This piece originally appeared in the Strand Magazine's December 2019 "Go Global" Issue
Alia Romagnoli is a half Indian and half Italian photographer and art director whose international upbringing affected her photography in the best way. Specializing in fashion and portraiture, Alia uses photography as a medium to explore her own queer identity and biracial background. Her work has been featured in publications such as British Vogue, Vice, INDIE Magazine, Teen Vogue, The Guardian, and Refinery 29. Strand Magazine speaks to Alia about growing up in India, capturing ‘normal’ people and breaking into the creative industry.
Alia Romagnoli, Self Portrait for Dyke Digital
The first thing I wanted to ask you is how you got into photography itself and how you started?
I’ve been interested in photography my whole life. I started taking pictures as a hobby when I was about eight or nine and I grew up in India, I’m half Indian and half Italian, so I spent a lot of my childhood taking pictures on a tiny film camera of my friends and family. I never actually thought I would turn it into a career because for me it was just for fun and a way to make memories. Basically, it’s like the cliché of not wanting to forget something because you have a physical representation of it.
When I was in high school, I had to decide what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to become a photographer, but I grew up in a system that discouraged me from doing anything creative. My school wasn’t very encouraging because in India they expect you to do finance, economics or something ‘serious’. I decided to do a film degree because that has a certain level of employability and was the closest thing to visual media. Because we have such a big Bollywood industry, I was like, ‘okay I guess people would take me a bit more seriously because they would associate film with Bollywood’. I ended up doing a three-year film degree but the entire time I didn’t really enjoy it. I enjoyed parts of it, but I knew I didn’t want it as a career. In my second year, I was working on my photography throughout because it was only at university when I started to realize people would commission me for my work. I was freelancing a lot at the beginning but I was also doing a lot of work just so I could experiment and get comfortable with the style I liked.
What really helped from my film degree is that I was specializing in production design focusing on set building, the interiors, and sometimes the makeup and costume. That really played a heavy role in how I photographed because I like things that are very stylized and kind of artificial but with a certain level of authenticity. That’s kind of how I found my style at University and I fell into it after I graduated because I really wanted to give it a shot. If I went into the film industry, I knew I was going to be miserable because I didn’t want to do this and be brave. Even if it doesn’t work out, I need to believe in myself and give myself the space to be able to really see if I can do this. By the last year of university, I had started to make money as well which was nice as it did become kind of sustainable. That’s what I’ve been doing since and every time I work on something it just makes me realize just how much I want it. This is the career I’ve always wanted for myself. I just haven’t had the confidence to basically admit it and go for it. It doesn’t matter what people tell me because I need to believe in myself if I want to be able to do it.
What were some of your favorite people/places/things to capture back in India? What about India itself intrigued you?
When I started photography, I realized I was most interested in people. I captured my friends just because I was obsessed with nostalgia; they were very much my inspiration. I loved European American coming of age stories and I wanted to look at how that related to my friendship group and my environment in India.
A lot of my work now is definitely inspired by different types of Indian architecture, textiles, and embroidery because it is very rich and specific to certain regions. What really drove me was colour. I never realized that until I left because everything is really colorful in India. Colour has certain meanings especially in Hinduism – you would wear white to a funeral and in Indian weddings everyone goes all out. That essence was very much what I wanted to tap into.
If that’s how India impacted you, how did moving to London impact your photography?
Because I didn’t really experience anything besides from how my life was in India, I felt very lonely when I first moved here. Culturally I didn’t relate to a lot of people. I never felt like that would be an issue because I’m mixed race. It was such a naïve thing to think but I realized how Indian I was after I left. What really helped me during my second and third year of university was meeting other creatives, especially South Asian creatives. They were mainly from the diaspora, so they had a completely different perspective on what their home countries were like, but I was able to relate to them in a way that I felt isolated in London before I met them.
I came out as queer in my second year of university and it’s difficult to be that in India. I think people, especially queer Indians in India, are still trying to find that balance and feel that certain amount of security. I’m in a privileged situation because I was able to leave but a lot of people aren’t. I feel like moving here really made me learn new things about my own culture but also understand that I needed to leave to be able to grow. I still have a very strong connection to my home, but I think that moving here, although really scary, made me revaluate my work and how I shot and what stories I wanted to tell. Under so much censorship, I didn’t feel that creative freedom as I feel here. I’m really grateful for being able to feel that and I think that’s how my work evolved over that period of time.
