Instead of using a traditional studio, Mumbai-born photographer Manjari Sharma found a more intimate setting to shoot portraits of friends, acquaintances, and strangers: the shower in her Brooklyn apartment. Although Sharma's subjects are nude, there's nothing racy about the images in the Shower Series. Instead, each person is portrayed with a tender sense of sensuality and closeness, beautiful in the moody lighting of the bathroom.
Initial awkwardness and reservations over posing in front of the camera melt away in the warm waters of the shower. Stripped bare for the photographer and the viewer, the subjects relax, close their eyes, and even reveal intimate details about their personal lives as they talk with Sharma. In the artist's words, the shower becomes a “confessional” where people can share their stories as water washes away their anxieties.
“I have been told by my subjects that it is thrilling and adventuresome to be in my shower,” Sharma says. “Secretly cheating my traditional and tame Indian upbringing, I live through all of my subjects–fighting their wars and braving their fears for those few hours where we are connected through this pious space.” Although the beautiful portraits were the visual focus of the project, what mattered most to Sharma were the words exchanged. She revealed to us, “What mattered was, somewhere in between my lens getting wet and my lens getting fogged, there was a conversation. There was obviously also a picture taken, but what mattered was what we said to each other.”
Although we first posted about the Shower Series three years ago, this is the first time we've sat down for an exclusive interview with the photographer. Read more about Sharma's inspiration, thoughts on the experience, and the outcome of the series, below.
What's your biggest inspiration when it comes to creating?
Honestly, it really varies. I've always been someone who's attracted to stories with a message, and sometimes a story with a message comes through a song, a person, a children's storybook. I think the universe is always trying to tell you something that's important. You just never know what comes your way. So I feel like it's important to just be listening. And that's one thing I really believe in–there's no such thing as a coincidence, I feel like it happens because it was meant to happen. Destiny brought a message your way because it was meant only for you. And I feel like if that's true, you can't really dismiss the power of what's coming to your life. And in that respect, I would say I really try to keep open ears and an open mind.
You were born and raised in Mumbai, India, and later moved to New York City. How does your upbringing influence your art?
Even in the Shower Series, I feel like I was searching for more meaningful conversation with people at a more meta-level. I was living in New York City, and I didn't necessarily enjoy the meet-and-greets that were short and weren't really entrenched in a deeper social conversation. I come from a county where the first thing that you do is invite someone over for chai and break it down. I feel like you can't do that in this culture, there's a slower way of getting to know somebody. It's just cultural difference, not necessarily right or wrong. Here, your home is your lair, you lurk in it and then you only open it up once in a while. From that perspective, I find it hilarious how much easier it was for me to get people to come over for a shower. I always laugh about it; they might not come over for chai, but they'll come over to take a shower. The number of people who said yes–including people who I've just gotten random emails from–I think it's a total compliment that they felt so comfortable.
Regarding the Shower Series, how did the idea of taking people's portraits in your bathroom morph into photographing people in the shower?
For the Shower Series, I feel like I was trying to listen to the inspiration that came through my window. And it happened to be the rare gift that every New Yorker waits for, which is to find an apartment that has a shower that has a window in it. I really took that as a gift and I said, “Oh, you know, I'm going to start off with making a dry portrait, just invite somebody into the shower and have them stand with their back to the light.” In that sense, it started in a very primal form, I was literally responding to the light that came in through the window. And I happened to ask the person in front of me if they'd taken a shower that day. So the Shower Series started in a very innocent fashion, responding to the camera, the dimples of light that fell all over the marble, and what happened to the water when the light struck it.
It started off with that, but the thing that altered it was the story that came from the person who started to get comfortable in that shower. In that sense, my inspiration was the person itself; who would the next person in the shower be, and what story would he bring into the shower? The artist statement mentions the shower turns into a confessional, and that sounds so mythic, like oh are these people coming to tell me secrets? No, they're not. I'm not waiting to listen to secrets and they're not coming in to confess either. But the water and the intimate space does allow for very fluid conversation. The physical and the mental connect; physical comfort will lead to the person mentally and conversationally divulging different information. The shower became a really interesting playground. As the clothes came undone, the walls of the mind came down with it. People said some pretty amazing things.
You've said that the shower became a “confessional” for your subjects. What kind of space is the shower for you, personally?
It's like an incubator. Whenever I have a lot on my mind, I'm like, “Okay, I'm going to go take a shower.” I need my mind to be surrounded by this deafening, monotone, all-encompassing space where it's really just me. Shut the world out, close the door behind you, it's just you, the water on the bathtub that creates this ambient space. You get the chance to percolate. Like when your grandma tells you that when you want a fruit to ripen, put it inside a brown paper bag? It allows your thoughts to be just by itself, just like when fruit needs to ripen by itself, enclosed in a space. That's what I love about the shower.
Experience is a very important element in all of my work. The first cool thing that happens to me is my own experience, and the second cool thing is to share that. I love this space so much that I want to now bring it to other places, to people. That's the goal of an artist, in a way: to believe in your art enough that you're willing to share it. The cool part about sharing is that people share back. That was the thing that was amazing. All I wanted to do was for people to come in and take a shower in this space that I loved. And the surprise and adventure was what they gave me back, and that was pretty addictive.
As you know, water has the power to do so much, whether it's cleansing people or making them spill their most intimate secrets? What is the significance of water to you?
I grew by the water in Mumbai, so the family recreational activity was to go hit the beach. Even though I actually can't swim, I have a pretty interesting relationship with water, where I love it but I'm also pretty scared of it. But at the same time, what doesn't kill you can make you stronger, so I'm trying to grow my relationship with water. I romance it and I fear it, so it's somewhere between there that my work seems to revolve around, that little pocket between love and fear.
Is the Shower Series still ongoing?
It's done from the perspective that it was an experiment with people in my shower, and I've moved on from that shower. In that sense, it's done, but will it revisit me in a different form? Perhaps. As a series, in that particular aesthetic, in that particular space, I'm not making any more pictures in that look and feel. I'm done with that shower.
What's next for you?
In 2013, I finished a pretty important project on Indian gods and goddesses. I'm working this summer on another project that was got to do with the disparity between the two cultures, America and India.
Thanks so much for the interview, Manjari!