Welcome to Influencers!
Today, we have with us Indrani. For those of you who were listening last episode, there were several hints to suggest who Indrani is. She grew up in Calcutta, India, then moved to Toronto and finally to New York. She photographed and filmed with all kinds of celebrities. And as a hint, some of her images are at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC, her works have been published in 25 books and 30 exhibitions, and she had a TV show that was about her work.
Then, the second interview is anonymous. If you can figure out who it is before we reveal it in the following podcast, you could win a coveted invitation to the Influencer Salon.
Listen To The Podcast Here:
Collaboration and Photography with Director and Photographer, Indrani Pal-Chaudhuri
Today, I have a super close friend of mine. Indrani Pal-Chaudhuri, thank you so much for participating.
Thanks, Jon. It’s great to be here.
I don’t even know where to begin to describe your achievements or who you are because you’ve done so many different things. You mentioned in your anonymous interview that you started your career as a model because the photographers told you, you wouldn’t be strong enough to carry a heavy camera. Then you became a portrait photographer, is that right?
That’s right. I became a photographer of fashion and advertising and very quickly started doing portraits of lots celebrities as well.
Can you share some iconic works that you’ve done and maybe name-drop a little, so that people understand the scope and reach of your work?
When I started out, I did lots of fashion images. Then I went to college. At Princeton, I continued doing photography on the side. One day, David Bowie called up my studio and said he’d like to do a big project together. Of course I thought it was a prank call. Anyway, that led to my very first album cover which was for David Bowie’s Heathen. I’ve done a lot of album covers and magazine covers and I helped to launch Beyoncé’s solo career creating the cover of her album cover Dangerously in Love. Jumping ahead, ten years, I was really excited about directing films ever since I was a kid and I finally broke into that industry. My very first major music video was also for David Bowie. He commissioned my first debut in that area as well. I’ve been very fortunate and have had wonderful relationships with people who have been very supportive along the way.
Since then you’ve worked with everybody from Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Anne Hathaway, Jay Z, Kim and Kanye. It seems that you have this portfolio of just incredible work. What I find even more interesting is that your work has this element where the photos were taken as real but they almost strike you as surrealistic. They bend your perception of reality to some degree.
Thank you, Jon. That’s a lovely thing to hear. I really like messing with people’s perception. I think that it’s really exciting to explore the boundary between reality and fantasy because that’s where we all really live in our imaginations. My photography and my filmmaking is all about magical realism. It’s bringing out the essential character of the person that I’m working with rather than just focusing on their physical attributes. I think that’s what’s really fun. I love getting to know people and finding ways to showcase who they really are on a deeper level.
When people discover what you’ve accomplished, what’s the most common question they have for you?
People often ask who is the most difficult person that I’ve worked with; they want to hear diva stories. The answer to that is that everyone is difficult in their own special way. That’s part of what makes it really exciting to collaborate with these great artists, is that they have very strong visions of themselves of what they are going in their work, in their view of the world. I find it really exciting to collaborate with them to help bring those visions to life. I’ve never actually seen any diva behavior.
I think maybe your standards are a little bit different than the rest of us. I’m sure there were plenty. You’re just more Zen and capable of handling it with grace.
I just think that everyone has to express themselves. When you’re shooting with someone, if what makes them comfortable is listening to certain music or having candles or taking a break for a few hours in the middle of a shoot, that’s fine with me because I feel like that’s going to bring out their better self.
You were sharing working with Iman, how concentrated her efforts are to give you the best experience.
That was really exciting. Actually, the very first shoot that I did with a major artist was with Iman. She had this incredible career and had worked with everyone. She had asked me to do her a book cover with my partner, Markus. It was incredibly intimidating. I discovered that she likes to shoot for ten or fifteen minutes and then stop because that’s how she can put her best energy into the shoot. It’s challenging but very exciting to work with an artist who really knows what’s best for their creative process. You’ve got to be quick.
