Stopping time becomes a possibility when you learn to capture ‘larger-than-life portraits.’
Immortality is something humanity may never attain, but art outlasts us all.
Sej is that ICONIC Photography and Film Maker that creates works that would make an impact even in the lives of generations unborn.
Our interview with her says it all!
Enjoy and Stay Inspired:
The words on your Instagram bio reads: “Capturing LARGER THAN LIFE PORTRAITS of ancient and remote cultures + their stories to enrich our lives and help our planets.” Kindly share the personal motivation behind these words?
Every time I capture a photo, I feel as though it represents a window into the soul of these people. It was a great honor, humbling even, to be allowed to get an intimate glimpse and bring back photographs of people who inhabit our planet with centuries of ancient wisdom and traditions passed down for generations. These photographs are more than portraits to me. They represent the soul of a culture. I hadn’t thought of these exact words until Emmy award winning documentary filmmaker, Micki Dickoff used them to describe my work when she saw it hung on the walls of a gallery in Abbot Kinney. And it stuck with me
What does Art mean to you?
To me art is the fullest expression of myself. I grew up a very shy and awkward kid, but when it came to poetry, plays, and photography, I never held back in my expression. Now I have learned that art also serves as a means of expression which allows ideas to penetrate the human consciousness deeply in ways that not much else can, to awaken that within which lies dormant or forgotten. Art is a way to connect with ourselves.
Can you remember the first picture you ever took as a photographer and what inspired it?
When I was a little girl of about ten years of age, my parents gifted me a film camera. The first photograph I took was of a trail of ants going in and out of their little ‘cave’ which was a hole in the wall of our home. I was so intrigued by their trail that I stayed with them for a while, photographing, to later discover that they were stocking up food for the winter. I was too young to realize then, but photography since became a way for me to stop time and observe the world around me with a microscopic lens. Allowing myself to pause and breathe has been the biggest gift photography has given to me.
Have you ever held back your gifts at some point, perhaps through self doubt? Have you ever felt it ‘boxed’ by someone else or an experience?
Absolutely. For years. I was a poet and a writer since I was seven. A photographer at ten. Forever a voracious reader. Yet I never thought this could be my career. I didn’t know art could even be pursued as a career. And because I didn’t know that, I ventured really far away from my Self for many years. It was when I finally became depressed that almost immediately, unnamed universal forces propelled me to go on a journey of self-exploration which eventually became my journey into these tribal cultures. It was only in my mid twenties that I started to come back toward myself, and hence toward my art.
During a Q & A session of the 5th Rishikesh International Film Festival, you had a conversation on an ‘Exploration in seeing from within.’ Can you briefly share more on this, and how meditation has helped you as an artist?
As a photographer, seeing means listening to the unspoken words in the world around me. Photography is its own form of meditation but I also meditate formally everyday which has helped me get in touch with my Self.
When I was in writing school at USC, I loved writing these grand, surreal stories that were not written in my voice but rather dissimulated to impress my mentors such Janet Fitch or Syd Field. They were fun to read but lacked depth. Or if they were autobiographical, they were quite superficial. I’m not bashing them, but I’ve noticed that ever since I’ve started getting in touch with myself, everything I write comes from a place deep within, it’s authentic. It may not be grandiose prose but it’s real, grounded, and seems to impact people more.
I have this one photograph of a Rajasthani woman scooping up cow dung with her bare hands and putting it in a basket, which I’ve shown at almost all my exhibitions. A woman from Belgium cried when she saw it, saying it represented Advaita, or non-duality to her. She purchased the print immediately after. This was in 2017, at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi aka ‘Beatles’ Ashram. Two years later in Los Angeles, an Italian man teared up at a gallery in downtown LA while looking at that photo, saying that it took him back to his own childhood in a village in Southern Italy and he couldn’t take his eyes off it. If you take a look at this picture, it’s not really visually appealing. It’s messy. But it seems to have an impact. My work didn’t have such an impact on people ten years ago. I think when you meditate, you see the world differently, you see it more clearly, free of your own judgements and notions. Less projection of your own thoughts and judgements onto the world around you equals more acceptance, more compassion. You can tap into something deep within yourself that is real and when you create art from that place, your work becomes more universal while remaining very personal at the same time.
David Lynch explains it the best. He says, “Ideas are like fish. If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you’ve got to go deeper. Down deep, the fish are more powerful and more pure. They’re huge and abstract. And they’re very beautiful. I look for a certain kind of fish that is important to me, one that can translate to cinema. But there are all kinds of fish swimming down there. Everything, anything that is a thing, comes up from the deepest level. Modern physics calls that level the Unified Field. The more your consciousness—your awareness—is expanded, the deeper you go toward this source, and the bigger the fish you can catch. – David Lynch, Catching the Big Fish.
Some of your recent works reflected some naturally, beautiful and fearless girls. You also talked about empowering girls to live above societal norms. How best do you think art can be used to enforce a positive change in the world?
