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BEST OF 2012, Ashok Sinha
New York, NY
Project: Images of a war-torn landscape in Northern Sri Lanka and the formation of The Cartwheel Initiative, an organization with a mission to bring the arts to children living in the aftermath of conflict and disaster.

© Ashok Sinha

© Ashok Sinha
P. Mathusanth, Pandiyankulam School from the series "The Cartwheel Initiative"


After shooting a travel project for Sri Lankan Airlines, Ashok Sinha experienced a life-changing epiphany upon visiting northern Sri Lanka’s war-torn landscape.

“The scars of battle were visible everywhere, and even more prevalent was the silence,” Sinha recalls. “I immediately realized that I had to do something to help the children living there. Rather than just raise awareness about the conditions, I came up with the idea of art-therapy-based workshops. On return to New York, I began assembling a team of artist volunteers, and soon The Cartwheel Initiative was born, with a mission to bring the arts to children in the aftermath of conflict and disaster.”

© Ashok Sinha
© Ashok Sinha
Destroyed classroom, northern Sri Lanka
from the series "The Cartwheel Initiative"


© Ashok Sinha
© Ashok Sinha
K. Dishany, Pandiyankulam School
from the series "The Cartwheel Initiative"


© Ashok Sinha
© Ashok Sinha
Former agricultural land, Jaffna
from the series "The Cartwheel Initiative"


© Ashok Sinha
© Ashok Sinha
Woman on train
from "Meeting of the Art Waters"


© Ashok Sinha
© Ashok Sinha
Skyline view of Leh, Kashmir
from "Meeting of the Art Waters"


© Ashok Sinha
© Ashok Sinha
The modern day ger (traditional Mongolian tent)
from the series "New Mongolia"


© Ashok Sinha
© Ashok Sinha
Brand new leather boots
from the series "New Mongolia"; as traditional lifestyles change, artifacts of a former way of life go along with it


© Ashok Sinha
© Ashok Sinha
Ger interior and lightbulb
from the series "New Mongolia"


© Ashok Sinha
© Ashok Sinha
Mongolian family with their motorbike
from the series "New Mongolia"


© Ashok Sinha
© Ashok Sinha
Fort Collins, Colorado, USA
from the series "Exacting Proportion"


© Ashok Sinha
© Ashok Sinha
Cabo Polonio, Uruguay
from the series "Exacting Proportion"


© Ashok Sinha
© Ashok Sinha
Los Angeles, USA
from the series "Exacting Proportion"


© Ashok Sinha
© Ashok Sinha
Lenny at V.I.P. Men's Suits
from the series "Faces of Lower Manhattan"


© Ashok Sinha
© Ashok Sinha
John at Tower Art Gallery
from the series "Faces of Lower Manhattan"


© Ashok Sinha
© Ashok Sinha
Black's BBQ, Lockhart, TX
from the travel food story "Hill Country"


© Ashok Sinha
© Ashok Sinha
Louie Mueller Barbecue, Taylor, TX
from the travel food story "Hill Country"


© Ashok Sinha
© Ashok Sinha
Brisket at Snow's BBQ, Lexington, TX
from the travel food story "Hill Country"


© Ashok Sinha
© Ashok Sinha
Chef Aaron Franklin, Austin, TX
from the travel food story "Hill Country"


© Ashok Sinha
© Ashok Sinha
Sunset and Wet Pier, Manhattan Beach


ASMP: How long have you been in business?

Ashok Sinha: I have been a full-time photographer for four years; however, I have been shooting for a total of about nine years.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

AS: Also four years.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

AS: For commercial work, I focus on naturalistic, environmental portraiture and architecture. Editorially, experiential travel work is my specialty.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable professional tool?

AS: The ability to think like an entrepreneur.

ASMP: What piece (or pieces) of gear could you not do without?

AS: My workhorse 16-35 mm wide angle, 50mm normal and 70-200 mm zoom, all of which are fast lenses.

ASMP: What is unique about your style/approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers and their work?

AS: Since I have not had much formal training, I do not carry preconceived notions of what makes a “good photograph.” I am not afraid to break rules if the subject calls for it. My approach is to first think about making an image interesting and compositionally compelling while taking into account the interplay of (artificial or natural) lighting in the scene, much of which is inspired by the work of old master painters.

ASMP: Please explain the aim of your nonprofit project, The Cartwheel Initiative. Where did the name come from?