In an era where everybody who has a camera and Photoshop thinks that they’re a professional photographer, what are some tips that you have for people who really want to make it in the industry and who want to create extraordinary work?
I think the key to photography and filmmaking is preparation. A lot of people think they just pull out their iPhone and snap a few shots. Sometimes you get lucky, for sure. Being a professional means you have to get lucky over and over and over again, a thousand times in a day, because there needs to be a lot of perfect shots to choose from. You suddenly discover that there’s the client and the manager and the artist and their agents. Everyone has a different opinion of what’s the right image for someone. Being able to plan to create magic over and over again is really a challenge but it’s also part of what allows you to create something truly extraordinary. Just because you took a great picture doesn’t mean you should stop. A lot of young photographers take a couple of frames and say, “I’m done.” They don’t realize that if they just kept going and pushing and trying new things, they would get to a much higher level.
I can understand why because after all, it’s so expensive to develop film these days. They really shouldn’t waste all those photos. The high cost of production really makes it difficult to keep going.
I think the attention span is the hard part.
What are the pitfalls? What are the things that people don’t even know to look out for?
There are so many challenges. When you’re trying to create magic or trying to capture magic, one of the hardest parts is to keep it authentic and to keep it true to the characters that you’re working with. A lot of artists get caught up in their own thing. They have a stylistic thing they like to do. Pretty much all their subjects end up looking very similar in a certain way. I like to go about it differently. I like to really create the whole theme of every shoot, every film, to really reflect the differences between the wonderful artists that I’m working with.
You can definitely see that when you look across your portfolio. There are certain projects that everything is on the same theme, but when you look across the different projects you see a real variety of style, which I appreciate. What are a few secrets nobody talks about in your industry?
There are so many secrets. I think one of the things that people don’t talk about but is incredibly important is creating comfort for the people that you’re working with. Making them feel that you’re a real human and a partner in the process. I think there’s often a sense of a hierarchy. A lot of photographers and directors are known for keeping themselves apart from the rest of the team, the rest of the crew and the talent. There is a sense of creating a bubble so that they can focus on more important things than everyone else. I think it’s a pity. Everyone has a great deal to add. I love collaborating. I like hearing ideas from everyone.
I can’t help but see the comparison from the way you described your childhood, that there was this collaborative experience of 300 family members together where everybody contributed to one another and with family, and the way that you described your photos.
That’s a really interesting point. I never thought of that. I thrive on being in the center of the chaos. On a film set, you have people running in every direction and so many different things that need to be done, but also all these wonderful creative people who are all working together to make something extraordinary. For me, that feels like home.
What’s something completely unexpected about reaching this level of success?
It’s interesting to have work that everyone knows, to have created images and films that have had an enormous influence on people and yet to be a shy person like I am. Because people say that they have no idea. I like that. I enjoy being a little bit anonymous. I messed that up a little bit by doing a TV reality series on Bravo a few years back. That was really hard because going places and having people suddenly recognized me and ask me things was a very strange experience. I got to see what the people go through that I work with on a daily basis.
Would you ever want to go back to that level of public attention?
The experience was wonderful. People were very positive. It’s very hard to create and be filmed at the same time. It was a show within a show that I had to mastermind in order to be happy with the results. That’s incredibly stressful, to be thinking about what other people think of me as well as trying to create something great with an artist. So no, I think that was way more stress than anyone should ever have to endure.
My hunch is that you’ve probably read quite a bit over the years. Was there a certain book that has influenced you the most or a specific lesson that you learned that really made a big impact for you?
I love Susan Sontag and her view on photography. There’s this idea of almost you’re killing reality by creating imagery. The subject is frozen in time forever and loses some of its authenticity because of that process of becoming a photograph. It’s a really interesting way of looking at our modern culture and how we become the society of the spectacle.
Who’s your hero? Who do you look up to the most?
