Harmony in Frames: A Captivating Exploration of Architecture and Photography with Kunal Bhatia; Where Design Meets the Lens

In an enthralling exploration of the realms where architecture converges with the lens, Kunal Bhatia, a maestro of design and photography, takes us on a captivating journey through his distinctive approach to storytelling. Through a detailed lens, Kunal opens the door to his world, providing insights into post-processing techniques, the delicate art of selecting architectural features, the impact of equipment evolution on photography, and the pivotal role of collaboration in bringing visions to life. His lens isn’t just a tool; it’s a conduit for conveying a sense of order and calmness, crafting images that transcend mere aesthetics to evoke emotions of peace and tranquillity. 

 

Dive into the captivating journey with Kunal Bhatia as he unveils the intricate dance between design and photography; pictured here: A farmhouse in Gujarat designed by We Design Studio

 

Foyer (F): Kunal, your approach to storytelling through both architecture and travel photography is intriguing. Can you delve deeper into the nuances of your approach, highlighting the distinctions between capturing meticulously designed spaces for others and expressing your perspective in the realm of travel photography?

Kunal Bhatia (KB): Certainly. When it comes to storytelling through architecture and travel photography, my methodology takes on different dimensions depending on the context. In the realm of professional photography for architects or interior designers, I perceive myself as a storyteller who carefully retells the narrative already crafted by the project’s original creator. My primary goal is not to construct an entirely new story but rather to amplify and communicate the designer’s vision to a broader audience. This mindset is deeply rooted in my background as an architect, allowing me to appreciate the intricate effort invested in each project. The challenge lies in striking a harmonious balance – enhancing the narrative without overshadowing the designer’s intent. In the pursuit of creating a singular, visually striking image, often fueled by the demands of social media, there’s a risk of diluting the project’s intrinsic essence. It’s vital to recognize that these projects are not merely created for glossy magazine features but are functional spaces designed for real inhabitants.

Conversely, in the realm of travel photography, I adopt a more personal and open-ended approach. Here, I revel in the liberty to selectively curate and interpret elements based on my individual preferences and inclinations. Whether immersing myself in heritage sites, exploring cultural nuances, or capturing the outdoors, the focus is on encapsulating the true essence of the destination. The true richness of the story lies not only in the architectural features of the property but in its integration with the local community. This perspective allows for the discovery of compelling narratives that extend beyond mere surface-level aesthetics, enriching the overall storytelling experience.

 

Discover the inspiring story of Kunal’s shift from being an architect to a photographer and how his passion for travel became the driving force; pictured here: An office in Bangalore designed by Workshop Inc.

 

F: Kunal, you mentioned that you transitioned from being an architect to a photographer. Can you share the story behind this shift? How did your interest in photography evolve during your time in architecture school, and what motivated you to make this significant change in your career?

KB: The shift from architecture to photography began to take shape during my time in architecture school, which spanned from 2004 to 2009. Back then, smartphone cameras were not prevalent, and SLRs were just becoming more accessible to consumers due to decreasing prices. In my third or fourth year of architecture school, a friend’s point-and-shoot camera caught my attention, and I found myself using it more than they did. It was around the same time that I enrolled in a photography elective, where the use of film and the magic of the darkroom exposed me to the captivating world of photography. Despite my architectural qualifications, I have always been drawn to photography as a medium for capturing emotions, documenting surroundings, and conveying narratives in a visual language. After completing my architecture degree, I initially pursued a career as an architect and interior designer in Bombay. However, I gradually found myself taking on photography projects for acquaintances, discovering a growing interest in the craft.

The pivotal moment came when I decided to take a break from my design office and join a spatial photographer. This move wasn’t solely about learning the technicalities of photography, as I already possessed that knowledge. Instead, it was an opportunity to experience the life of a full-time photographer. After this immersive experience, I found myself juggling both roles—three days dedicated to design work and three days to professional photography.

The deciding factor in favour of photography was its compatibility with my strong passion for travel. Design projects, given their prolonged nature, restricted my ability to embark on extended travel. Photography, especially architectural photography, provided a more flexible schedule. I could undertake projects, complete them within a concise timeframe, and then indulge in my love for travel for several months before returning. This unique blend of architecture and photography, coupled with an underlying passion for travel, made architectural photography an irresistible and fulfilling career choice for me.

 

Architecture and photography come together with Kunal’s love for travel – exploring regional modernism in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh


F: Architecture often serves as a reflection of the culture and historical identity of a place. Can you share an example of a project where you consciously focused on these aspects and elaborate on how it influenced your photography choices?

