We often hear folks say “You get what you pay for.” Usually this is accurate, but when it comes to Swetadri Vasan Setlur Nagesh (Setlur), it couldn’t be further from the truth. Setlur is a talented local photographer who offers his services for minimal prices and sometimes free. He often photographs community based events, charity walks, and works closely with the National MS Society Upstate NY chapter. Research Scientist by day, photographer by night: these contrasting professions are what makes Setlur unique. He works at the Gates Vascular Institute focusing on Medical Imaging.
This week, we talked to Setlur about his labor of love with photography, the creative process, and what motivates him to work in the field.
How did you get into photography?
I was always interested in expression. I guess it was a few photos that got me into photography, because I liked that way of expression. I was never a good painter or a singer. When I started photography, I was looking online at different styles of photography. When I picked up a camera, photography automatically demands you going to places. Once I started photographing places, it merged into travel. For a couple of years I was doing travel photography.
You offer your services for minimal prices and sometimes free. Why?
At this point in my life, I don’t think I’m looking to make money using photography. Photography is more of a hobby and a release rather than a source of income. Once you take money out of the picture, it is enjoyment and it stays that way. That is something that I’m trying to sustain. I do it for the cause, not for the money. If I support the cause, I do it. if I don’t support the cause, I have the option of saying no.
What is your favorite thing to photograph?
I’ve never really categorized as to what my favorite things are. If I’m photographing for myself, then there will be a story in mind. I’ll come up with an idea and try to put together the idea in scene or if I’m going somewhere and I see something that fits my idea, I’ll photograph it. So abstract and stories are very interesting to me. I also like landscapes, it is interesting because you have to travel to get to a good landscape. The journey itself is enjoyable. I don’t particularly enjoy photographing for money, you know, traditional portrait sessions or weddings. I don’t do that.
When you photograph something, what message are you trying to send and how do you do it?
From a photographer’s point of view, it’s the capture of the expression. The best photographs to me is when someone is truly expressing themselves. For example, if I want someone to smile, rather than asking them to smile I try to make them smile. When they look at the photo they don’t remember me telling them to smile rather than remember smiling, I try to talk to people, engage in conversation and make them comfortable. I try not to click the shutter. I try to create the moment.
Is it easier to tell a story with people or landscapes?
When I do landscapes I try to involve a human element in it because with just the landscape it’s a different kind of story, but once you add a human element you closely associate it with the viewer. When you see a human in that picture, you can see yourself being there. I try to combine both landscape and human. It depends on what kind of story I am trying to express.
Which photographers influenced your thinking?
I never took a course to be honest with you. I never studied certain groups of photographers, but over the course of a few years, to improve my skills, I read online. I learned a lot by joining the Science Museum Photography Club. When you join local clubs you get the opportunity to present your work for someone to judge. Through that, I learned a lot of techniques and compositions. After that I did my own exploring. I went on YouTube and studied people like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Ansel Adams. In many ways I tried to incorporate [their style] into the beginning.
Among your work, which is your favorite?
I would have to say World Refugee Day. I’ve photographed a lot of charity events and a lot of walks, but the diversity that was in World Refugee Day is something I’m used to growing up in India. The population of people was different, you can’t just put a camera to their face if they don’t like to be photographed, so you have to engage in a conversation. It was more challenging and more fun.
When you’re taking a picture of something, how do you get that image to look exactly the way you want it to look?
There are two parts to the process from what you can see to what you present. When you’re taking a photograph, you have to get a few technical elements right, like the exposure, composition, focus, proper lighting. Once you take care of that , you bring it into the computer and you start focusing on to what you want in the picture and what you don’t want. If I am working on a particular composition or a story, it takes me a week to get to where I want. I like to add a little bit of color here and there and enhance some colors. There are ways to crop the image to bring out what you want to show. So, one is in the came and one is off the camera.