Some of my greatest heroes are Indian mythological figures. I grew up with it. My parents didn’t let me watch films or television as a kid. I grew up really fascinated by Indian gods and goddesses and historical or mythological figures. My goddess, she rides on a tiger and she has a thousand arms and in each hand is a weapon. She attacks evil with this immense force. I think she would definitely be my hero of choice.
Imagine you get a message from a complete stranger. What would have you accept an invitation from them to meet? What would they had to have said or offered or suggested?
They’d have to intrigue me. They’d have to say something fascinating or something that I hadn’t heard before.
Does this ever happen? Have you gotten random messages besides from suitors?
I get a lot of random messages. Unfortunately, not a lot of them are very creative, so I don’t necessarily respond.
I know that you’re incredibly passionate about your school that you started with your dad. Can you tell us a little bit about it and what’s going on there?
When I was nineteen, I went back to India and traveled around for six months. I was blown away by the lack of hope for so many people, especially for women, that they’re in often very difficult situations with really now way out. I had earned a lot of money as a model. My dad had always wanted to create something worthwhile with our family home. Together, we turned it into a school for 300 kids and also for their mothers. We provide literacy and vocational training as well as a full schooling for the young kids. We primarily have a lot of refugees, a lot of people who are very, very poor and a lot of kids who otherwise would work in the fields or the factories. It means so much to me. It’s been the most exciting aspect of my life. I have had so many amazing experiences because of this school. I feel like it was a great gift to myself to spend that time and energy creating that school. I know that sounds weird but what I mean is that I got so much out of the experience. Doing everything you can to help people who have very few people rooting for them is extremely rewarding, and just the amount of love and positivity there has inspired me tremendously.
I think it’s incredible that you do this. That you’ve been doing it from such a young age is even more impressive. I really, really commend you for it.
What’s a very human secret you’d feel comfortable sharing on the podcast? Some people shared how insecure they are, others that they suffer from anxiety and things like that. The reason I ask is that it’s easy for people to see someone with your level of success and assume life is perfect and that there’s no more struggle. Hopefully by sharing, we can see the incredible similarities there are between us all.
I think that the struggle has been a very big part of my life in so many ways. As a kid, leaving everything that I knew and also leaving our finances behind in India, we became immigrants and had a lot of financial struggles. That’s something that people don’t necessarily talk about when they’ve achieved success because it’s so difficult to not have enough and to never really know what’s coming next for your family. That really motivated me. Having the funding to do the projects that I do is always a challenge. For filmmaking, you’re always trying to put together the resources that you need. In photography, having huge clients provide amazing resources to create some of these images, still I would always run into the issue of having more ideas than what the resources were there for. It’s been a constant theme in my life but it’s also being a force of great creativity and innovation.
I think I’ve come to realize that the constraints that we have actually helped to shape and to propel the creative process. You just have to approach it in the right way and not have fear. That’s the other big part, it’s just overcoming the fear of not being able to fulfill expectations or to achieve the goals of a project. For me, it’s been a constant struggle but also something really motivating to jump into an idea and say, “This is something I want to create. How do I find the people to bring together the resources, the talents to make an idea turn into reality?” I succeeded with that with my school and then I’ve succeeded with that in many different projects. It’s something that gives me a lot of pride. But also when I start a new one, there’s also a lot of fear.
Imagine you show up to your ideal dinner. It’s you plus three people and they can be any living people you want. Who would you want to eat with and why?
I would want to eat with Barack Obama because I think he’s a fascinating, amazing person who has been through so much. I’d want to ask him about the aliens because I figure if anyone knows about whether or not aliens have come to the country, he would know.
Do you mean undocumented workers?
No, I mean the ones from other planets. That sounds really silly, I know, but I am fascinated by signs of visitation. I would want to sit down with Mr. Putin, who I think is also an extraordinary character. I would be very interested in a young artist like Justin Bieber or Selena Gomez. People who have so much ahead of them, I think it would be really fun to sit with one of them and talk about their ideas of the future.
