WATCH NOW: 5 Messages for Photographers Who Want to Self-Publish & Connect with their Audience by Ritesh

The Red Cat and Other Stories by Ritesh Uttamchandani tells the story of every big city like Mumbai. Shot over 4 years on an iPhone, the photobook features 98 images showcasing a raw but magical glimpse of life in Mumbai. An edition of 1000 copies, the self-published book was released in 2018. Post release, Ritesh visited 500 to 600 homes, hand-delivering the books to his readers. From surprise and excitement to disbelief, his readers showed a range of emotions to see the author himself on their doorsteps. Sometimes funny, sometimes nostalgic, Ritesh recollects stories from his interactions with his audience as he shares them with Siddhi Gandhi.

Tell us the story behind your self-published photobook “The Red Cat and Other Stories”.

Books have been an important part of my life. My mom would borrow books for us, from the library of my aunt and uncle, who were well-known Sindhi writers. My sister also loves reading and she often bought books from second-hand book stores. My book though was inspired by my desire to go beyond the trap of single image storytelling that I was in, largely thanks to functioning as a daily news photographer. The book had a very different version in 2015 and 2016. There were no fables or stories.

One day, I remembered this beautiful folk story my mother used to narrate about a lost young man and his unusual friendship with a talking Red Cat. And I found to be a perfect narrative tool for the book. I asked my sister to write the Red Cat fable for me and then edited it for the book with a friend. The end result was a perfect metaphor to describe life in any big city. Instead of saying upfront that the book is about Mumbai or Delhi or Kolkata, I realised that the story made it far more interesting and mystical.

Had it not been for my sisters, I would not have been able to pursue my dream of becoming a photographer. They are a large part of my upbringing – have raised me and I wanted them to be an integral part of my book – using their personal handwriting style as the font for the title is my tribute to them! My friend Sabeena Karnik merged their handwriting styles to create a title for the book.

At first glance, the book does not look like a photobook.

I wanted an unassuming cover; something simple and straight-forward. I wanted to let it unfold slowly, build a connection with the photographs, the stories and the people photographed in it. Pick up on the clues scattered over the book and at the end, read the whole fable. I wanted them to enjoy the book, as they would have enjoyed coming to a new city. The intention was to create a mystery and not have the cover explicitly say what the book is about. Just like how a new city unveils itself slowly as we explore it, I wanted the book to do the same with every turn of the page.

Why did you choose self-publishing over getting the book published by professional publishers?

Book Cover by Rahul Muzumdar

I did go to professional publishers initially. We went through all the legalities and made a contract, but I did not find the process conducive. They would have been able to publicise the book on a larger scale, take it to book festivals and events. However, that meant compromising on my say over various aspects of the book like the production process or even the printer. I wanted the book to have a certain feel, be of a certain size, which would not have been possible with the professional publishers.

In India, photobooks are often assumed to be thick and heavy coffee table books. I did not want to go down that road. Also, the photographs were shot on my iPhone, so it just made sense to control the production. And I was not in favour of the 10% to 15% royalty scheme, especially after working on the book for almost five years, keeping everything aside. I didn’t reach out to any foundation or organisation for a grant, but relied instead on my own network. I felt that if I am taking such a big risk, why not go a step further and publish the book myself? I would have control over the whole process and if I did make a profit, the entire reward would be mine.

However, it does not all come down to just the economic factors. In this learning process, I realised there are many readers interested in such books. Not everyone can travel two hours to an art gallery for a book launch, but those who want to buy the book will buy it without any hesitation.

You are not very active on social media. In this day and age where people usually prefer social media, was informing people about it a challenge for you?

There have been challenges at every step, be it conceptualising, or final production, or even shipping. Even right now I have a few orders to fulfil, which I cannot ship due to the lockdown. Social and mainstream media outreach was a lot of work, especially when you are not backed by any organization or label.

Thing is, you can begin with all sorts of plans. It is when you are actually working on it that you realise it is not as linear as people say. There were lots of twists and turns, you learn new things, or realise what you previously planned may not translate well as a post. The book got built along the way and took shape. I was putting myself out there using the book as a medium.

I would recommend everyone to go through the self-publishing process. It develops within you, a renewed respect for people who do this and you will invest in their efforts. I am more than happy to buy self-published books nowadays as I know how challenging it is, and I have a special place in my heart for people who self-publish.

Having chosen to crowd-fund the production of the book, did you face any complications while getting the book published?

With photobooks, simple promotional activities or book launches are not enough. There is a conversational gap between the producer of the book and the consumer of the book. So, I started with crowdfunding. I reached out to people who may be interested and sent out 200 to 300 e-mails. It is not necessary that my friends of ten years or fifteen years will back the book. That was another learning experience for me.