As a queer woman of color in London, was there any hardships breaking into a very male, white dominated industry?
Yes definitely, I still am trying to break into it. I’m just going along and hoping for the best. It’s a really hard industry to get into anyway because it’s so saturated. So many people want to be photographers and so many people are putting out amazing work. We have social media as well which is basically our own advertising platform. I still find it very difficult to work in certain situations because there have been times where I haven’t been employed not because I’m a queer woman of colour, but because I’m a queer fat woman. There’s so much stigma attached to so many parts of my identity - how they don’t fit in what has been mainstream and what has been acceptable in fashion photography or the photography industry in general.
It has been difficult and there are days where I question whether I have the drive to be able to do it. I think if you’re a creative, you have days where you’re like, ‘I’m just so tired of fighting and motivating myself because nobody else is making me feel like I belong in a certain environment’. I think over time what is really going to change it is to have new role models for the industry. I guess there is a move towards diversity, but I find it superficial because it’s not that diverse behind the scenes - most of the teams are white and male and that needs to change first. Hopefully I can be a small part of that change. There are so many amazing people out there as well who are a part of it. I find it really difficult now, but eventually it will pay off and I’m hoping I have the strength to do that.
Rachelle by Alia Romagnoli for Dyke Digital
What do you find appealing about filming non-models or normal people?
I’ve never shot models basically. Everyone that I cast is ‘normal’ - I don’t work with agencies. I think working with agencies is something that I might do eventually but even then, I feel like the agencies right now don’t sign people who are – for example, if you take the plus size industry, it’s a certain type of plus size. You won’t find people with ‘curves in the wrong places’. I feel like anyone can model. I genuinely believe that it doesn’t matter how much experience you have or what you look like. It’s all about the energy that you bring and how I can bounce off the person that I’m shooting. I think I’ve always shot normal people and I’ll continue to do so, especially in my personal work just because I find that it’s really nice to be able to show a side of them that they’ve never really seen before. That’s a part of why I like to shoot people. You can find beauty in anything and that’s the direction my work is going in. I never cared what people looked like it was just how much fun we were having and whether we were making it creative.
From the many times you’ve shot, is there a particular story from someone that was memorable to you?
There’s a series that I haven’t put out yet, but I shot a lot of mixed raced women with part Indian heritage. I was specifically looking for that instead of making it more general by looking for people who were mixed race. I really wanted to understand the parallels between my experience and people who’ve had part Indian heritage but grew up mixed race.
A lot of the stories belonging to people I shot for that series were really amazing because some people felt really connected to their Indian culture while for some it was their Indian side they had never experienced and didn’t have any connections to. I heard very interesting and heartwarming stories because I saw many parallels with my experiences as well. I think the main thing was how a lot of people who aren’t mixed race often question how valid your experience is. I would often get the phrase ‘so you’re basically white’. I wrote a bunch of similar phrases down and titled each picture with each one of these phrases. I think seeing how similar my experiences were and how ignorant some people are when talking to people of mixed heritage made me realize that a lot of this experience was universal. This shoot was a really great because I had never met so many people who were mixed especially with the same combination. I met 5-6 people like that which was really strange. Everyone looked different and had a different experience.
Why does the medium of 35 mm film attract you and what do you think of it’s boom in recent years?
I shoot a mix of digital and film. People are always like, ‘to be a serious photographer you need to know how to shoot film’. I started with film because when I was a kid, we really didn’t have digital cameras around as we couldn’t afford them. The cheapest thing and what was common was 35mm. For a lot of my studio work I think digital works way better only because I can manipulate colours in the way that I want them to look. Obviously, I edit my pictures and I’m not like afraid to admit to it. Some people think that’s bad and are like ‘no you can’t edit your pictures’, but I don’t care because it’s about the idea you have and how you want to execute it. I guess something that fits into my style, digital works, but for my film photography its more my daily life and holidays. I don’t really do like studio-based works with it because I like the candid feel - if I see someone interesting on the street, I’ll ask them for a picture. But the two have a different feeling all together.
