WATCH NOW: 5 Thoughts on Why Self-Publishing a Photo-book is Not about Vanity, But About a Legacy by Jagdish

Hailed as the father of stock photography in India, Jagdish Agarwal is a visionary that has made a mark in the world of photography. In the five decades that he has been taking photographs, Jagdish has nurtured the art to make it more sublime, poetic and even alluring. For him photography has no boundaries and he doesn’t believe in typecasting his work to a specific theme or genre. He is the founder of the Dinodia Photography Library, the first professional picture agency in India. Jagdish has won over 50 international photography awards and his photographs have graced the covers of national and international magazines. Join Siddhi Gandhi as she chats with Jagdish Agarwal about his coffee table book “100 Photographs: A Retrospective of 50 Years of Photography” (published by StoneMill), taking the self-publishing route, combining it with an exhibition and creating legacies.

What inspired you to publish your book “100 Photographs: A Retrospective of 50 Years of Photography”?

I was always interested in having my own book. However, ongoing projects and commitments always got in the way.  Close to mid-2019, I received a confirmation call from Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai – the organizers at the Art Gallery wanted to host an exhibition of my photographs. I decided to use this opportunity to publish the book and launch it at the exhibition.

Many photographers who have been working for decades have been unable to create their legacy for future generations. I had a very illustrious colleague, whose photographs were sold for peanuts after his death. I have had friends, who lost precious negatives and work due to calamities; famous works were eaten by white ants or were destroyed due to water damage or burnt in a fire. I think photographers should be aware of all this and they should take the leap to have their own book. I strongly believe that photographers need a legacy to leave behind. After all, if the worth of a photographer’s life can be summed up by just a few definitive moments, let the photos be left behind for others to see, ponder over, and enjoy. Exhibitions and books are the best way to do it.

Why not hold a separate event for the launch of the book?

I always like to bring a surprise element to my exhibitions. I have conducted over 14 solo exhibitions and participated in nearly 100 group exhibitions in the last five decades. Each exhibition had some unique element to it. I am probably the first photographer in the country to have a photography sculpture exhibition. I have had a frameless photograph exhibition and even an exhibition where the prints had no minimum price; the buyers could buy them as per their own convenience. Such unique surprises start conversations and inspire people to think differently, look at things from a different perspective. When you are sitting at an exhibition and someone comes to you and likes your work, and talks about it – it is a conversation you will remember for life.

When we talk about publishing, fiction or non-fiction books are far more popular. Photo-books are few and far in between. In such a scenario, where finding the right publishing house is difficult, why did you self-publish?

Initially, I did consider getting in touch with publishers and getting my book published by them. My plan was to select a few photographs that showcased my journey, have them bound in a book and bring them along to my exhibition. The exhibition was scheduled for mid-December and I had a little more than three months to get the book printed and ready for the show. I got in touch with a few acquaintances who were publishers. They, however, were not sold on the idea of publishing a photo book as it does not have much market and is difficult to sell. Those that were ready to consider, were asking for an exorbitant price to get it made and had even more conditions.

I was at a loss. I wanted to get the book published in time for my exhibition. I could not ask the Gallery to change my slot, it is difficult to get an opportunity to exhibit work at Jehangir Art Gallery, and I could not let go of this opportunity. I realized that instead of spending money on a publisher, who would limit my rights over the book, it would be better to publish the book myself. I would be in control of the budget, publication, design, content, pricing and every miscellaneous detail for making this book. The idea stuck and I decided to self-publish my book.

Tell us more about your self-publishing journey with StoneMill. Why a limited edition of 100 copies?

Jagdish self-published his book “100 photographs: A Retrospective of 50 years of Photography” with StoneMill

When I thought of self-publishing, I spoke to some writers that I know. But they did not know much about photography or publishing a photography book. Then I thought to myself, should I not talk to someone who knows something about photography? That is when I thought of StoneMill. I got in touch with Samira, the founder, and she was on board with my idea. And I think it was a wonderful journey working with her. She and her team were very cooperative and helpful. 

Samira understands photography, visuals and the written word and that was definitely a bonus. She was able to give a flow, direction – a story to my book. From my collection of about 20,000 black and white photographs, I selected about 500 and gave them to Samira. I asked her to select the 100 photographs that would ultimately go in the book and it worked out perfectly. Conchita Fernandes, who wrote the captions, sat with me over a few days to understand my story and wrote captions that added flavour to the book. I was given four book designs and covers ideas to choose from and everything worked out beautifully. Ultimately for me, it all came down to trust. They were communicative and receptive. They kept me involved in the whole process, took my ideas into consideration and they were able to deliver within the time frame I had.