KB: Earlier this year, we had the opportunity to embark on a press trip to Uzbekistan. Now, when one mentions Uzbekistan to someone visiting for the first time, it often elicits a barrage of questions—questions born out of preconceived notions rooted in the place’s name, geographical location, population, religion, and culinary habits. Through photography, we have the unique ability to showcase the reality of a place and allow images to convey the emotions that words sometimes fail to capture.

Uzbekistan, with its rich history dating back centuries, provided a fascinating backdrop for exploration. One intriguing aspect was the deep connection the people of Uzbekistan had with Indian culture. This connection is traced back to the Soviet era when Bollywood movies were widely broadcast in local languages. The present generation, influenced by the cinematic gems of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, retained a strong fondness for Indians. In our photography, this translated into a unique dynamic where the locals were not only willing subjects for our lens but often insisted on having photographs taken with us—a sort of delightful role reversal. 

Additionally, Uzbekistan carries the imprint of its Soviet history, a facet not commonly associated with the country. In Tashkent, the capital, we encountered a beautiful underground metro system that showcased a distinct Soviet architectural style. This was a revelation for many, challenging preconceived notions about Uzbekistan. 

 

Tashkent boasts of impressive Soviet buildings, such as this Peoples Friendship Palace built in 1981



F: Kunal, you mentioned the fondness that people in Uzbekistan and neighbouring countries have for individuals from Hindustan (India). Could you share a heartwarming gesture or experience during your visit that particularly stood out, reflecting the warmth and enthusiasm they extended toward visitors from India?

KB: Absolutely. The warmth and affection we encountered in Central Asian countries like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan were truly remarkable. As soon as you walk there, you’re often greeted with exclamations like “Hindustan” with locals expressing a genuine interest. One amusing and recurrent experience was the association with the song “Jimmy, Jimmy,” which seemed to be universally popular. While walking down the street, someone might start singing the song and expect you to join in a spontaneous dance, creating delightful moments of connection.

In a homestay along the Pamir Highway, we witnessed a charming incident where the host, a local lady, was engrossed in watching dubbed Indian TV serials—a cultural bridge that surprised us, highlighting the shared interests despite linguistic and geographical differences. Moreover, there are tangible symbols of Indian influence in the region, such as the Shastri Street in Uzbekistan, named after Lal Bahadur Shastri, who passed away in Tashkent. The presence of Indian restaurants like the famous Raj Kapoor in Tashkent and Delhi Durbar along the Pamir Highway further accentuates the cultural ties.

These instances collectively reflect the welcoming nature and genuine curiosity that Central Asian communities display towards visitors from India. The resonance of Indian culture, whether through Bollywood, language, or culinary offerings, creates a unique and heartening atmosphere, making these places feel like a home away from home. The influence is not just seen but felt, making the prospect of visiting these countries even more enticing.

 

Reminisce about heartwarming moments in Central Asia, where ‘Jimmy, Jimmy’ echoes in the streets and delightful connections transcend borders

 

 

F: Post-processing and editing play a significant role in photography, especially when capturing architecture and design elements. Could you elaborate on how you use these tools to enhance your photos while maintaining authenticity? 

KB: When shooting spaces for designers, the key is to strike a delicate balance between the documentary and fine art genres. The primary intent is to showcase the designer’s vision and the intricacies of the architectural or interior project. While spatial images undergo editing, our goal is to make the final product appear as natural as possible. We avoid fixing light or colours extensively but focus on tuning and adjusting them to maintain authenticity. One common practice in spatial photography is the removal of minor elements like switchboards, services, or pipes that may distract from the design. 

In contrast, when it comes to travel photography, we adopt a more minimalistic approach to post-processing. Exposure balancing, colour corrections, and perspective adjustments are employed, but we refrain from adding or removing elements. The goal is to keep the images as true to reality as possible, allowing the viewer to experience the location authentically. The larger open canvas in travel photography provides the flexibility to choose what to include in the frame. While some photographers may take a more artistic approach to document spaces, I believe that the image should align with the experience of the space. If an image of a restaurant, for example, looks visually stunning but the actual space differs significantly, it may create a mismatch in the viewer’s expectations. The approach to post-processing ultimately depends on the goals and intentions of the project, whether it’s emphasizing artistic expression or accurately conveying the designed space.

 

When it comes to travel photography, it’s important to show the not-so-glamorous sides as well. Photographed here are the historic temples of Bawali, on the outskirts of Kolkata, that are being concretized under the guise of restoration while being surrounded by civic apathy

 

F: When it comes to architectural photography, how do you decide which features to highlight and which to keep in the background when composing shots? Can you share an example of where the architectural design influenced your choice in showcasing certain elements?