Indrani, thank you so much for giving us your time, sharing your wisdom and your stories. Is there any last story you’d like to share, a highlight of your career?
A highlight of my career was shooting with Lady Gaga, which was just such an interesting moment because I had three hours with her and I found a Masonic temple to shoot her in. I painted eyes onto her face. I made her close her eyes and have a giant eyes drawn onto her face. It was such an interesting collaboration because she had no idea what she was coming into and she went with it. She loved it. She pushed our ideas further and further. That was just a moment where everything aligned in such a beautiful way. That’s something I’ve been very fortunate to have in my life; amazing alignments with extraordinary people that have resulted in works that I’m proud to share.
That’s a super fun story, thanks for sharing it. If people want to find out more about your work and see your content, they can go to your website, which is Indrani.com. They can also find you on social: Instagram, Twitter, Facebook. Listeners, stay tuned and see if you can figure out who the anonymous interview is.
Thank you so much, Jon.
About Indrani Pal-Chaudhuri
Indrani’s iconic photography and visionary directing moves millions to action. From Vogue to Vanity Fair, top grossing album covers to music videos, she creates the image of the most exciting celebrities and brands. Her films and commercials have won 22 awards including 2 Gold Lions at Cannes Festival of Creativity.
Previously, I was Executive Director, Global Brand Marketing at GE, CMO of iVillage Properties, part of the NBC Universal and had senior roles at Citigroup, the American Museum of Natural History and Porter Novelli.
Anonymous Guest Interview
Listeners, this is my favorite part, the anonymous interview. Today, we have the pleasure of hosting Q. Q, welcome. Thank you so much for coming.
Thank you. I love what you’re doing, Jon.
Let’s dive right in. With a name like Q, it’s not much of a giveaway. We’re going to have to give some background information to listeners. First of all, where did you grow up?
I grew up in Canada and mostly in Ottawa. A little bit Montreal, a little bit Northern Quebec, a little bit in Toronto but mostly Ottawa in Canada.
You’ve had a wild career. Was there a teacher or an experience that really inspired you to go down the path that you went?
I could to point one influence. It was someone who is a host on MuchMusic up in Canada, a really cool guy named Master T. I remember loving this guy’s interviews because he was so cool. I just imagine a tall, lanky, chocolate black man with long dreads and he had these dark glasses and bangles all the way up his arm, super cool guy, who was really thoughtful in the way he interviewed all the biggest stars that came by MuchMusic. I just thought, “If I could do that for a living, I think I’d be really happy.” The way he brought out stuff, he brought out the best of people that he interviewed. I’ve really, really resonated with. He was probably my biggest influence growing up.
You had ended up deciding to try and follow in his footsteps. Is that right?
Yeah, I did. I popped out of high school only knowing one thing, which is that I love music. I was a DJ, so I got into the campus radio station at the University of Ottawa where I went for all of one semester. While I was there, I DJed on a show and definitely got my appetite for doing the conveying of music that I then made a whole career out of. After doing that for a semester, I got a break being a finalist for the MuchMusic VJ Search. Although I didn’t win, there was a producer from another network who’s developing a show called VOX and needed a male co-host at the time. She had seen me on the VJ Search and thought I did really well. She thought I should have won, then ended up casting me for my first proper TV show and it was VOX. It was a really great experience, got to learn a lot on the job about what it is to be a host.
As a music enthusiast, is there a song that represents your life?
The first one that came to mind was by KRS-One. It’s a song called Step Into A World. I remember it was so good to dance to it at the bars that we would go to when I was a teenager. The lyrics were really the thing that was the biggest part of it that I’ve resonated with, the stepping into the light. I think we all have a shadow side and I think stepping into the lighter side of ourselves is a practice. It’s a constant lifetime thing and that’s such a great question for somebody who loves music as much as me. I didn’t really thought about that until you asked. Step Into A World by KRS-One definitely sticks out to me.