AS: The Cartwheel Initiative’s aim is to bring the power of the arts to children living in the aftermath of conflict or disaster. Through this project, we want to have these children rediscover their lost childhood by expressing themselves artistically, whether through photographs, drawings or music. The namesake Cartwheel is a play on the word “art” and is symbolic of the fun of doing cartwheels (which many of us probably remember from our childhood). It also stands for continuity and progress, which is very important to the fostering of future generations in broken communities.

ASMP: This initiative was inspired by a trip to photograph in Sri Lanka, where you witnessed the aftermath of civil war. You mention that the silence in Northern Sri Lanka was similar to your memory of post-9/11 days in New York. Did this distinct time in U.S. history inspire you to get involved in humanitarian work or had you considered such endeavors prior to September 11th?

AS: When 9/11 happened, it was too close to home. Like many others, I felt I had to do something. I had not been involved in any humanitarian work prior to that. I was in business school at that time and immediately started a small grassroots fundraising campaign on campus to raise money for dust masks for relief workers. I also joined a project at New York University that provided free planning advice to small business owners who were affected by the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 disaster. I eventually returned to the same community after about ten years, but this time as a photographer, and created “Faces of Lower Manhattan”, a slideshow accompanied by an oral history of the challenges faced by business owners after the 2008 financial crisis.

ASMP: Once you witnessed the devastation in Sri Lanka, you immediately realized you had to do something. Do you often use photography as a way to awaken people to the world’s issues? How would you characterize your primary role as a photographer?

AS: I am not a photojournalist, per se, and I don’t go out and seek stories that need to be told. However, if I happen to come across a situation I believe I can help with, I usually think about ways I can make a difference. As a photographer, telling stories through images is often what I think of first, whether it is for an NGO or a personal project.

In the case of my experience in Sri Lanka, I felt I had to go a step further to help the children rather than just raise awareness about their condition, and I came up with the idea of creating art-therapy based workshops.

My primarily role as a photographer is to affect people’s perceptions. I want people to think differently when they see my photographs — whether it a social issue at hand, or revisiting the familiar in an unfamiliar context.

ASMP: You co-founded the Cartwheel Initiative with Parveen Dassenaike. How did you become partners? How do you split the responsibilities for the Cartwheel Initiative?

AS: I met Parveen during my first trip to Sri Lanka as part of a travel/tourism industry media trip, for which her company was one of the sponsors. Shortly after my visit to the war-torn North, I reached out to her, to seek ideas that would enable a project like The Cartwheel Initiative to happen. Luckily, she shared my vision of doing humanitarian work and had the right connections to get us started … and the rest is history!

Parveen handles the relationships we have with partner organizations within Sri Lanka, including taking care of the ground logistics. I, along with our core team in the US, am responsible for fundraising and program development.

ASMP: The Cartwheel Initiative includes a team of eight in the United States. How did these individuals first get involved with the project? Did you seek them out or did they offer their services to you? What was the most important quality you sought in these individuals before inviting them to join your effort?

AS: After I got back to New York, I started seeking out individuals who I thought could help build the perfect team because I knew I could not do it alone. I went through my contact list of friends and fellow creatives who I had worked with before and started telling them about my experience, and as a result, they came forward with their willingness to be part of this important mission.

Any project’s strength is in its people, and I made sure that those who were invited to join the team had specific skill sets required to conduct the workshops in addition to being extremely committed, especially since this is a volunteer effort and because it involves a number of responsibilities that you are required to fulfill as a team member. Going forward, we will be doing an artist call every year to bring in new talent.

ASMP: Oftentimes photographers work alone. What have you learned about collaboration and leadership through this humanitarian endeavor? In your opinion what are the most important qualities to consider in building a successful team?

AS: I believe that leading by example is the only way to ensure success and the best way to motivate team members. Collaboration works when the project scope is too large for an individual effort. In addition, the variety of skills required for The Cartwheel Initiative, starting from fundraising and program development to exhibition production, requires a team working together efficiently. If synergies don’t exist, a team is merely a group of people. Commitment and motivation of team members are two of the most important qualities I look for.

ASMP: How much time do you dedicate to The Cartwheel Initiative on a monthly basis? Has this project ever taken your focus off your photography career or is this the perfect complement? Please describe how your time is spent on business now that The Cartwheel Initiative exists.

AS: It takes a big time commitment to keep The Cartwheel Initiative running. I would say it takes at least 10 to 15 hours a week. However, we are streamlining our internal operations and I hope that we can do things more efficiently going forward.