Since I am in this industry, I have seen that reading of newspapers and magazines has gone down and so has the buying of books. However, I do know that there is still a market of limited edition prints, so I decided to publish a limited edition of the book. I decided upon 100 copies as it fit in my budget and I knew that I could sell all of them. If I had decided on a higher number, it would have taken me forever to be able to sell them. Because there were limited copies, I was able to autograph them and give a little personal touch for the collectors.

Did you market your book before the exhibition?

My exhibition was the platform for marketing my book. I was lucky that the book and exhibition were happening at the same time. If there had been no exhibition, I would not have thought of selling the book and without the book, I would not have been able to sell my framed photo prints. I think it was a little bit of both, that helped me have a successful launch and exhibition – a sweet spot.

Though I did not do any online marketing, I reached out to my well-wishers and clients from over the years through emails and calls to let them know of my plans. I have been conducting exhibitions and selling prints for nearly five decades and have an in-built mailing system through which I reached out to people. I also sent letters to them with the details for ordering the book. Many came to the exhibition to buy the book. Others placed an order over email. A few people, like a man from Hyderabad, contacted me to order the book after the exhibition. Word of mouth helped, as some of the post-exhibition orders were from buyers who had heard of it from regular clients. Many of my photography enthusiasts from Australia, Dubai, the USA and Europe bought the book copies as well. However, I do know how important marketing is for a book – maybe for my next book! 

How did people respond to the exhibition and the book?

It was a wonderful hit. I was surrounded by my friends and family. So many photographers, whom I have known for many years were there. They were surprised to see that they could buy a book at my exhibition. They found it to be different from what they usually see. Some especially loved the captions. It was a very satisfying experience. We managed to sell a good number of copies during the exhibition itself. The remaining got sold post the exhibition.

All the copies were autographed. I actually had a process going. When somebody would come to buy the book, I would ask them to choose a number from 01 to 99. The buyer would choose their birth dates or their lucky number and it was a fun interactive process. I would give them a signed, numbered copy. The numbers would be 01/99 to 99/99 and they would be the only person in the world to have the book with that number – that is the beauty and value of a limited edition. The buyers ranged from established photographers to photography students and even corporates. I got to meet people from different parts of India and some from outside the country as well. A fine arts photography teacher from Germany came to the exhibition twice to buy the book and the prints. It was a joyous experience to see them express their happiness and enthusiasm for buying my books.

I remember a person coming thrice to the exhibition, as he did not have enough money to pay for my book. When he came again on the third day, I was ready to give him the book for free. But he had managed to collect the money to buy it. Apparently, the man was a foreigner and had spent his money on his travel. Another visitor had bought a print from my previous exhibition when he realized that the same picture was in the book, he got so elated. And I was so glad to see my work put a smile on people’s faces. Unlike exhibitions where you see a landscape or a portrait, I try to put photographs that make the audience think and converse. People would come to me and share their perspective on a particular photo. These experiences cannot be replicated online. 

Over the years, photography has changed a lot and become more inclusive. We have bloggers, travellers, and influencers posting photos on their social media. Is it possible for them to have their own photo book /or exhibition?

Photography has become very convenient today. Everyone with a mobile phone is a photographer. Social media is their platform. The focus is on likes and shares. But think about this: two or three months down the line, these photographers may remember the number of likes but they will not remember the people who liked their photos. They will miss out on the conversations they could have had with their patrons. Therefore, it is very important for every photographer, whether they are amateur or professional to have an exhibition and a book.

Many people start by taking pictures of their family, friends, their holidays or the food they eat. Bloggers, Instagrammers, travellers who have thousands of followers post at least one picture every day. In a year this is 365 pictures. If they have been doing it for a few years, they have enough images to consider doing an exhibition or creating a book even if it is a single copy as showcase. Also, today mobile phone images are of decent resolution to print or frame or make into a book.

Sometimes photography is something people do for their SOLE. But every now and then the focus must be on the SOUL as well. Every now and then a photographer will take a picture that will tug your heartstrings. The idea is to select those pictures, pictures that talk beyond what you see in it. 

What are your future plans? Do you plan to release another photobook?

I have actually; I would like to publish another book in the two or three years with one more exhibition. In the meanwhile, I wish to encourage more photographers – both amateurs and professionals – to plan an exhibition and a book. After going through scores of publishers, rejection and finally the ups and downs of self-publishing, I have decided to collaborate with StoneMill and mentor other photographers in planning and curating their own exhibition and self-publishing their own coffee-table books. From arranging to editing, printing, framing of prints and writing, designing and printing the book, we will offer all the services required to have a successful book launch and exhibition, so that they can leave their photographic legacy behind.