Since you said you’re a DJ and since your friends adore you so much, I would have figured something like Last Night A DJ Saved My Life.
What’s ironic though when I was a DJ, I did great mixtapes for people who like the type of music that I played, the underground hip-hop that I played. For anyone who’s ever out in one of my parties, I didn’t do a lot of parties as a DJ, I don’t think I ever saved anyone’s life. I’m just going to be honest here. I was not the greatest live DJ. I actually think I was very, very narrow-minded when I went and DJ. I thought, “I love Wu-Tang Clan. Of course, everyone’s going to love Wu-Tang Clan,” and I just played Wu-Tang Clan for an hour, looked up, and realized nobody’s on the dance floor anymore. I don’t think I saved anybody’s life. I probably got them away from the dance floor more than anything.
What is the craziest thing that you’ve ever done that caused your success? I bet you’ve had some wild stunts or experiences or just approached somebody that you shouldn’t have and so on.
The moment that comes to mind is after I was a runner-up on the Much Music VJ Search, I then was obsessive about getting a spot on that network after all. Even though I was getting this opportunity with VOX, it was going well, I still had my mind set on becoming a VJ at MuchMusic. I thought, “I’m going to put together a demo reel with a really great interview and they’ll have no choice but to hire me now.” I heard about a CD signing at the time, CDs were still a thing, this was way back in the day. Phife from A Tribe Called Quest was doing his first solo album and he was going around signing CDs for it and he was at the HMV in downtown Toronto. I decided I was going to go down to that CD store and I was going to act like I had some media outlet that would broadcast this interview and I would get this interview. My equipment was so abysmally ghetto. It was the most rankadank camcorder. I was so audacious. I jumped the line as if I was freaking Oprah and then I proceeded to basically lie. I said, “I want to do an interview for MuchMusic,” which I did not have a professional relationship with at the time. He gave me the interview, so gracious. I’m pretty sure at some point his spider senses were tingling and saying, “This kid is probably not going to get broadcast with this interview on MuchMusic.” Probably the camcorder gave it away. But then, he gave me the interview anyway. He was so nice about it and we had a great time. I ended up putting together a presentation for MuchMusic based on that. I didn’t get the gig after all even with that brilliant interview under the belt. That was definitely one of the craziest things I’ve done. I wouldn’t recommend it. I wouldn’t say going out and lying about your professional status is a great thing, but certainly when I’m on a mission, I sometimes rationalize.
I guess in the early days you have so little to lose that it’s not as big a deal. Nowadays, if you started telling people BS, then you’d quickly get caught.
Yeah, exactly. I didn’t have a reputation to smear on at the time, definitely a wild cowboy.
Was there a moment that you felt you had arrived to some degree? I know nobody ever really arrives, but that you had this moment and you’re like, “Wow. This is next level for me.”
You’re talking to a guy who has had quite a cup is half empty perspective for a lot of my twenty’s and that was when I was probably most visible. I remember one interview, definitely without a shadow of a doubt, I could not look at as a glass-is-half-empty moment. It was most definitely half full, in fact the cup was overflowing, it was when I got to interview Stevie Wonder and that was a big deal for me. Everybody admires him to some extent. I definitely felt like out of all the musicians and all artists I got to interview, he was the one that was most inspiring to me. He not only had a condition of being blind but being brilliant and being so, so, so inspiring with his music and constantly prolific, creative. There are some certain songs that really got me through tough times in my life, songs like As. Those kinds of songs bring tears to my eyes and then the next thing I know I’m interviewing him, so that was definitely a moment.
What hint or riddle would you give people to figure out who you are?
My name can be very challenging for people to pronounce but once you get the hang of it, you’ll love it.
I would definitely agree. I still have a hard time and I’ve known you for a year or so. Listeners, you have between now and the release of the next episode to figure out who Q is. If you can, you could win an invitation to The Salon by Influencers and hang out with people like Q and all the other guests that we interview here. Q, thank you. Listeners, I look forward to your guesses.