AN ESSAY ABOUT THE SERIES

"If you asked me when I was 7 years old what beauty was, I probably would have either drawn you a picture of a rose, or pointed you to the Bollywood starlets I saw on screen. Beauty existed more as an adjective — a way to describe something that was inherently feminine.

At 17, beauty became more of a concept, a lifestyle, and a way of living I had moulded into. It meant constantly referring back to my internal catalogue to reference ideals, and measuring aspects of myself against it. Even existing in my cross-cultural context, I knew there were certain boxes I would never fit in, no matter how hard I tried.

My mum tells me about the pressure she felt to conform after migrating to the UK — how, without realising, her perceptions of beauty had shifted. She started visiting beauty salons, shaving her legs, wearing makeup. She pushed the biggest of these newly internalised ideas onto her children — fair skin being one of them. Thus, the emphasis on fair skin became the norm in our house. I didn’t think twice when I was told to stay out of the sun every summer, nor did I flinch when the only present an aunt bought me from her visit to India was a bottle of Fair and Lovely. At 12 it was a thoughtless part of my routine.

Existing in a cross-cultural bubble, I was convinced that the notion of a ‘British Rose’ was unattainable, first and foremost due to the colour of my skin, and so I turned to mediums seemingly closer to home. But Bollywood starlets on screen had told me that beauty meant being desired, and a key to their desirability was ultimately fair skin. No versions of myself on TV or in magazines led to an internalised dissatisfaction in my own body:  when the human brain is constantly shaped and moulded by what we see around us, do we ever really consider the subconscious damage?

We live in a time where division is valued over nuance — remain or leave, black or white, opinions as facts — and national headlines are full of topics we’ve come to expect: trauma, displacement, injustice. It seems that everywhere we look, talk of change is irrevocably tied up with sadness.

But in order to create tangible change, we must see the resistance that beauty and optimism can hold. There is so much talk of representation, but in my opinion it’s the representation of optimism that is the most powerful. It invites us in, gives us an opportunity to live, see, laugh, dream, think, wonder and engage in a space we hadn’t seen ourselves in before. Seeing optimism is seeing hope, showing contentment in a world that is anything but, is how we can really shift the lens. This series invites us to take a closer look at our own bodies, our arms, backs, rolls and see the beauty in the seemingly mundane.

Now, I try to understand beauty as something that’s woven into the everyday moments in my life, and less as an ever-changing standard to be applied to life. As our ideas of beauty become forward facing it’s going to be optimism that gives us a chance to exist steeped in shared knowledge and appreciation. This shift in consciousness may seem like a small act, yet it is daring, vital and has rippling effects, and instils the idea that we always have a choice."

Essay written by Simran Randhawa


A Q&A WITH VIVEK
Can you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about how you got into photography?

Im Vivek Vadoliya, a British Asian photographer and director. I mostly focus on documentary and portraiture. I got into photography when I was 16 — my dad gave me an old Pentax film camera and I took it on a trip to India and fell in love with the process. I studied photography but I wasn’t feeling as enthusiastic about it as I once was, and ended up working in advertising for 4 years. I quit advertising when I realised how much I missed it and haven't looked back since. I began directing about 18 months ago as an extension to my photography work. I like how both formats can sit side by side and compliment each other to tell interesting stories.

Are you an optimistic person?

I’d like to think I’m an optimistic person, since I try to approach everything with a positive outlook, whether it’s a photo project or a difficult personal situation. You’ve got to remember things will always go wrong and that’s okay. It’s how you react and deal with the situation that counts. That’s just life!

You just released your film Kasaragod Boys. Can you tell us about that?

I’ve been spending more and more time in India over the past 5 years or so and was really noticing how hyper-digital India was becoming. The film challenges modern notions of masculinity within the country, through an online subculture of boys who call themselves Freakers. The film breaks through there online persona to examine who they are offline. I was lucky enough to have part of the film funded by the Barbican centre in London, as part of their project, Life Rewired.

You’re based between London and Berlin. Which do you find more creatively engaging and why?

They’re both really special cities and have quite a unique energy. In London you’ve really got to hustle hard, since the cost of living is high and the pace is much faster. It really pushes you, sometimes to breaking point, but I think this really makes you stronger as a creative. Berlin is slightly slower, which allows for you to spend more time on yourself. For me that balance works quite well — though I get that it’s definitely not for everyone.

What have you got planned for the future? Any projects we can hear about?

I’m always looking for new stories and people to work with. I’m currently in the research phase for a few ideas, so nothing I can share with you quite yet.

Supported & Commissioned by Ace & Tate

Pictures by Vivek Vadoliya