Harshvardhan Shah simply goes by Harshy. An artist and photographer from India, he presents himself with style and grace. Kajal sat down with Harshy at a coffee shop in SoHo, New York City, where he is now based. He walked in dressed in all black but his aura immediately softened the space.
Most of Harshy’s visual storytelling revolves around queerness and the South Asian identity. He uses lines, prints, and fades in his work, seemingly pointing to the unity within diversity. He lived in Mumbai for 15 years, and then came to the United States for boarding school. College brought him to New York City. He’s now on the last leg of his student visa – what he calls a ticking clock.
Kajal: What was it like for you to move here?
Harshy: It’s interesting when I think about it now. I go back home and it’s a different life, and here it’s a different life. In India, I went to the same school for ten years. Your life is so weird back home. It just wasn’t the right environment for me, at that time. But when tenth grade ended – that was my ticket. And I took it. After tenth grade, the way the Indian school system is, that’s when you have to decide what you want to do and you can usually leave. And when I saw my chance, I just knew I had to get out of there.
But I’ve seen it trickle in, slowly. It’s exciting to see that the narrative is shifting.
What made you want to leave?
At the time my environment was not the most friendly towards anyone like me. I was the only openly gay person that I knew of – even though I wasn’t saying it. But it was obvious. I open my mouth and people just…know. I always make that joke. But so much has changed now in terms of homophobia and the narrow-minded thinking that people had. Just recently, Netflix came to India, and now people are more aware of different stories through pop culture. At the time when I was there, it was all more confusing. There was nothing to get comfort from.
So, do you feel India is more inclusive when you go back now?
When I went to boarding school, there was a small time period where I was very angry at where I grew up and came from. [Mumbai] made me feel like something was wrong with me and I didn’t want to connect with any of it. But being here, I had the time and opportunity to explore myself. I became more secure with myself so it became easier to go back. And eventually, I became less angry too.
I go back now and I’ll see an ad on TV, like a guy putting makeup on, and if I saw that five or six years ago, I would have been like wow. But I’ve seen it trickle in, slowly. It’s exciting to see that the narrative is shifting.
How did you start taking photographs and really start thinking of this as your artform?
I actually took an elective in boarding school for a darkroom to develop black and white images. I literally just took it because it was a requirement. But I got obsessed with it. In Mumbai, I was taking nine classes in high school that were all science and math and nothing related to anything I am doing today. I never realized that I had any artistic inclination or interest whatsoever. It felt like a release. Even though I wasn’t directly putting myself in the photos – I was shooting other subjects – I found an outlet through my work and I just felt lighter. Those two years in boarding school were really nice. Being around very few people felt decompressing after coming from such a big city. At first, I just did the work for fun. I had no other training and I would take silly photos with my friends. It’s when I got to New York City for college that I got to meet more artists, those who actually work here, and over time, by meeting more people, I understood myself more and figured out what I am interested in.
Because of my experiences in Mumbai, I knew I had to talk about me being queer and brown. For a long time, all my creativity came from a place of hurt. And in India, Tumblr was my only source of information. It had so many visuals and the things I saw on it, I wanted to create something like that. Though I wouldn’t ever think of it in high school, it’s when I started making things that I realized I could actually do something I was really inspired by – and I often turned to Tumblr for it. And it is still my backbone. To Americans, it might sound corny, because they might have had other kinds of support growing up. But I lived on Tumblr and learned a lot from it.
It’s very easy to be boxed as one type of artist, like yeah, I did talk a lot about me being queer and being from Mumbai, but that was all coming from a place of healing.
And where are you now with your artistic process?
For the past few years I’ve focused on queer South Asian stories. I wanted to reconnect with my roots and I wanted to find a way to make sense of my identity, even though I eventually realized that identity is not ever real. It changes every week. And I don’t want to box myself but a lot of my work is personal even if it’s not meant to be personal. And I like working on text elements now. I’m at the point of my process where I want to support my friends and what they want to say.
It’s very easy to be boxed as one type of artist, like yeah, I did talk a lot about me being queer and being from Mumbai, but that was all coming from a place of healing. I guess now I’m a portrait fashion photographer. But I want to add a layer to it and not just have a pretty picture all the time.
Where do you meet your friends and subjects?
Literally Instagram. Most of the things I’ve done have started from there or have led to something because of Instagram. Not knowing anything before I came to New York, it was crazy how easy it was to just message somebody. All the friends I work with now, I met through Instagram.
But now I feel like I don’t want to post as much on Instagram. I used to love sharing stuff on it but now it feels like a chore. Not because I don’t want to communicate or talk to people but, and maybe I’m wrong, when people meet you they think something of you because of what you’ve put up from Instagram and that’s really scary to me. Like people will look at me and say “you’re killing it” and I’m like I don’t know about that because I’m mentally worried about my visa. I don’t know if I’ll be here next year or where my life’s gonna take me and I’m just thinking about that. Thinking if I’ll have to leave. What I post is just a small part of my life.
How does collaboration with other artists work for you?
I’ve come to realize that the more people you work with the nicer the final product is. You meet people who like the same thing, give a shit about the same thing as you, that’s what makes it worth it.
Like, for self portraits, I’ll do makeup on myself, but I don’t know how to do that for others when I’m shooting my subjects, really. So I’ll collaborate with makeup artists and stylists. I’ve noticed that the more produced or planned out something is, the better it turns out. I’d rather take the time with it and and have it be worth it. Sometimes people will reach out to me and sometimes it’s the other way round, but it’s definitely a nice feeling to work with others.
And what’s your process like when you plan a project?
I’ve been lucky to be able to manage my own casting. I’ve had creative control. I do like to plan out what I want my story to look like. For instance, I did a project with four South Asian creatives for V Magazine. That was really exciting. But we couldn’t have expected what the final product ended up being. All four artists I interviewed and photographed talked about something so different but so similar at the same time. One talked about colorism, one about self-care, one about how confusing it was to be an ethnic food writer, and so on. But all of it came together in such an interesting way. I just sort of just planned the interview and had an idea of how I wanted to shoot them and then went with the flow.
What kind of people are you hoping to work with in the future?
It’s really all about how I feel around someone. If we get along, and if we have the same intentions with how we want a project to turn out, I’m all set. If we both get mad excited about something – that’s how I know it’ll be fun. And that’s really important. I don’t want any of this to feel like work.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.