Another aspect was speaking to potential subjects/collaborators for the book. I would explain what I was doing and why I wanted to take their pictures. Some came on board easily, others took convincing. I would often hear some shyly say that they were simple people without much to offer in terms of a story. But that was precisely why I wanted to talk to them. I wanted ordinary stories of ordinary people. My experience as a photojournalist also helped in convincing people and getting them to open up. There were lots of people and lots of stories that I really liked but they did not fit in. And, I did not photograph people who were uncomfortable with sharing their stories nor did I use any pictures of those who withdrew consent.

Did your conversations with people you met while shooting for the book, give you a new outlook towards the flow of the story?

It is very natural to improvise and form a certain perception while interacting with a stranger. We begin with a certain idea of a person, you meet them and talk to them, invest your time and effort and eventually more layers and ideas are revealed. You begin to realise that the ideas you started out with are no longer applicable and need to be changed. It is all very subjective. If I am happy right now, I could be sad or angry after some time, so it won’t be fair to bracket me as a 24/7 sad or an angry person.

Similarly, when I would meet people and photograph them, I would think at some point that the resulting photograph goes with the story they had narrated. But when I would look at them again, I would see a mismatch between the photo and the story. I do not like photographs being completely illustrative of what is going on in the text. I feel as if the text and quote should elevate each other or complement each other to enhance the reader’s understanding. I would go back to click their photo again and they would reveal something else the second time. And the end result would be something completely different, yet better than the first attempt.

Once published, you were hand-delivering the books. This is a very unique approach to connecting with the readers.

Ritesh with photographers Amit Mehra. Dinesh Khanna and Samar Jodha

The day the books arrived at my house, I coincidentally got a call from a friend who wanted to know if the books had indeed been made and if she could collect her copy. We met and I gave her the book and told her about the process. She was fascinated and had so many questions and we had a great conversation about her interpretations. I had planned to organise a book launch, but seeing my friend’s reaction to the book, I canned the idea of the launch and decided to hand-deliver my book to as many readers as possible. 

Every weekend I would deliver as many books as possible in the city. It was an interesting experience. Not everyone realised that I was the author. Some would mistake me for a delivery guy and ask me to keep the package with the watchman. And I would do that. I got to experience how they treat you when they think you are a delivery boy. I got to see my readers’ reactions when they realised that I was delivering the book. The best part is that I got to connect with many of my readers, got to see them unravel the story and see the excitement on their faces at every new discovery.

Delivering the book to every city was not possible. So, if I was going to be in a particular city for an assignment, I would deliberately delay the consignment for that city. I used to get complaints from people for not receiving their book, while another person they knew got one. Then one day, out of the blue, I would show up at their doorsteps with the book! They would forget that they were ever angry.

I went to around 500-600 houses. At different times, I’d meet different people. Some would open the door and they would be cooking; most people were sitting relaxed in their nightgown or pyjamas. They would be surprised when they saw me. Once, I even heard a couple arguing while I was waiting for them to open the door. They were shocked to see me and invited me in for tea. The woman was going through the book while I sat there having a reluctant cup of tea. In the process, her husband started to ask questions about the book and they started looking at it together. It was nice to see my book made them get over their anger. I got to see a book bring two people together and got to be a part of that moment.

I also met people who had invested in the book and I had not met in a long time. There was another fascinating experience where a father-in-law had ordered the book as a gift for his son-in-law, who was outside the country. The book was purchased so that the delivery would coincide with his visit. That day I got a panicked call from him asking where I was and when can the book be delivered? I had planned to deliver the book a week later, but made a special concession and went there. The door is opened by this frazzled old man and then comes his son-in-law, shocked and surprised to see me with the book. There are many such incidents; I can make a book out of these experiences.

Are you planning to have another book out soon?

No, because this book took the life out of me! It is not easy to publish your own photobook in the Indian market. Even in the international market, every competition you wish to apply for has an entry fee from USD 30-50. Then there are the shipping expenses. If I were to apply to 10 photo competitions, I would have to send ten of my books, losing out on the amount I would have madeselling them. It could be an investment, but the risks are even higher. You are basically spending a good 30,000 to 50000 rupees for validation which may or may not happen.

The market is very skewed and stacked in favour of publishers who can afford to send books to such competitions. I would rather gain ten readers than enter such competitions. I can create a market using the resources I have at my disposal.

With this book, I had something to say, but as of right now, I have nothing to say or show. I am back to zero. I do not have that kind of Eureka moment and I don’t know if I will do another book or not.

There is no compulsion right now. You do it when you really want to. The second book can’t be like the first book. There needs to be a complete breakdown between the two, unlearn whatever you have learnt and start from ground zero. For now, this is what I feel.


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