KB: When approaching architectural photography, understanding the intent of the project and the story the building aims to tell is crucial. Unlike portraiture or product photography, in architectural photography, you become a small entity navigating inside and outside the subject. The focus is on respecting the building and its elements, as well as considering factors like light, shadow, and sunlight. I’ll share an example from Uzbekistan, specifically in Bukhara. In this historical city, there’s a modernist monument dedicated to a cleric. The memorial is designed in the form of a crescent moon and an open book, symbolizing the scholar’s works. When capturing this structure, the choice of shots was influenced by the desire to convey its design effectively. Initially, a ground-level shot revealed some elements of the design, but it was the drone shot, providing a top-down view, that truly emphasized the moon and open book facing it. This aerial perspective clarified the symbolism embedded in the architecture. The decision on how to showcase the monument was informed by the understanding gained while visiting the site, observing the exhibition, and having a concept of the building’s significance. The use of a drone allowed for a unique angle that wouldn’t have been as apparent from ground level.

Research plays a crucial role in my approach, especially in public spaces where time is limited, and conditions can be unpredictable. Being aware of what to expect beforehand allows for more strategic and effective photography, ensuring that the chosen elements align with the overall narrative of the building. As for travel photography, my approach involves extensive research before visiting a place. While clichés may be well-known for a reason, I also seek out hidden gems and lesser-known architectural wonders by delving deeper into a region’s history. 

 

Experience the tranquility, order, and emotional resonance in each frame as Kunal strives to evoke a sense of calmness through his work

 

F: Could you shed light on how your choice of equipment and gear impacts the way you capture architectural and design elements, especially considering the evolving role of smartphones in photography?

KB: Over the years, the significance of gear has diminished, especially with the remarkable capabilities of modern smartphones. A decade ago, the quality of output depended heavily on the type of camera one possessed. However, today, even phones are capable of capturing stunning shots, meeting the needs of most casual users. While phones have their limitations, they have become versatile tools that cater to the requirements of a wide audience. When shooting professionally, we still use cameras, tripods, and lights as needed. While some photographers may be particular about the specific camera they use, I believe the equipment matters less compared to how effectively you can push it to its limits to achieve the desired results. For travel photography, the convenience of using a phone has become increasingly attractive. Lugging around a bulky DSLR can be burdensome, and phones offer a level of ease and comfort that aligns with the demands of travel.

My partner at Rickety Roads, Shuvajit Payne, and I, both found ourselves shooting extensively on our phones during our several long travels in 2023. However, as we review the images, we acknowledge that phones have their limitations. Phones, with their quick and instant image processing, often produce visually appealing results right away. They balance highlights, brightness, saturation, and more instantly. On the other hand, shooting in raw format on an SLR requires additional processing to achieve the desired outcome. It’s a blend of both these days. If a vision can be executed with a phone and it aligns with the desired results, that’s perfectly acceptable. 

We conduct workshops, and one of them focuses on phone photography, encouraging participants to tap into the capabilities of their phones. We follow this up with a phone editing workshop, emphasizing the use of apps like Snapseed, which is free and offers a straightforward set of tools capable of handling the majority of editing needs without overwhelming users.

 

Wander through the destinations that fuel Kunal’s imagination, from the mystery of Eastern Europe to the vibrant allure of Latin America

 

F: Collaboration is crucial in photography projects, especially when working with architects, designers, or local communities. Can you share insights into how you collaborate with these stakeholders to bring their visions and stories to life through your photographs?

KB: Collaboration is at the core of our process, particularly when working with architects and interior designers. From the outset, we engage in pre-shoot discussions to understand their vision, what they want to convey, and the specific elements they wish to highlight. This collaborative approach involves discussions on capturing the essence of the project, and I prefer having the designer present during the shoot. Their insights and ability to share the project’s backstory, such as the sentimental value of certain elements or the significance of particular design choices, contribute to a richer narrative. The collaboration ensures that we align our vision with theirs and enhances the overall quality of the final product.

When it comes to travel-based photography, collaboration with local communities is equally important. Engaging with locals helps us understand their culture, and customs, and ensures that our subjects feel comfortable in front of the camera. We often collaborate with local guides who share our passion for history and architecture. These guides not only provide valuable context but also grant access to places that may be inaccessible to casual visitors. This collaboration enriches our understanding of the local context and allows us to capture nuances that might otherwise be overlooked. As an example, during our travels in Kyrgyzstan, we partnered with Aibek Adigineev from a local agency called ‘Tenti’ for a Soviet Legacy Tour. This collaboration opened doors to remnants of the Soviet era, including sanatoriums and mosaics with propaganda elements glorifying an active and healthy lifestyle. 

