An interview with Roshan Adhihetty
“In Summer 2014 I discovered a nudist beach in Corsica. I was completely shocked and fascinated by this collective nudity, but after some days I felt like I was in paradise.”
Roshan Adhihetty won our third theme of Life Framer Edition V – an Open Call – with a wonderfully idiosyncratic ‘Mise-en-scène’ of a group of nude hikers in Switzerland. Our judge, Martin Parr, praised the image for both the subject matter and the whimsical execution – the composition sitting mysteriously between candid and posed.
We jumped on the opportunity to interview Roshan, asking him about the image and series, the appeal of naked hiking, and what we can all learn from it…
Hi Roshan. Congratulations on winning our Open Call judged by Martin Parr. What did you make of his comments on your image?
Hey there! Thanks! He hit on an important point in my work. I question the reality-factor of photography a lot, and I enjoy it when the viewer doesn’t really know if they can believe their eyes or not. Having my images seen and commented on by Martin Parr is a very big honor for me.
The image comes from your series Nacktwanderer, in which you photographed a group of naturists on hikes across Germany, Switzerland and Austria. Can you tell us a little bit about the origins of the series? What first drew you to the subject, and what happened from there?
In Summer 2014 I discovered for the first time in my life a nudist beach in Corsica. I was completely shocked and fascinated by this collective nudity. I could not stop staring at all those naked people. It prompted me that I have issues with my own nudity. But after some days on the beach, I felt like I was in paradise. The romantic atmosphere with all those people, young and old, male and female, enjoying life naked at the beach touched me deeply. I knew I had to treat this subject in my photographic work. I began taking portraits in nudist camps in France. That’s where I met a naked hiker who told me all about this next level of public nudity. One thing lead to another and in the
end I went on more than 30 hikes in three countries.
Trust is always an important aspect of documentary photography, but I would imagine even more so when the subject is one that can sometimes inspire ridicule. Your images are entertaining and whimsical and a little absurd, but certainly not mocking or exploitative. Did it take time to build trust? And did you have a clear idea of the story you wanted to tell at the outset?
Well, it took me almost two years until I really found my way of photographing the hikers. As I mentioned before, I started in nudist camps. But those portraits were quite stereotypical of naked hippies, laying in the sun all day. After my first naked hike, I knew it was something completely different, with completely different people. Most of them are very well integrated into our civilization, and aren’t ‘hippies’ at all. They have good jobs and big cars, overcompensating their lack of nature in their free time. So I changed my focus and tried very hard to get into that very, very small circle. It took a lot of emails and phone calls until someone finally accepted me and my camera. Once I built a friendship with one of the main tour-organizers I was invited on every hike.
Roshan’s winning for the theme ‘OPEN CALL’
To me, the series explores a paradox in the viewer – how we yearn for wild nature, but at the same time are shocked by the nude human form. Do you agree? How would you summarise Nacktwanderer?
Nacktwanderer illustrates an attempt by civilized humans to get back to nature. In my eyes they fail in an excellent way. But I tried as a photographer not to tell the viewer what they should think of it, and rather to provoke questions: Is the naked human body a part of nature? Do we fit in there? Can we lose our culture for a day and integrate ourselves into nature just like animals do?
The shocking element of old naked men in hiking shoes, mixed with the romantic layer of pictorial landscapes is what makes this photo series so interesting. We never see old naked men in our society – we see naked oversexualized nudity everywhere, but there is no sober natural male nudity in our daily lives. It was my goal to place that surprising nudity into natural environments, just like nymphs and goddesses in romantic paintings.
There are some wonderful compositions in your work – stunning scenery and colors of course, along with meticulous placing of the hikers in the frame, often carefully positioned to ‘maintain their modesty’. Was there an element of staging in the images? How did that work?
My concept was to distance my photos visually from the excited voyeuristic pictures I found about naked hikers in the crappy newspapers. I tried to focus less on the event, and instead to see it with more distance, on a philosophical layer: humans trying to approach nature. Therefore I connected my visual approach with our collective memory of representations of humans in nature. I undertook research about composition and typical subjects in romantic paintings to find that again with my camera.
I consider my work placed somewhere between art and documentary. To reach my visual concept I staged people, gave them directions, asked them to repeat certain actions, even modified some images with photoshop. I shot all images on 6×7 medium format film, which created those picturesque colors.
What did you learn from shooting Nacktwanderer and spending time with your subjects? What drives them? And have you been tempted to take up nude hiking yourself?
I admire the naked hikers for their lack of vanity. They don’t really care what others think about them. The need for adventure is way bigger than the shame or the fear of the unknown. But still, I like how they respect “textile-hikers” as well. They always carry “emergency clothing” with them and get dressed whenever they have to cross a restaurant or a street.
I guess it’s around 60% a need for pure natural experience, 20% the feeling of adventure and 20% affiliation to a group (a lot of the hikers are lonely old men who find company in the big hiking groups). During all the hiking I was naked myself. The first time was really awkward, since I’m actually quite a bashful person. But I saw it as my workwear, as part of my job. It was necessary to reach full trust and get accepted by the group. After several hikes I even began to enjoy it. But still, when I’m hiking privately I prefer to stay dressed.
The series has been published as a hardcover photobook by Sturm & Drang. What was it like to compile the book? What were the biggest challenges?
The biggest part was the editing. I was looking for the picturesque, well composed scenes, but still wanted to keep the authenticity of the documentary. A good mix was necessary. Also I didn’t want to lose the magic ‘wow effect’ across the book, which is a risk with too much content. So we really reduced it down to a short story.
What is the most important lesson photography has taught you?
Not to judge anything. Just to look and be amazed like a kid.
And finally, where next for you Roshan? What do the last months of this year and 2019 have in store?
Besides the struggle of earning money as a freelancer, I’m working on two personal projects. One is a reportage about a group of hardworking Indian vegetable carriers in Calcutta, where I try to find a sensual and raw masculinity. And the second one is a research piece about the objectivity of photography, turning around local news TV coverage in Europa. Again, I will try to work at the borders of documentary, seeking new approaches to storytelling.