august 2013

Interview with Gurbir Grewal for Quiescent Magazine, SKIN Issue

An interview with
GURBIR GREWAL

Published in Quiescent MagazineSKIN Issue, August 2013
All photos by Gurbir Grewal.

EBW:  Before we get nitty-gritty, let’s address the basics. Where are you from, how old are you, and where do you go to school (and for what)?

GG: I am 20-years-old, from Vancouver, BC, CA and am currently completing a double-major in International Relations and Human Geography at the University of British Columbia.

EBW: In keeping with our theme of Skin, we recognize that creativity brings us together as artists like an exterior layer. If our artistry is a common skin that we share, (a) how do you express your artist’s skin, and (b) how do you use your artistry to connect with others?

GG: This question has been difficult for me to answer to because in the way it is worded, it seems to insinuate that I have a choice in the expression of my “artist’s skin” and I have been trying to articulate what choices I have made in that regard. However, in the same way that I was not given a choice to the colour of my physical skin, I have had no choice in the genesis and development of my artistic skin either. I cannot stop myself from seeing the world in the way that I do; I may feel more, think more, hurt more, love more, and ultimately, through all of that, create more. The only choice I do have is with whom I choose to share these intrinsic parts of myself, which are enveloped within my work. The individual life experiences of a viewer will evoke a different perception of my work, but I hope that somewhere within all the chaos through which every person must tread, my work every person treads through, my work - at the very least - embodies the truths I see and hope to share with other people. The largest limitation I see in the human psyche is the tendency to view one’s experiences as separate and individual, which births the delusion where your personal aspirations and affection for others are limited and finite. My art is part of my broader efforts in attempting to break this delusion and open myself to the beauty of others.   

EBW: You say you live a double life as a full-time student and an aspiring photographer—how do these two lives relate to (or oppose) one another?

GG: I made a decision when I was 18 to reject my admission offer to an image arts school in Toronto and instead began my journey down a more traditional academic pathway at a globally competitive university. Frankly, I was on a pursuit for prestige and security and at times I think I have fallen into a trap. I have found myself identifying less with my academic peers than with the network of young people I have found through photography. I continually struggle with the question of where I would be today if I had taken the leap into devoting myself whole-heartedly to photography, if all the hours I dedicate toward readings, essays, and finals could have been used to develop myself as an artist. For many, university is already a balancing act of your academic, personal, and social life, but for me, throwing an artistic conscience upon it all adds an immeasurable weight. I am often torn away from pursuing artistic projects to meet assignment deadlines and I struggle with stemming my academics from burying the development of my creative ability. As a student in the humanities, I am immersed in the study of the human condition, questions of human welfare, and the globe’s most pressing social issues. My time is divided into attempting to balance analyzing international media, reading academic articles, writing papers, and searching for academically-relevant job opportunities while trying to edit my latest photographs, maintain my social media outlets, develop my skills in post-processing, and conceptualize future shoots. This balancing act is frustrating, exhausting and at times exhilarating , but ultimately it comes to feel that I am hopelessly trying to find a handhold but am swiping through empty air. However, I know that the harsh reality of university is that you will is that you will encounter barricades to opportunity based on academic ability and grades. Thankfully, I have jumped many of these hurdles and will soon be moving out of university wherein my success will be based on more than a number. An opportunity to bridge my penchant for social advocacy with my creative ability will hopefully come to the fore and my “double life” can finally dissolve in to one.      

EBW: You have attended three large-scale photography meetups as of now (Indiana, Los Angeles, and Oregon) and other small-scale ones as well. How have these experiences affected and changed the pace of your life?

GG: Throwing myself in to the midst of these groups of people who are incredibly and diversely talented, open-minded, and open-hearted has entirely upended my life. To think that the universe has had to conspire in such an innumerable and unfathomable amount of ways to bring me to these meet-ups is an astounding and life-changing concept. Meeting and working with other young artists, in whose work I have been invested and drawn inspiration, builds connections that over days become heartbreakingly difficult to pull myself away from when it comes time to leave. I am now backed by a community of artists that is based upon collaboration and support rather than competition, and allows for the free exchange of information between its members. There is a power behind this community that I cannot wait to see play out. I have gained a profound amount of confidence and optimism toward pursuing a profession that allows for my creative expression rather than settling for anything simply because it will cover my bills. Over the past year I’ve allowed myself to live a more freelance lifestyle where money has been low, I’ve allowed myself to travel, and above all else, pursue the people and practices with which I am the happiest.  

