A Hidden Face Can Still Convey Good Emotions Says Inkan


“This helps them [the viewer] to make a connection with the image,” says Indian photographer Sanal Kumar, aka Inkan, about why he often doesn’t show his subjects’ faces in his portrait work. Moving countries for work helped him realize his passion and potential in photography. In a short chat, he explains the challenges he faces doing experimental photoshoots.

Inkan comes from my mother’s home state of Kerala, India. When he mentioned where he did his photoshoots, I was pleasantly surprised. A state once listed on National Geographic Traveler’s 50 Places of a Lifetime, Kerala is well known for colorful backwaters and lush greenery. So when I saw a series of hauntingly beautiful black and white portraits photographed here, it brought a smile to my face. To think outside of stereotypes and challenge oneself to produce something new in a widely admired space is admirable. Granted, these images could have been shot anywhere in the world. But to see a unique set of black-and-white photographs in a land where most images celebrate the vivid colors of nature is something I enjoyed.

The Essential Photo Gear Used By Inkan

Sanal Kumar aka Inkan

I personally don’t think we (should) focus on the camera gear, but to talk about it I own a Canon 5DS, but I use different sensor formats depending on the kind of project requirements

The Phobographer: Please tell us a bit about yourself. is Inkan your real name or a pseudonym? How did you start in photography?

Inkan: I am Sanal Kumar, a fashion photographer based out of India. Inkan is my pseudonym. Photography started as a hobby when I was doing my graduation, but never thought of becoming a full-time photographer. I always wanted to be a creative director and work in the advertising field hence I started working as a graphic designer in an advertising agency in Bangalore; the next year I got a job opportunity in the middle east and moved to Qatar.

There was always an artist in me who wanted to do art independently while working in Qatar as a graphic designer I realized photography would be a larger canvas to exhibit my art. I started learning photography seriously by studying the works of photographers like Ansel Adam, Fan Ho, Guy Bourdin, Richard Avedon, etc. This is when I made a decision to take up photography as a full-time profession and a serious passion.

The Phobographer: White in Black Soul – what was the inspiration for this series? What’s the story behind the name and these photos?

Inkan: This series was shot near my home town Kerala. This particular beach is very special to me. I have done many experimental shoots in this space which are still my favorites. The white in the black soul was one such experimental shoot in which I wanted to create an unpremeditated photo series with two characters in it. To be honest, there was no concept as such in this series; This was purely an experimental shoot to practice quick, creative thinking and executing the shoot within the limited time period and make use of whatever is available to you in the best way possible. I often do these kinds of projects to just calm my mind and to improve the creative thinking process.

The Phobographer: Did you shoot these in black and white, or was it post-processed as such? Why did you choose black and white?

Inkan: This entire series was shot in black and white because I believe black and white images brings a mystery to the storytelling which is almost surreal especially when we make sure the light falling on the subject is right. It creates an enhancement to the image.

The Phobographer: Another project that also appears to have an enigmatic back story, telling us how you came up with I See You I Hear You.

Inkan: This series was also a very impromptu shoot, which was again shot on the same beach where I shot the White in Black Soul. My team and I were there to shoot a different project called Saagaram, and once we finished shooting that, we found these interesting-looking leaves and wanted to experiment with doing something creative with those leaves.

The Phobographer: They’re both not only in black and white, but the subjects’ faces are hidden in all the photos. Why?

Inkan: If you notice most of my personal works will have masked people in them. I feel we don’t always need to show people’s expressions to convey emotions. I feel most people have a hidden mask, and they don’t really show their real emotions most of the time. Some of my earlier works are a reflection of myself as an introvert, and I have always been fascinated by the mystery hidden in people’s faces. The moment you hide the face of the subject and shoot something it leaves a mystery to the viewer. This helps them to make a connection with the image, and it’s up to them what they want to read from it.

The Phoblographer: Shot on overcast days, what was your backup plan in case the clouds played havoc with your lighting arrangements (or if it rained)?

Inkan: I look for directional light for my shoots. The plan was to take these photos before sunset so that the light is ideal with the right amount of light falling on the sea behind which helps me to place my subject against the sun to create the right contrast with the background. The backup plan was to shoot the next day when the light was ideal for shooting. Fortunately, the clouds didn’t create any havoc on the day of the shoot.

The Phobographer: When you’re doing such photoshoots, are the models curious about why they need to pose in such mysterious ways?

Inkan: Most of the time I work with normal people because when it comes to shooting. Professional models would love to see their faces in the photo. For that reason, it’s easy to convince a normal person because they will be more comfortable posing since the face is covered with a mask. The first 10 to 15 mins are the icebreaking time for them to get into the zone. I tell them to be comfortable and walk around the space randomly so that they get time to be more comfortable and I get to do some test shots to understand and figure out my composition and lighting.

Once everything is in sync, I brief them and direct certain poses, and it works well since I have established the comfort level with subjects.

The Phobographer: How do you explain your creative vision to ensure models are in sync with you on the shoots? Is this an important phase of the shoot for you?

Inkan: The subject should be aware of the kind of visuals that we are looking for; Its important to brief them about the shoot, and also we should not put a lot of pressure on them. That’s why building a comfort level with the subject is very vital before the shoot. Once you have that its easier to convince them what exactly you are looking for. Also, we should feel free to tell them to or give them the liberty to experiment with poses. This helps us get the right shots with perfect poses.

The Phobographer: Would you say black and white offers less distraction and portrays visual stories better? Why or why not?

Inkan: This creative decision has to be taken purely based on what we are planning to shoot. It totally depends on the concept.

All images by Inkan. Used with permission. Take a look at his Instagram and Behance pages to see more of his work.

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