Monday, May 22, 2017

Ushan Gunasekera and the eye of the photographer

Like writers and lyricists, photographers are an accursed lot. By-lines don’t get attention, after all. That is why these fields are tough on those who try to make it to the top. That is also why, to get to that top, one must let one’s work speak for itself. With the advent of editing software, however, it has become difficult to separate the great from the good and the good from the mediocre. In this respect, two questions emerge: how do we sift the amateur from the professional photographer, and how do we persuade ourselves that the true professional never comes cheap?

All this came to me some months back when I sat down with Ushan Gunasekera. Ushan knows how to capture and preserve and he knows what defines his craft. Because I’m a photography enthusiast myself, I was eager to chart down his story. Here it is.

Ushan was not born a photographer. From an early age, he had seen others take photographs, in particular his father, who used to extensively travel abroad with his camera. “He photographed my childhood, from the time I was brought home to the time I walked my first steps. With regard to the latter, he just let go of me and went on photographing me ambling along. That gave way to a reel of shots, like a story, which ultimately made me realise how similar to a narrative a photo album could be.”

At this point he shifts gears to 2012, when he entered the Informatics Institute of Technology (IIT) for a Bachelor’s in Information Systems with Business Management after leaving his school, Colombo International. I ask him whether he met any figures of destiny then, and he fires away one name: Buwaneka Saranga. “Buwaneka was my mentor. He let me use his camera, a Canon EOS 550D, and we wound up taking photographs of trees, flowers, even passersby. Mind you, I didn’t want to pursue photography as anything more than a hobby, but as the months rolled by he taught me the basics to an extent whereby I knew how to make a career out of it.”

Was he ready for the leap this entailed, though? “Not really,” he laughs, “Forget photography, I needed to learn even basic things like handling camera gear! Eventually Buwaneka and I met some friends from other institutions, including the Academy of Design, and I wound up recording their events with his camera.”

What happened next? “That was the cue I needed. But before I could go professional, I needed to learn. So I saved what I could to buy my own camera, a Canon EOS 60D.” Because of his desire to learn, he baptised his “company” as Ronin Photography, to retain some anonymity. This was in March 2012, five years ago. Five years on, Ushan is still using that 60D. “It’s seen its best and its worst, but for the life of me I can’t think of a camera that has served me so well.”

His first stints as a professional had been accompanied by encounters with two other people: Pavithra Jovan De Mello and Dylan Seedin. Pavithra, a photojournalist, ended up “teaching” Ushan about the narrative potential of his field: “Pavithra taught me how to use photography to create stories and to make photojournalism an interesting hobby. Dylan taught me the fundamentals of commercial photography and how to elevate my skills according to what people wanted, along with how to adapt to the technical limitations of what I was using.”

A little over a year after Ushan entered the industry, Dylan told him to be his own man. “When 2013 ended, I wrapped up Ronin Photography. When 2014 began, I ‘resurrected’ it as Ushan Gunasekera Photography.” From then on, one event had flowed to another, from corporate events to weddings to birthday parties. I suspect that the first of these provide the bread for his company, and he agrees: “There’s a rigid sense of formality in corporate functions, essential because my photos will be used to market those corporates.”

What of weddings? “Obviously, they are more relaxed. So relaxed, in fact, that you must get to befriend your client. Without knowing that client and without letting the client know you, you will be seen as an outsider to his or her life. That is why I always make it a point to acquaint myself well with the bride and the groom. If they don’t know me, it’s going to be difficult for all three of us. A wedding happens only once, after all, and to record it, I must be there with my team, capturing their intimate and personal moments, from the time they are dressed to the time they depart.”

All this is biography, of course. What of the impulses behind that biography? Before engaging him with that, I put to him the two questions I referred to earlier, regarding the proliferation of amateurs and the clash between price and quality in the industry. I then put to him that the former issue has aggravated the latter so much that people have become confused as to what good photography is.

Being a veteran himself, Ushan is cautious with his reply. “Photography is an art. There are people who take to it and people who think they can take to it. There’s absolutely nothing wrong in handling a camera as a hobby. The problem, however, is when you rely on enhancers to artificially elevate the quality of your work. I have come across companies that do that and I have seen how they lack in quality. The issue here is that these entities don’t do the hard yards. They are way behind the studio-man.”

In other words, the gap between hobby and profession can only be bridged if the “hobbyist” is willing to put up with criticism. “In my first few months in this field, I was chided for trying to achieve big. I didn’t mind that, because you need to take a bit of criticism when you aspire for more than what you are. When I started out, however, this new trend of photo-editors and photo-companies had begun. When I graduated to my own company, it was wildly proliferating. Forget the ethics involved in how these operate. Think about how many customers they end up duping with slipshod work.”

Which brings him to my second issue. “In my profession, value for cash is a given. The better your quality is, the more you’ll end up getting. Photography is not an apply-your-eye-and-take art. That misconception has been sustained by those amateurs you referred to before. Such a misconception can only lead to another: that taking photos is so easy that one needn’t bother paying big.”

Ushan adds here, however, that clients do have agency. “We have no issue with their concern for affordability. That price is related to quality, they know. Speaking for myself, though, I have encountered people who always opt for me, because they know that I will not cheapen myself.”

So has the Ushan Gunasekera who entered this field in 2012 any different to the Ushan Gunasekera I met some months ago? He has certainly graduated academically, with results he had not expected. “That is where I must acknowledge two names. The first is my Project Supervisor at IIT, Gayathri Ranasinghe, who understood my hectic schedule so well that she was willing to grant me extensions. The second, and the most important of them all, is my mother, who guided and encouraged me after my father passed away.

There are other names, of course. “I had a dynamic team and a bunch of very creative friends who got my work going from the beginning, notably Pasan Dominic, Amaya Suriyapperuma, Jehan Seedin, Jason Eardly, Rumesh Madushanka, Prasanna Welangoda, Vinu Perera, Lishni Tilakaratne, Rajitha Wijesinghe, and Avishka Senaratne. They supported me, as fellow photographers or as close friends.”

I mentioned at the beginning that photographers are an accursed lot. I still stand by this. Ushan, however, has shown us that even in as “anonymous” a field as his, there can be reasons for the photography enthusiast to spot out the name behind the picture. For that reason, he should have the final say: “To step up, lose your ego. Because everyone knows everyone else, the pressure is on you to maintain your portfolio. If you do that, and if people take to you, there will be no more hard yards to cross. Simple as that.”

Written for: The Island YOUth, May 21 2017