By making more films about the empowerment of women. More films demonstrating conscious and evolved men. Human beings are so incredibly powerful. We have the power to manifest a different reality by focusing on what we want rather than what we don’t. In that aspect, I think artists have great power and a great responsibility to the human consciousness. If we want to raise the collective consciousness, for example, let’s show films that raise human consciousness. And by that I don’t mean bury our heads in the sand, which a lot of the new-age folks are doing (I don’t blame them, it’s hard to deal with the atrocities that are happening on our planet, and maybe we were never supposed to process so much dichotomizing information at once). But closing our ears with our fingers saying, “positive vibes only” may not be the way because the negative does exist in this world. We do have 785 million people around the world who don’t have access to clean water. We do have women who get raped on a train near Philadelphia, for example as it happened a few days ago, even now, in 2021, without fellow train riders intervening. Art is very powerful to shine light on existing issues. But it is just as powerful to shine light on what can be done and what reality we want to create in our societies. Let’s make films about a new type of heroes. Who don’t save women from being raped but rather treat women well in general or appreciate and respect our planet. We can add the drama factor to these stories and make them just as dramatic to appeal to the audience.
In a photograph with Deborah Anderson, you shared a highlights of your powerful conversation with her, including the #Lakota and what it means to forget who you really are.” Can you share more details on this very important conversation?
I met Deborah Anderson at the opening of her exhibition at the Leica Gallery in Beverly Hills, where she was showing and talking about a powerful photographic series she created and a film she was about to make, entitled “Women of the White Buffalo”. It is a homage to the history and culture of the Lakota tribe and their stories of loss, suicide, murder, and the meth addiction among their community, mirrored by their deep ancestral roots, traditional ceremony, prayer, and hope. She was sharing how in the educational system on the reservation, they do not learn about themselves, they don’t learn about their people, they don’t learn about their Native American history. They are given the curriculum of the federal government in the US.
But simply knowing about their history could deeply change a lot of their habits, because when they go back into the depth of their roots and understanding as a Lakota, they will remember who they are, and she was sharing how she thought that this was where the healing would begin. “Because they’re so separated from that, is why there are so many issues on the reservation.”
And this is a very important conversation. As I noticed time and again from my experiences with the various tribes, the ones who were the strongest, were the ones who had held onto their roots. The others had become victims of different types of addictions. These cultures don’t need to be dying cultures. Our planet needs them, we need them, because these are the last places where our traditions and ancient knowledge and wisdom remain. But when you start to divorce a community from their spiritual value system, and place more importance on a commercial value system, you take them one step further away from the values inherent in their culture. And that’s where a lot of the problems in the indigenous tribes begin. But their wisdom holds a universal and timeless richness that could be relevant to us in the modern times as we drift further and further from the essence of who we are as individuals and as a society.
What was growing up like?
I was very blessed to have a loving and supportive family growing up. I went to a good school with excellent peers and teachers, and I had a mix of both Eastern and Western culture thanks to the city I grew up in. Yet, my childhood was a difficult journey for me. I had rejected the Eastern culture because I didn’t fully understand it, and I didn’t fully fit into the fast-paced modern life of filling one void after another. So I spent most of my early childhood confused, alone, and not knowing where I belonged. It was when I came to LA that I truly connected with myself, and it was when I went on my self-exploratory/photographic journey back to the East that I remembered who I was. I made many bad choices and decisions, but I can look back and say that it was all a part of the journey to evolve into the person I am today.
Please briefly share highlights of your visit to the Apatani in April, 2018.
The Apatani are an awe-inspiring tribe of people with a very rich history and an incredible ingenuity especially when it comes to the environment. They are a non-nomadic, nature worshipping tribe who consider the Sun and the Moon their Gods, the Sun considered female and called Mother Sun. They have a sibling relationship with nature and perceive prosperity as a harmonious condition between man and nature. Every Apatani house has its own kitchen garden, and the tribe practices paddy-cum-fish culture, cultivating rice without the use of machinery or pesticides. Their inherent knowledge of edible plants allows them to solely depend on nature for healing but the Apatani language—beautiful, soft and harmonious—is completely unscripted and steadily dying. Their land has been nominated as a world heritage site by UNESCO for their approach to environmental preservation.
Apatani women were considered to be the most beautiful in Arunachal Pradesh. Men from other tribes would kidnap them, to prevent which young Tani girls were given nose-plugs to make them look less appealing and their faces were tattooed to identify them. The practice was finally banned in the 1970’s and the last generation of these women is now in their late eighties.
Knowing their story, I wanted to photograph this one woman I had glimpsed upon arrival with beautiful white hair to be the face of the tribe, or at least, that’s how I had put it in my mind. I had a photo of her on my phone. I looked for her everywhere, even stumbled upon this old wooden house one evening, inside which almost all the women of the tribe seemed to have gathered, talking under the candle light in soft whispers. It was a surreal picture. I was too enthralled to capture that moment, but I scanned carefully and didn’t see her. I kept walking around showing her photograph to people until I finally found her home but had no hope of finding her since all the older women of the tribe seemed to be at that mysterious meeting. Her daughter welcomed me in and said to me, “My mother is out drinking with her girlfriends. She may not be back tonight but why don’t you come back tomorrow?”