 

Exploring Soviet-era mosaics and abandoned structures while on a custom tour of Kyrgyzstan with local partner Tenti

 

F: So photography has the power to evoke emotions and tell a story. Can you share a personal story or emotion you’ve aimed to convey through your work?
KB: In my photography, the emotion I strive to convey is a sense of order and calmness. When people view my photographs, they often mention a feeling of serenity and a sense of rhythm or pattern. Whether I’m capturing architectural or travel scenes, I aim to create images that soothe the eyes and draw the viewer’s gaze for more than just a fleeting moment. The challenge lies in finding the delicate balance between creating images that are calming and avoiding the risk of them becoming monotonous or boring. It’s about infusing a sense of order without sacrificing visual interest. Ultimately, I want my work to evoke a feeling of peace and harmony, allowing viewers to find a sense of calm and tranquility within the frames of my photographs.

 

Unearth the stories hidden in the bylanes of North Kolkata through Kunal’s lens, where architectural wonders become vessels of untold stories

 

F: You have experienced multiple cultures and traditions, as you told us about, so how do you ensure that your work is respectful of these local customs and sensitivities when capturing these subjects?

KB: When it comes to capturing images in different destinations, it’s crucial to start with a deep understanding of the local culture, history, and societal practices. Photography is not just about exercising the right to capture images but also respecting the nuances and sensitivities of the place being visited. It’s important to align with cultural norms and not approach photography with a mindset of entitlement.

For capturing people or practices, one must be especially mindful of local sensitivities and seek permission when necessary. A respectful and collaborative approach ensures that the subjects are comfortable and that the photographer understands the context in which they are operating. Even when photographing inanimate objects, such as architecture, it’s vital to comprehend the significance of those structures. For example, capturing remnants of a war-torn area should be approached with respect for the history it represents. It’s not just about using a location as a backdrop; it’s about understanding and conveying the deeper meaning behind the visuals. In the age of social media, there’s a trend toward creating content without delving into the historical or social context of a place. This approach should be avoided, especially in locations with significant historical or social burdens. Photography should not be reduced to a mere backdrop for posing but should reflect a thoughtful engagement with the surroundings. Respect for the local context and a commitment to truthfulness should guide the photographer’s approach to capturing and sharing images.

 

Trace Kunal’s evolution from architectural blueprints to visual storytelling, where each frame encapsulates a chapter of growth and passion

 

F: Very well said. Are there any specific projects or destinations you dream of capturing in your photography? And what is it about them that draws you to them?

KB: Eastern Europe and the ex-Soviet countries have been high on my list of destinations, and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to explore them this year with Rickety Roads. The fascination lies in delving into a part of the world and a historical era that is not very familiar, especially considering the profound impact of Soviet rule on these countries. The war memorials, such as the ones in the former Yugoslavia, like the spomeniks, are particularly intriguing.

Dive into the allure of Japan, where customs, design values, and meticulous details captivate his heart, making it a destination worth returning to

Looking ahead, my focus is on exploring modernism in regions like Latin America and Africa, where it might not be immediately associated with architectural beauty. There are undoubtedly remarkable examples in these areas that would be fascinating to capture. Additionally, Japan holds a special place in my heart. Although I visited six years ago, its unique customs, design values, and meticulous attention to detail in every aspect make it a destination I would return to without hesitation. The cultural richness and aesthetic appeal of Japan continue to draw me back.

 

F: If not a photographer or architect, what is it that you would be doing?

KB: While I already engage in travel writing, my passion for it has me yearning for more. If not an architect, photographer, or travel writer, perhaps I’d be a hotel connoisseur. There’s something rather captivating about beautifully designed hotels that are rooted in their surroundings. They not only offer an escape into an alternate world where every moment becomes utopian but also present the chance to experience the best of regional culture, food, and design sensibilities. Perhaps I’d be the hotel reviewer who talks about these!

 

Heritage conservation and architectural restoration are hallmarks of the Sawantwadi Palace Boutique Art Hotel

 

As we draw the curtain on this insightful journey through the eyes of Kunal Bhatia, we find ourselves enriched by the fusion of architecture and photography, a realm where narratives unfold in visual symphonies. Kunal’s dedication to respecting local customs and sensitivities, his dream projects in unexplored corners of the world, and his passion for beautifully designed hotels leave us with a palette of inspiration. It is a testament to the artistry and thoughtfulness that Kunal brings to each frame, leaving an indelible mark on the landscape where design meets the lens.

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