Ones to Watch: Mathushaa Sagthidas
Ahead of her debut solo exhibition ‘Not Just Brown, Not Just Indian’ we spoke to Mathushaa Sagthidas, a previous mentee of Fashion Minority Report and photographer with an affinity to tell stories of her culture and background. With a keen interest in fine art and contemporary fashion, Mathushaa infuses her Tamil ethnicity and British nationality into her work, creating a unique and captivating style.
Her background in art direction, styling, and set design from Camberwell College of Arts, UAL, is what she says has laid the groundwork for being able to conduct such visually engaging pieces. Mathushaa’s work has been featured in renowned publications like Creative Lives, Glass Magazine, and The Photographer’s Gallery. Her work has also been exhibited in prestigious venues like Tate Britain and PhotoFusion.
In this article we profile her for our series Ones To Watch, taking a closer look at Mathushaa’s creative process and her captivating portfolio.
You are a photographer, stylist, set designer and art director, how did you get to learn these different skills?
Learning these different skills was a step-by-step process and a journey that started with photography. When I was younger, I was open to various creative avenues. I began building sets and styling different looks for models, having more creative input within the shoot. It was a more controlled environment compared to shooting on location, which I did frequently when I first started out. As I refined my focus in photography, predominantly fashion, I honed my skills in styling, set design, and art direction. It started with test shoots and collaborative projects during my time at university.
You art direct a lot of your images, how do you think the role of an art director and photographer interplay?
To me, art direction can vary depending on the skill being used. For example, a makeup artist may have a lot of creative freedom and not be restricted by a brief, allowing them to art direct the look for a model. From a photographer’s perspective, art direction may involve guiding models for certain poses. For me, art direction always ties into my focus, whether it’s purely photography or incorporating set design and styling. I find myself always putting forward creative ideas that run through my mind when I’m shooting.
Your photography often speaks of your Tamil Eelam heritage, what is it that you like to explore through this lens?
Exploring my heritage is an open process. Projects revolving around my heritage, identity, and family tend to be in the moment. Sometimes, I build them for months through research online and conversations with my family. It depends on how personal the project is to me and my family or if it revolves more around my Eelam Tamil heritage. Other times, it could be a short and small concept that comes to mind that I want to explore that day. It’s my way of understanding certain aspects of my culture. Recently, I’ve been exploring how being a Hindu plays into my identity by visually exploring various festivals and religious celebrations that have been part of my life since childhood.
You were previously a mentee of FMR, what do you think the importance of mentorship is?
Having mentorship while I was in university was incredibly helpful. FMR put me in touch with people within the industry, something my university didn’t do as it was a creatively focused course. Having this support system was essential in helping me build my skills, perfect my CV, and learn the importance of networking and how to do it effectively.
How do you approach the different styles of photography, for example, fashion photography compared with stills?
For me, the creative approach is similar, but the process of building a project is very different. Still life is shorter and doesn’t require a massive team. I often shoot still life from home and buy props from various shops. Planning a fashion shoot with models is a whole different ball game, especially when working with a client and collaborating to build a vision that fits their needs while also incorporating my style. It can take time to plan, search for a team, and set dates for the shoot. Those are some key differences that come to mind. In terms of approach, it’s slightly different as one involves a team of people while the other doesn’t. My still life shoots tend to be a short process.
What are some of your biggest influences?
My biggest influences are definitely my family. When I started doing photography, I used it as a tool to explore and understand my identity, culture, and family history. Photography was my way of learning more about myself and figuring out who I am as a creative person. As I’ve grown, I’ve gone beyond exploring my identity to exploring the wider South Asian community. My biggest influence would have to be the people who have been my go-to creatives. I’ve worked with them time and time again and they understand how I work and are on the same wavelength as me creatively. The process tends to work so well and is easy.
What does ‘Not just brown, not just Indian mean to you’ and how are you exploring this throughout your exhibition?
Not Just Brown, Not Just Indian celebrates the traditions and history of South Asian countries from a female perspective, focusing on British South Asians based in London, like myself. As an Eelam Tamil woman, like many other South Asians, I assumed I was Indian as if that were the only country in South Asia. Our cultures and traditions are often classified as one, hence the name. Working with various South Asian women from their respective countries, I wanted to showcase parts of their stories during South Asian Heritage Month this year with the theme “Stories to Tell…”. Collaborating with The Lab and Bow Arts, I’ve been able to work with an incredible team to curate and showcase the project in a way that welcomes people to learn more about our culture. I hope the South Asian community will see parts of themselves within these images.
What advice do you have for those looking to enter the field of photography?
While shooting for fun and doing collaborative projects, I would suggest reaching out to various photographers to assist. Focus on those who specialise in a specific field that interests you because these are the people you’ll be able to learn key skills from, such as handling clients, lighting, and what it’s like to be on site in general for the type of photography you do. One thing I’ve learned is that every field of photography is different in some aspects.