Award-winning photographer whose exhibition The Last Rickshaws of Kolkata has been drawing crowds at Xposure 2021, shares how ideas that lay dormant in him for years sparked his best work
Ideas can come from the most obscure of sources, said India-born Australian photographer Palani Mohan at a seminar titled The Birth of Ideas, at the opening day of the fifth edition of Xposure International Photography Festival taking place in Expo Centre Sharjah, February 10 – 13.
Some of his most productive ideas when it comes to choosing subjects for a project have been based on pure instinct. For instance, his celebrated 2015 book, Hunting with Eagles: In the Realm of the Mongolian Kazakhs, came about because “I first saw a photo of a Kazakh eagle hunter that was shot somewhere in north-western Mongolia in a room at the Sydney Morning Herald photography department, where I was a cub photographer… the image made a huge impression and just stuck with me,” Mohan said.
Decades later, while based in Hong Kong, he received a junk email from Mongolian Airlines promoting their daily flights from Hong Kong to Ulaanbaatar. “When I received that promotional email in 2012, it immediately took me back to that image I had seen as a cubbie. That did it. I did some basic research, bought my ticket, and pretty much just took off to search for these eagle hunters with little expectation. When I arrived, I realised there was a real story to be told.”
Over the next few years, the photographer travelled to the region multiple times for weeks-long stints during the harsh winter hunting season to find and capture images of the few remaining Kazakh eagle hunters alive, their birds, and the bond between them.
For Mohan, an image that best encapsulates the central theme of the project is the one in which an old man is seen holding a massive eagle like a baby, showcasing the relationship between man and bird that dates back thousands of years.
Mohan, who has won several awards including World Press Photo, Picture of the Year International, CHIPP, Communication Arts, and Sony International, has published six books of his photography so far. His 2017 book Wind, Water, which captures the natural elements of Hong Kong, similarly came about without any deliberate thought.
The book focuses on the fengshui elements - metal, wood, water, fire and earth - of Hong Kong, a city that has been an important part of his life since the 1990s.
“One day, I just started clicking pictures of the various elements from my balcony without any intention of publishing them. After several months of this, one day I showed them to an older friend. He immediately said ‘Fengshui’. That sort of clicked with me. I am not an expert, but to me, fengshui is all about finding your place in nature and living as one with the environment,” said Mohan.
“Ideas are always there in front of you. They are gifts from God, or what you will, gold nuggets falling from the sky waiting to be picked up. Sometimes, it takes a long time for you to recognise them, as it was for me. As you mature and gain more experience in life, you learn different ways of looking at the same subject,” concluded Mohan.
Photos during the session