I think it’s a good thing people are interested in 35mm because it gives people an opportunity to understand the medium a lot better. When you shoot film, you think about exposure, you have to understand the developing process. Taking pictures over weeks and then taking the pictures to a lab and looking back at pictures you took four or five months ago - there’s something magical about it. You think about composition and what you’re shooting instead of taking your phone out and shooting a picture. That makes the photos you take more special. So, I do encourage people using 35mm. I understand why a lot of people are irritated because it was the original way to actually take photos but for me because of the satisfaction I’ve gotten personally, I would encourage other people as well.
Below: Heleena and Nikki by Alia Romagnoli
Flowers and plants are prominent in your work from actual flora to tattoos - is there a reason why they are reoccurring across most of your photos?
I just really like flowers. It started out because I would always buy myself flowers so I would have them around the house. It’s a part of my self-care. In my first few shoots I used them as props. After a while I started to really like the feel and the texture especially because I like busy photos – the background, the foreground and how much texture something has. Recently I’ve been working on having more texture in my backdrops as well and understanding how that works with styling. I think flowers are another way for me to add texture. I’ve always loved them and have been obsessed with them. That’s also partly because of my upbringing in India – I would always go to flower shows and on Sundays I’d visit the flower market where they’d have mountains of marigolds, roses and different types of flowers. During holidays and festivals, it’s quite common for Indian households to have a big pot with water with flower arrangements outside. There are so many different aspects that draws me to flora and fauna and wanting to include a part of nature. It’s also me trying to find a balance between the artificial and the natural if that makes sense.
Tell me more about your amazing Levi’s x Queer Britain ‘Chosen Family’ exhibition and how you came to be involved with it.
I've never done an exhibition before so when they reached out to me I really couldn’t believe it. They were talking to me about how they were going to build a museum for LGBTQ+ archives and I couldn’t believe that it hadn’t been done before. We have museums like the national portrait gallery and the V&A but we don’t have one dedicated to queer archives. That was the whole initiative for them. They wanted to do a preliminary exhibition during pride this year and also planned on including the exhibition in the archives as well. They wanted me to focus on stories of the LGBTQ+ community specifically about chosen families because LGBT people find their support through their friends or people in the community. We have so many incredible queer LGBTQ+ role models to look up to but I never saw representation in that way for south Asians. There’s also everything that happened with the Indian government because there was something called section 377 which made gay sex illegal a few years ago and last year they scrapped that decriminalizing gay sex in India. Focusing on my community was very important and I decided to cast five people in the community who are also South Asian telling their stories and showing them with their families.
Below: Nadia Javed by Alia Romagnoli
How does your normal creative process look like?
I have a sketch book. I love collaging and printing out pictures that inspire me. I think going to exhibitions and looking at art that isn’t online really helps my thought process. I love mind mapping, listing stuff out and writing down who I would like to cast. Once I have an idea, I look at colour palettes and how I would want to art direct it. It’s very much a physical process because I like writing stuff down, doing experiments and just talking to my friends bouncing off my ideas. I definitely feel like a lot of work starts from my scrap books and actually putting myself in spaces where I get inspired. Being on a break, like being off social media, or being in a space that’s away from the city helps.
Finally, what advice would you give to budding photographers?
I think the biggest thing for me was I was really scared to actually put my work out there. I was scared of what people would think because I thought it would be bad, but you have to start somewhere. It can be frightening as well because of other pressures especially from your family or financial pressure but if you don’t even give yourself the opportunity to even try, you’ll never know. I’m all about DIY culture, especially when I started and was low on budget. It was literally just me in my bedroom with a bedsheet up with a table lamp with a tiny cheap camera. There are ways in which you can execute work. It’s not about equipment or the people who are involved but what you want to say and how you’re going to execute it. It’s you’re vision. I would definitely say you need to start somewhere to grow and learn. But you only do that through experimentation.
Also, networking like going to events and making friends helps even if it’s scary to go by yourself. Just go and talk to one person you don’t know before. Put yourself out of your comfort zone and take small steps because it’s very anxiety inducing. I know I’ve definitely found it difficult, but I found a community that understands me and people to work with and slowly was able to invest a bit more money. I’m an eBay queen! Learn how to bid well and learn how to get cheap deals. Just start. The other thing that really helps is learning from people who know more than you like shadowing other photographers, assisting or even just like be on set even if it’s not with the photographer. Being in an environment where you can learn and observe all the information you can is very valuable.
Sade by Alia Romagnoli for Dyke Digital