In the initial startup phase last year, it did take some focus off my photography career (especially during fundraising and outreach), however, I find that I can use what I learn from that experience to apply to my photography business. Also, in many respects, The Cartwheel Initiative is a perfect example of my past and present lives coming together in harmony, and I cherish the new opportunities that have presented themselves a result. For example, when I sit down with a potential client these days, The Cartwheel Initiative is almost always a part of the conversation and that in turn demonstrates my professionalism and ability to lead a team, because most of the times during a client shoot, the photographer often needs to play that role successfully.

Now that The Cartwheel Initiative exists, having a weekly schedule (and designating specific days for it) is more important than ever, so that I remember to devote time to my business as well. It also means that I sleep a little less.

ASMP: Has your humanitarian work in Sri Lanka led to other outreach projects or do you have any future projects under discussion?

AS: The launch of The Cartwheel Initiative was an experiment that was hugely successful. As a result, we have decided to formalize it as an organization starting this year as well as expand operations to other countries faced with similar challenges.

ASMP: Learning about new cultures is your passion. What is it about other cultures that interest you? What was one of the best adventures this passion for cultures has taken you on, outside of The Cartwheel Initiative?

AS: Cultural understanding is ever more important in the connected world we live in today. A minstrel in West Africa once said that he likes to sing the same song differently each day because if every day is not the same, then why should a song be sung the same way? What is very normal to him was very unusual to me, and that’s what I mean about understanding cultures. In turn, it helps me understand who I am as a person, what my heritage means to me, as well as which elements of other cultures I can pick-and-choose from to create an identity that is very much my own.

I have had a few adventures that have been fueled by this quest of cultural exploration, but the most memorable was my trip to Mongolia, where I wanted to observe how a nomadic society was coping with advances in technology and whether preconceived notions that I had about life in Mongolia still held true. What I found is that Mongolians were far more advanced in many ways then I would have thought, and as a former technologist that was pretty fascinating to me. I cannot wait to go back to Mongolia to revisit the communities I met the first time.

ASMP: You often travel on assignment, ready for travel at a moment’s notice. Is it ever difficult to leave your home base or are you always excited to set out on an adventure? Do you see yourself being somewhat of a nomad forever?

AS: From a schedule perspective, there are times when it is difficult to leave, especially when I am shooting commercial projects. However, nothing comes close to the excitement of setting out on an adventure, which means that I often juggle quite a bit to make that happen. I hope I remain somewhat of a nomad forever.

ASMP: Does traveling on assignment ever cause complications with your other responsibilities — either as a co-founder of The Cartwheel Initiative or as a commercial photographer? Are you able to tend to all your projects remotely? What do you need while traveling in order to do this?

AS: You never know when or where the next project will come from, although with commercial projects, things are planned out way in advance. Editorial assignment work is a different ball game, and I sometimes I have to turn down lucrative projects if I am not available. However, I always carry my archive with me on portable hard drives, which means that I can make any stock sale of images from wherever I am. As a co-founder of The Cartwheel Initiative, I schedule team meetings keeping my travel schedule in mind. I am required to have face time when I am meeting potential partners or funders, other than that, everything else can be done remotely. Skype is a big help.

ASMP: You were born in Kolkata, India, but studied in New York, first at Columbia University and then at NYU’s Stern School of Business. When did you first arrive in the US? Please talk about what your experiences in making the transition from India to New York. Does your foreign heritage contribute to your passion for travel?

AS: I have been in the US (New York) for about 20 years. Although I am an American citizen now, I still have an immigrant’s work ethic to make something happen out of whatever I have on hand. This was true the first day I got here and is still prevalent in the way I work today. The transition from India to New York was not so much in the level of life comforts (I was raised in an upper middle class family in India), but for the first time I realized that hard work, passion and commitment gets rewarded in New York. That to me was a revelation. I think my quest for life has more to do with the passion for travel than my foreign heritage.

ASMP: Did you also study business at Columbia or a different discipline? What aspects of your business studies have been most beneficial in running your photography business? Based on your business background, can you name any specific skill sets or behaviors that you feel would be helpful for photographers who do not have business training to cultivate?

AS: Like many South Asians, I was encouraged by my parents to study the sciences at Columbia. Although I didn’t enjoy it that much, it did have its benefits — for one, it taught me how to think in a logical manner. However, once I attended business school, I began to think like an entrepreneur, and that has been the most valuable asset to date. My advice to photographers without business training would be to think in non-traditional ways of generating income from images, beyond the usual magazine assignment or commercial shoot. Another area where photographers would spend their time wisely is honing people skills, especially since most business transactions come down to people buying from people — customers have to feel that they can work with you.

