Padma: Please do start with introducing yourself. What do you do apart from the book?
Vignesh: I'm Vignesh. I’m an architect and photographer. I’ve been exploring photography as a side hustle since mid-2020 when Ashna and I did a photoshoot together. It was during one of our shoots that we first discussed With Love, Madras, about exploring other similar homes and trying to put it all together in one place. Both of us are full-time architects.
Ashna: I was always interested in design writing. I was a full-time architect before the book came along and I shifted to working freelance. I have always leaned more towards interior design. At that first shoot together, Vignesh was the photographer, and I was the stylist. We were photographing this couple at their home and though we all started out as strangers, by the end of the day we got to know so much more about them. I just felt that there are so many homes in the city that have stories of people like them that needed to be documented. With magazines, the work we do is purely architectural. We never bother finding out about the people that truly make those homes when you’re focused on space planning and interiors. And while that works for restaurants and public places, homes are all about the people who live there. We could not afford for that to go unspoken. We also felt that Madras as a city was not represented so much in these magazines so this could be an interesting way of understanding the city itself.
P: Vignesh, as the photographer, you must have visualized what people felt like, living in these homes. Tell me about your experience behind the lens doing that.
V: Initially, we had a checklist of the shots we wanted to get. But after the first shoot, we realized there was no way we could follow the same pattern for all the homes. Speaking with the residents, we realized there were so many aspects to each home that we couldn't perceive or plan beforehand. For the first shoot, we started with styling the living room from what it originally was to how it would look better in the pictures. But editing those photos, we realized that we removed so many elements like ugly cables, dirt marks on the walls, all so the pictures came out neatly.
But we felt it wasn't fair. We were unknowingly painting an instagrammable version of the house and essentially taking the life out of it. I told Ashna we couldn't keep doing that. We were going to work with much older homes and it wouldn't make sense to mask their realities to show something that it isn't. Removing elements and stylizing wasn't going to work. Even the way residents use these spaces make the home what it is. That’s what she brought out through the interviews; finding out what emotions these spaces evoked in these people.
I just captured them in their natural setting. The first 5-6 shoots, we went for the typical portraits where everyone looked into the camera. But we wanted to capture them using and just existing in their spaces. We retook those pictures, and they came out so much better. At the time, I had done only four shoots. Working on this changed so many things about the way I work, and the time I took. I really love that we’re all growing and getting better at what we do as we put this book together.
P: Ashna, what was it like to bring all the emotions and feelings of people and their homes into words?
A: No experience was the same; no house, no interview. Initially, like Vignesh, I had a template of questions too. Sometimes, we’d go several times to the same house, and we would have casual conversations with the homeowners. Eventually we realized that these conversations turned out better than the structured, planned ones. Writing about homes can get really repetitive when you’re talking about it in terms of spaces and designs. Vignesh brought out some amazing pictures and I knew I had to keep up. I didn't want people to flip the pages and just look at the pictures. They should want to stop at each page and take the time to read and take it all in. Of course, some questions came up in almost all the interviews, but they all brought out very different responses.
Usually, books like ours end up as coffee table books; fancy things you just flip over. I didn't want that. Madras is filled with authentic people who have so much to say, if only you ask them. They don't flaunt otherwise. Each house was a different story and I left each of them motivated on different fronts. Sometimes it was on the familial front, sometimes careers, and sometimes just how much they had survived to still stand tall like that. Some of these did not have much of a personal element, but that's just who the storyteller is. I wanted the readers to feel every story the way I felt them; the book to be something you’d keep on your bedside and return to, day after day when you are home. I want this to be the book you’d pick up when you want to feel a surge of optimism.
P: That’s such a wonderful thought! How many houses have you been to and how many made it to the book?
A: We had a list of 80-100 homes. We didn't have to go to all of them since a lot of them were kind enough to send over photographs. We went physically to around 30 homes. We saw all of them though. Digitally, at least. We didn't want the book to be too heavy. It had to be something economical; something that's easy to carry around and fit easily onto bookshelves without jutting out. 30 homes finally made it to the book.
P: I'm sure you must have formed an image in your mind about who the people of Chennai are. What patterns did you find?
