Representing the creative future

Douglas Irvine on his new book “Akhara” and the frustrations of fashion photography

Photographer Douglas Irvine speaks about his new book, ‘Akhara’, the line between editorial and commercial work, and how he sees photography today.

Douglas Irvine sees photography as a craft, an intricate process of documentation and construction leading to an image that forms, replaces, or enhances a memory, preserving the subject. It seems clear that a similar urge to guard visual histories, led Irvine to create ‘Akhara’, centered around the ancient practice of Kushti; a form of wrestling practiced across India in traditional wrestling schools called Akhara’s. Specifically, the work focuses on an Akhara in Varanasi: considered the spiritual capital of India. The act of practicing Kushti is akin to devoting oneself to Buddhism, in terms of the physical and mental commitment required when practicing the sport.

Akhara’s across India are being destroyed and replaced with modern gymnasiums, hence Irvine’s longing to document a decaying sport and its nuances. Less than a fifth of the schools remain and as a whole generation of Indians continues to lose loved ones due to the overwhelming spread of Covid-19 in the country, the importance of Irvine documenting this part of India’s history is clearly heightened; money raised from the sales of the book will be going to charities helping to combat the crisis. Time is unrelenting and though the practice was already waning in much of the country, the effect of increased alcohol consumption and the Coronavirus pandemic will only accelerate their removal from the Indian landscape.

Irvine also works as a fashion photographer and has recently completed projects for the likes of Miu Miu, AnOther, and Self-Service Magazine. We speak of the difficulty in drawing any distinction (other than monetary) between commercial and editorial work in these times, and the frustrations that come with being a photographer at a time when the general interest in print publications has plummeted or at best, plateaued. When the media is consumed online for two seconds can it be packed with the same depth?

We spoke to Douglas Irvine about all this, and the importance of agency representation for photographers in 2021.


Akhara by Douglas Irvine


Tell us a bit about yourself and your background;

I grew up in Perthshire on the east coast of Scotland. I came to London to study photography at LCC. Dropping out pretty quickly! For many reasons. Not being able to afford it was one of them. I managed to get some assisting work and found I learned more in 3 days of that than I had done in 6 months at university. I grew up skateboarding and certainly initially got into photography through that. Skateboarding and photography were an escape for me back then, a distraction. I would say photography still is. It’s a great way to document life. My friends and family would agree my memory isn’t the best.

“Editorial projects seem to be increasingly more commercial in their nature. By that I mean to say they seem to be far more dictated by a brand to seem more like an ad campaign.” – Douglas Irvine

As a young photographer, is the dichotomy between editorial projects and commercial jobs creatively frustrating? How do you navigate this?

There are quite a lot of people that would argue there isn’t such a dichotomy between editorial and commercial jobs at the moment. Perhaps only from a financial aspect. The impact of the pandemic, a general disinterest in printed publications (no thanks to Instagram!), and a realization from brands that they can just as easily create their own platforms are all contributing to a big shift in the editorial world. Editorial projects seem to be increasingly more commercial in their nature. By that I mean to say they seem to be far more dictated by a brand to seem more like an ad campaign. I guess the aesthetic that is popular right now seems quite pared back as a result. This certainly presents a challenge to make it interesting at times if only for myself. It’s all forcing us to get more creative. Which can only be good!

Akhara by Douglas Irvine

Your new book “Akhara”, looks at an Indian form of wrestling called Kushti, could you explain more about this and what drew you to it?

Kushti has been practiced throughout India at traditional wrestling schools known as Akharas since the 16th century. This Akhara was in Varanasi. Practicing Kushti to me seems to bear much resemblance to devoting yourself to Buddhism, both physically and mentally. The jargon is certainly shared. I found it so interesting to watch. This Akhara in particular, like hundreds of others over the past decade, was on the brink of closing down to make way for a modern gymnasium.
It felt like an important thing to document before it was gone.


How was the process of putting together and curating the images for the book, did you enjoy it?


When I first started making a book out of the pictures it really was a personal endeavor, I didn’t plan on publishing it so I was in no rush. It was nice to be able to take my time. No deadlines. I was forgetting how to use a darkroom and really got back into it thanks to this project. I’ll need to start another one soon.
Photography work by Douglas Irvine

Why is publishing this book important to you at this moment?

Spiritual cleansing! I struggle to find fashion photography of much use to the world right now.  The Covid-19 crisis in India is extremely bad, if releasing this book can help that then I think it’s terrible not to do it. I’ve donated prints to as many charity organisations as I can. @creativeseva @hope4india and @photobookcafe are all helping and have so many great prints available to buy.

“I think that there is a common misconception that joining an agency is the answer to having a career in photography. It certainly helps and has many benefits, but you still have to work hard.” – Douglas Irvine

You recently signed to 1972 Agency, how important is it for photographers to have agency representation? What was your path to representation, and at what point in a photographer’s career do you believe it becomes necessary? 

For me, it got to a point where it was pretty important! I needed someone to help negotiate terms for jobs, someone to give me advice on work I should or should not be doing. Helping me navigate the industry in a way that helps me achieve my aspirations creatively. It has been so great to have the help of two agents that between them have years of experience and incredible optimism despite my lack of it at times. I think that there is a common misconception that joining an agency is the answer to having a career in photography. It certainly helps and has many benefits, but you still have to work hard. You still must continue to push yourself and your work. Evolving your identity as an artist and refining your image, it’s a continual process.

Assisting certainly helped me in that I have peers that have started out at the same time as me. We work together now. Having an agent for me is great for that part of my personality that would prefer to avoid confrontation and is perpetually doubting my ability to take a picture. They have been incredibly helpful in making this book happen.

What excites you about photography today?

It’s pretty exciting that we are able to create our own platforms and publish work ourselves. Growing an audience, that you can communicate to directly. Without limits or restrictions creatively. If you have an idea or feel the need to create something, you can do it. There’s nothing stopping you! This book is a good example of that. With regards to fashion photography, I’m less excited. I don’t feel like anything particularly provocative is being produced by anyone right now. Myself included. Everything feels slightly safe, but perhaps that’s a natural response to the circumstances we’ve found ourselves in over the past 18 months. I’m positive for the future and that creativity will always find its way to the surface and it’s our role as artists to make sure that happens.

You can buy Akhara here