ASMP: You began your professional career working “inside the cubicles and conference rooms of soulless corporations.” What kind of career were you in, and what positions did you work in? What is it, in your opinion, that prevents the corporate environment from being more fulfilling, more creative, more inspiring than it tends to be?

AS: I have held a variety of positions in the corporate world, starting in telecommunications software to managing digital media businesses of multinational corporations. The corporate environment falls short of its promises because, first of all, there is a big mismatch between job descriptions and the actual demands of corporate positions, much of which involves little creativity and does not encourage risk-taking. There is little correlation between hard work and reward — a lot of it revolves around how well you “play the game” and how well you can manage your relationships with your bosses.

ASMP: Coming from corporate America, what was it that inspired you to choose a career in photography? It is quite a different path. How did you get your career started?

AS: I needed an outlet to express myself. Yes, there was enough money in a corporate career, but after a while that became not so exciting anymore, and instead I began a bit of soul searching. I picked up the camera in my late 20s, and soon realized that I had a natural gift. I knew that I had a lot of catching up to do, so I was relentless in shooting personal projects. My first love was travel photography, so whenever I had the opportunity, I would photograph as if I were on assignment. This resulted in quite a large body of work in a very short period of time, which I started showing to creatives in New York. I still maintain that work ethic today. For example, when a recent commercial shoot took me to Texas, I took the opportunity to shoot a food story on Hill Country on the side. I am also a big foodie, and I love barbecue!

ASMP: Have you kept in touch with any contacts from your past career? Do any of your current clients include people you worked with in the corporate world? If so, was your approach in reaching out to these companies any different from your general marketing approach?

AS: I still keep in touch with people from my past career, and I believe I have inspired many to pursue their own passions, whatever they may be. A few of my current clients include people I have worked with in the corporate world. However, I would say it was harder to gain credibility with them because some still thought that I was doing photography as a hobby.

ASMP: Please give us an overview of your strategy in marketing your business to clients. How often do you reach out to clients, and how do you keep in touch with clients you’ve worked with in the past? Do you send updates from the road when you’re on assignment or contact them when a new campaign or editorial piece has just launched?

AS: My marketing strategy is comprised of e-mail promotions, attending networking events and one-on-one meetings with clients. I maintain an e-mail promo schedule that goes out every two months, followed by a small mailing of postcards to potential targets. I try to have at least one meeting a month with a prospect and keep in touch with my past clients through quarterly e-mails. I usually don’t send updates from the road, but I do send an e-mail to my list of contacts notifying them of my upcoming travels. I have a section on my Web site that contains recent work, but perhaps I should be more proactive and send out updates whenever new work is published.

ASMP: Can you estimate the percentage of your client base generated from visits to your Web site, versus those clients generated by more traditional marketing efforts? What types of updates to you make to keep your Web site fresh, and how often do you make changes to your site?

AS: So far there has been a 50-50 split between clients who have found my Web site first and those who got to know of my work as a result of traditional marketing efforts. However, most of the clients who came to my site first, found me through other sources, such as through my stock licensing agency or as a result of seeing my work at an exhibition. I keep my site fresh by updating it seasonally and add images from various new projects to the “Recent Work” section although, for busy Fall and Spring seasons, I add new bodies of work within my portfolio sections as well.

ASMP: Your Web site has a section with short film projects. When did you begin shooting video? How do you decide that a project is better suited to motion capture than still photography, or even a slideshow with audio?

AS: My earliest video project was shooting an artist workshop I had organized in Ecuador in the summer of 2010, where we documented indigenous Andean culture with an anthropologist over a period of two weeks.

I believe that motion capture works best for projects that need to grab the attention of the audience within a short period of time and for those instances where reliving an experience is as important as the overall message of the story itself. When narrative dialog forms the core of a story, I resort to using audio slideshows, such as a project I did in New York titled “The Faces of Lower Manhattan” which was comprised of portraits of small business owners with audio voiceovers narrating the challenges of a post 2008 economy.

ASMP: Given your exploration of video, please share your thoughts on the future of visual media in its widest sense as well as the relationships between various components.

AS: Despite what some might say, I don’t believe that video will replace photography, but will indeed become a de facto component of storytelling, whether editorially or commercially and especially for instances where there is a call to action. Video could well become the way we communicate in tomorrow’s world; however, only the lasting impression of a still image will continue to make that memorable and personal.