V: This was totally unintentional; when we started going through images of all the houses, we ended up narrowing down images to two per house. When this was shared on our WhatsApp group, except for a handful of them, the patterns turned out to look so similar we couldn't make out which house they belonged to. These were mostly subconscious patterns - in the materials, palettes. Every home had lots of greenery and lots of woodwork. They were all brightly lit and colored. There were no dark corners.
P: This is so typical to Chennai! We have this summer palette year-round to match the weather. It's beautiful. I’m curious, what was the criteria you chose your homes on?
A: Initially, it was all about accessibility because we needed a starting point. Later on, we wanted to explore– neighborhoods, geography, designs, people – all of it. We had a rough list from the visuals and stories we had. The shortlisting happened even as we were covering homes.
V: We tried to avoid certain patterns, but some still stuck to us. Interestingly, we have a lot of single elderly women households. We wanted to cover the widest variety we could. Apartments, traditional houses, old ones and new, single men, old women- they all made the cut.
P: When and where can we get the book?
V: Given the pandemic, we’ll primarily be selling online on our website. We are looking at making it available in physical stores as well, but that’s still in the works. Hopefully, it’ll be out by the end of this year.
(Note: With Love, Madras was published and released in the mid-December 2022 and is available to purchase on www.withlovemadras.com)
P: We want to know what your definition of a home is. Do you think your idea of home has changed after being to and capturing so many?
A: I once read somewhere that spaces should make you want to sing. Homes are spaces where you spend most of your time, especially with the pandemic. Every home we covered had so much of their inhabitants’ personality. Home is where you feel the most yourself. As a designer, I ask myself on behalf of my client every step of the way, is this me? Our homes evolve and grow with us. To me, Home is just so many layers of who you are, placed one on top of the other, over the years. You keep adding and subtracting; these are the homes with most stories. I don't know how to put it in one sentence, but to me, every corner of my home should make me happy enough to want to sing.
V: When you visit a home, it reflects the people living there at that particular point. Homes change with the people. We noticed it on our subsequent visits. We’d go back a couple of months later, looking for a specific shot and see the change right in front of us, though it was so gradual for the people living there that they hardly noticed it. People say home is the base for your life, and I agree, but it's also something that grows with you. It's not a static canvas, but something you keep painting on and adding life to.
P: We’re looking at a time when print media is largely giving way to digital. I’d like to know why you chose the print medium for your book.
A: Maybe we’re just a little old school. You know how there are certain things at home that you hold very close to your heart? These are not exactly heirlooms per se, but you still want to pass it down generations. We want our book to make people feel that way, especially the people of this city. This is something people here can understand and connect to on a much deeper and personal level. Putting something out digitally means you can go back and make changes any time you want. We want something that can be held, passed on, and gifted.
V: As a consumer of digital media, I also feel that it’s very short lived. The emotional connection and retention is so instant and passes just as soon as it comes. Especially with photographs, the feeling is very momentary. You like, save, and move on, never to give it another thought later. Each project takes years to complete and the appreciation it gets lasts just seconds on screen.
Holding a book is different.
I had an opportunity to work with this photographer, Bharat Ramamritam, once. He’s one of the leading architectural photographers in India, and at his office, he has all the books he had shot for. Holding something physical and admiring it like that is different. You soak in every photograph. The story we are trying to tell has a lot of heart to it and a digital format would not do justice to it. I personally wanted it to be something that will last forever.
P: This is exactly why InFrame supports your project with our whole heart. We’re extremely passionate about books. Your book having a prolonged shelf life and resonating not just with a few people from your generation and time means everything to us.
V: I feel like we need to be reminded of websites to go take a look at them, no matter how accessible they might seem. Seeing a book on a shelf or table and picking it up is something we never need to be told to do.
P: I'm sure this project has shown you what it means to build a home and nurture it as something you pass on to your next generation. I’m very curious to see you go ahead and show the world the homes of other cities too. Have you thought about it?
V: It's definitely something we discussed really early on. The whole project is about bringing dreams to life. We hope this to pick up pace like a movement – if not us, someone else would pick up the reins in other cities. We would love to explore more cities. Based on our lives and how things turn out, we’ll see.