EBW: Your work employs the double-exposure technique quite often. What draws you to this technique? What do these pieces mean to you as an artist?

GG: Aside from my double-exposures, my images often feature characters staged within a natural environment, placed in a posture of waiting. I aim to invite the viewer into a place of contemplation with these images. Imposing an additional exposure upon these images allows me to fuse the viewer directly to the duality present in the image because the juxtaposition of the multiple elements cannot be denied. Whether I aim to create a thought-space for the consideration of the relationships between a human and nature, a human and the urban environment, or the relationship between two humans, for me, double exposures are a powerful tool to magnify the connection between two subjects. My multiple-exposure work very much mirrors my outlook toward the world. In my academics I am fascinated by how humans articulate and manifest their relationships with each other and the natural world , and multiple exposures are a definite expression of this.  

EBW: With you being from a city of character like Vancouver, how do you feel your city inspires you and your artistry? 

GG: Simply put, Vancouver is situated within some of the most remarkable and extraordinary natural scenery available in the world. My university is on a peninsula surrounded on three sides by water and the last side by hectares of protected forest land. I was raised with a mountain view and have lived much of my university life within minutes of the coast where a view of the horizon, islands faded in the distance, can be withheld everyday. With all of this, one of my biggest sources of inspiration is to look out upon the land and seascapes surrounding Vancouver, taking in sounds, scents and the feeling of mystery behind how this place has emerged from thousands of years of geological evolution and human intervention.

 EBW: Tell us more about your tattoo photographs. What’s the story with the tattoos and the models, and what was it like shooting them?

GG: Drama and Alexandria are two individuals who work extensively in the Canadian public realm: music, radio, television, and social media. I approached them about shooting a fashion shoot together and they were incredibly enthusiastic about it! It is obvious that Drama’s appearance is striking and, as a photographer, I was capitalizing on this, while also adding make-up to Alexandria’s look to aesthetically equalize her with with Drama in the shoot. However, regarding the motivations behind his tattoos it is better I let Drama speak for himself in that regard:

“I know I wasn't born this way and a lot of people will tell me, ‘you did it to yourself, so don't bitch about people judging,’ but here’s the thing:

I have always had a ton of ink before I was even considering doing my face... After about 2 years of being pretty covered in ink I looked around and made the decision to go all in, for the reasoning I was putting myself in a corner to only be able to work the careers I knew I would love for the rest of my life, tattooing, and music. Now a lot of people will say you didn't have to tattoo your face for this purpose and to chase your dreams, but I can reply "how many people out there that are 40 are working their dream jobs right now and didn't say ‘fuck it I give up, because it’s not reality?’ I never want to be that guy. I’m not a murderer, thief, or ex con. I have a massive heart and decided my dreams were the only thing I wanted in life so I wasn't giving myself the option to give up in the future at all.” - Drama Diabolos

Alexandria, who is also in a relationship with Drama, had this to say in regard to the perceptions placed upon her and her choice in choosing who she wants to be with:

“Having to defend myself because of who I am with, and who I am choosing to spend this part of my life with, is not okay... Comments such as; ‘why are you with him? You're a gorgeous girl; you could have so much better.’ The sad part is, I wouldn't be getting these comments, or shocked and confused reactions, if Jay was 6'2, buff, blonde hair, and blue eyes. Wouldn't you rather see me happy, and with somebody who treats me like gold, rather than see me with somebody who is physically appealing to the "normal" eye? I think Jay is the definition of true beauty, and I wish everyone would give him the same chance I have. He would never judge anyone for what they look like. And that is part of the reason why I believe he is one of the most beautiful people I've ever come across in my life. We're in a time where everyone can and should be accepted for who they are and what they look like.” - Alexandria Macfarlane

However, during the shoot we were evidently met with looks of shock, dismay, and confusion by passerby. When discussing this shoot I often find people are quick to appreciate the aesthetic beauty of the overall image, but opinions on the tattoos themselves widely differ. I guess that this shoot has done it’s job in instigating dialogue on the subject of personal choice and what is considered alternative versus normal.