ASMP: As a professional photographer, people can connect to you on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. What do you think are the relative merits of each of these social networks in terms of connecting to new business? What kinds of business related leads or contacts, if any, have you gotten from each?

AS: I find LinkedIn to be the most useful, especially if I want to reach out to someone or get more insight into one’s professional background before meeting them. Facebook is a way to engage to my audience in a more casual fashion, and Twitter is a newsfeed. I haven’t gotten any tangible business from any of these sources yet, however, I have met a number of creatives who discovered me on Facebook.

ASMP: Your blog is called “1000+ words.” Although you admit to being a lazy writer, you feel compelled to tell stories about your photographs. Is writing for you like pulling teeth, or does it become easier once you start? What can language accomplish that you feel your photos cannot?

AS: I actually enjoy writing once I start, and my blog is a modest attempt to add some context to images and invite the reader into the process of making an image, which sometimes is as interesting as the image itself. Take the example of the image from Manhattan Beach, Los Angeles, that I wrote about on the blog. The image is strong in itself, but one wouldn’t know about the sheer joy and relief I felt after seeing the sun for the first time after six straight days of rain!

ASMP: You also exhibit your photography in galleries. How do you establish these relationships? Do you attend portfolio reviews? Do you submit your images to contests or calls for work? What has been the most effective way to reach the fine art market?

AS: I believe portfolio reviews are the best way to get attention. The series “Exacting Proportion” was exhibited at The Mixed Greens gallery in Chelsea as a result of such a review at New York Foundation of the Arts. I never fail to attend the annual ASMP portfolio review and have made some great connections with key individuals in the fine art world as a result. I do submit to calls for work as well, although I’m getting more selective by the day and the decision factor comes down to the curator who is in charge of selecting the entries. Showing work at galleries is a long-term process and it takes a while to establish relationships with curators and the like. I also find that donating work to select charity auctions is a good way to start building relationships with collectors.

ASMP: Select images on your Web site are available for purchase as limited edition prints. You offer three print sizes — 8” x 10”, 12” x 15” and 16” x 20 — on archival paper in an edition of 15 copies. Details on pricing, however, are not posted on your Web site; people must email you for this information. Why do choose to keep this detail private?

AS: I welcome a conversation with the buyer and usually a price inquiry via e-mail is where it starts. So far, the interaction with a buyer of my prints has been very personal. Also, since the price of a print varies with the available edition number, pricing for each series gets too complicated to explain on a pricing sheet. However, due to increasing commitments, in early Fall I am launching an online archive of prints where orders can be placed directly.

ASMP: You recently worked with two other New York based photographers to co-produce a group exhibition in northeastern Pennsylvania called Meeting of the Art Waters, intending to spark conversations, introduce new ideas and benefit two local groups. Please tell us about this event. Did it meet (or exceed) your expectations?

AS: Jamie Smith, Geoff Green and I literally hatched the idea on the banks of the Susquehanna while visiting Jamie’s homestead in northeastern Pennsylvania one year. The idea for Meeting of the Art Waters was to bring art into a small-town community that would otherwise not be exposed to such endeavors, as well as our own urge to share our vision of the world with the locals as we photographers see through our lenses. The show was also about bringing the community within the confines of an art gallery and issuing a call to raise awareness about topics that were very relevant to them, namely animal welfare and environmental preservation. It was an experiment that did quite well. Jamie ended up buying the old hardware store (which had been in his family a few generations prior and where the show was held) and made it into a permanent art gallery, now called the T.W. Shoemaker Art Gallery.

ASMP: You allow your portfolio to be downloaded from your Web site and users can customize which images they want to download. Do you know how and when clients use this feature or how often your images get downloaded? Is this anything you track and follow up on? Given this level of access, are you ever concerned about people misusing your images, making unflattering crops, or not assigning you proper credit? Do you register the copyright to your images on a regular basis?

AS: I do keep track of portfolio downloads through Google Analytics (which I check daily), although I would like to have better insights on the clients themselves, which is one area I’m currently working to improve. This feature was made available on the Web site as a direct result of client and image buyer feedback.

I am concerned about people misusing my images. However, I also understand that anyone can take a screenshot and do the same if they wanted to. I hope the honor system would prevail for some unscrupulous users out there and if not, I consider that as a cost of doing business.

I do however register my copyrights on a quarterly basis to stay protected against any unforeseen issues down the road.