I returned the next morning and there she was, waiting at the door for me, pulling me in, speaking animatedly in her language, saying that she was afraid I’d leave town without taking a photograph of her. Most tribal people are afraid of the camera stealing their soul (not without reason) but she was truly the epitome of living life fearlessly and fully. As a result, she looked over 30 years younger than her sister-in-law, who she jokingly called (in her language) “a sad wretch”. We took photos, then she invited me in and talked with me for 45 minutes, laughing at regular intervals. I don’t know if she knew that I didn’t speak her language, but she didn’t seem to care (a local boy was translating for me, but he couldn’t keep up with her speed). Meeting her was one of the highlights of my journey. I’d really like to have a disposition similar to hers when I’m 85.
Do you feel Creatives in developed countries are at advantage than those in developing countries?
This is such a great question. I don’t know if I’m qualified to answer it. So I’ll instead share an observation. A big portion of the tribes I spent time with in India are artists by tradition. And a majority of them perform throughout the country. The top ones make it internationally as well, even though they continue to come back to a home without electricity or running water (meaning they continue to live with low resources). They may not have as many opportunities to get discovered as those in the developed countries due to lack of resources, so in that sense I do think there is a disadvantage. There is certainly a lot of opportunity for creatives here in the West, especially to get discovered. But if you look at some of the content that is being produced on the internet on platforms, it feels like often it’s hard to find things of value as a result.
Creativity in some form or another was a big part of the cultures that I visited, the richness of their culture and heritage often expressed in their creative endeavors. In that sense, they were not at a disadvantage. For a lot of them, their talents are passed down by blood and tradition and hence they don’t have to spend a majority of their lives inundated by a plethora of choices, wondering who they want to become when they grow up. Rather their career path is predefined. That could be seen either as an advantage or a disadvantage.
Who are your ‘ICONS’ in the world of photography and film making, respectively?
My favorite photographer is a Canadian ethnobotanist, anthropologist, and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis, who has elucidated the importance of indigenous wisdom in the modern world with much precision and beauty. He is one who has truly connected with the people he spent time with. I also absolutely love and admire Sebastião Salgado’s work and admire his journey. Wim Wenders would undoubtedly be my favorite film maker.
What does success mean to you?
My definition of success keeps changing and will continue to do so, but at the point I am in in my life right now, success is financial freedom without sacrificing one’s values; I am understanding more and more the importance of having money as a woman. Empowered women empower women. It couldn’t be truer! And at this point, I am doing all that I need to get to a point where I can support other women not only in my own immediate universe but worldwide.
Let’s go a little poetic: If poetry is a rainbow and you have a choice of one color in that palette, what would that be and why?
Blue. I like to wear red, but the color that fascinates me the most is blue. I’d like to decorate my house with beautiful blue fineries from Morocco, Iran and the deserts of India. The color blue entices me because I’m drawn to journey, history and story, and the color blue has a fascinating one! The concept of the color blue simply didn’t exist among the early humans who had no words to describe it. In the Homer’s Odyssey, the ocean is described as a “wine-red sea. One of the shades of blue, Ultramarine, a deep blue color pigment which was originally made by grinding Lapis lazuli, which has been mined in Afghanistan for more than three thousand years. Ultramarine was the finest and most expensive blue used by “https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Renaissance”. Renaissance painters! Blue is a big part of middle eastern art and pottery, clothes in the deserts of Rajasthan and to me, it denotes poetry.
If you could do a collaborate as a photographer with any other artist, what Art would that be?
It would have to be dance. I currently collaborate mostly with musicians and love it. Yet dance is such a beautiful visual form of expression. And capturing that kind of femininity and its various forms would be an honor.
Please briefly tell us something we do not know about Sej Saraiya.
I see myself first as a storyteller and then as a photographer/filmmaker/writer. Throughout my life, story has been the central element, the craft of expression has varied. And I will continue to explore many more crafts which will enable me to express story and do whatever little I can to raise the consciousness in our world.
You Are Everything Beautiful Sej.
From The Entire ICONIC Team,
ABOUT SEJ SARAIYA
Sej Saraiya is an award-winning ethnographic and fine-art photographer and filmmaker who has spent the last several years traveling to the deep interiors of Asia and the Americas, capturing images that tell stories of remote cultures.
Her photographic work has taken her where not many dare to go, bringing back wisdom and intimate portraits of the last tattooed headhunters of remote India, the medicine women of British Columbia, the shamans of the Venezuelan Amazonas, and such globally revered leaders and humanitarians as Their Holinesses the Dalai Lama and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar; all with the broader vision of sharing and preserving our world’s wealth of wisdom, cultures, and lands.
She speaks in a variety of forums, holds workshops, and moderates or contributes to panels at universities, museums and festivals. She holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Southern California. Her photographs have been exhibited in the U.S. and India and hang in the homes of private collectors worldwide.