The mild mid-afternoon sun streaks light into the double-height studio, illuminating the canvas photograph of Jimmy Choo stilettos on the wall. From where I sit on the cyan-blue couch I look around at the other canvas’ that lay scattered in the studio, and realize how a to-be-married couple would feel when they visit to book their photographer – in awe and assured of being in the right place.
As I place the glass of water given to me on the cherry table – I think hard on how to begin. But I didn’t really have to, Waseem steps down from the staircase, a ready smile, and outstretched arm. “I’m always for anything that isn’t just architecture”, he says, as I explain why I’m there.
And the conversation begins.
Tell us a little bit about yourself, who is Waseem Fahim Ahmed?
I’m from Chennai, my whole family’s been here, been here for long. After school I was asked to join Engineering, as most of us are; I hope that trend is changing!
Right after 12th, the moment we were done with what we were “supposed to do”, me and my friend Francis joined Rubecon, an advertising agency in the city. They hired us part-time for the next few years. Meanwhile, we still weren’t sure of what we wanted to do – he wanted to do architecture and me VISCOM, but circumstances made us do the exact opposites (laughs). I got into MEASI, it seemed like it was close and a good option.
Architecture wasn’t too bad a choice because it would keep me open to creative fields. And plus, it’s not boring like Engineering; and because I’m a little more inclined towards the creative side, it worked for me. I worked with the advertising company for about 3 years as a writer. I learned a lot of things there that set me up for the rest of my life. The people there were very nice to us, guiding us like we’re part of the whole system and they taught us how to manage a business, apart from doing just what we had to. We learned how to deal with clients, and how to market ourselves and a brand, and so on. We learned from the best.
So, you worked part-time through the first few years of Architecture school? That’s quite a lot a feat! How did you manage?
Yeah, it was! I used to go to college from 9-4, and then took a bus and went to the office, it was quite close by. That worked well. 5-9pm. I used to manage college work by finishing off most of it in college itself, or just do it over the weekends. Thankfully, I was really good at drawing, so I hardly took any time to do my sheets; that really helped me in pursuing other things. So, I never used to bring work home that much, unless, you know, it’s that last-minute panic mode.
And then, photography happened…
Yeah, around 3rd year, I took a little more time off from advertising and got into photography. These things kind of overlapped.
Photography started because Dad bought me a phone camera 12th standard, that’s the first time we had phones. And I used to take nice pictures on the basic phone camera. And then because I took to it, dad presented me another camera. I had won a few competitions back in 12th so that really pushed me up. But the actual awakening with photography came when someone in office saw that I was quite good at whatever random pictures I was taking and he encouraged me; he taught me the basics of an SLR camera and all that. I needed that push to go professional – he pushed me and made me think about this seriously.
So, how did Weddings by Wfa start?
It just so happened that one of my friend’s friend was getting married and her photographer backed out last-minute – and I got the job! I was very scared, and I didn’t want to do it just for the money, but I took it up anyway; felt they were asking me because they appreciated what I did.
When I went there, I was quite scared as I realized I was the only photographer- but I think putting yourself in a position like that really works. I had at that time just a basic camera, not even a flash on it, so, you can imagine that it was quite an amateur job. But the parents really liked the photos; when I gave it to them, the dad actually cried when he saw the pictures. That was quite moving and was a turning point for me because I could see that what I did could evoke emotion. This is what we try to do as architects, actually. We talk so much about invoking emotion with our work, and that was what happened! – an actual incident that happened – and it really moved me. They gifted me a watch, which I still have in my drawer.
This was around 5th semester during college. And it pushed me to take wedding photography seriously. Since then started doing weddings, and didn’t think much about the money- I used to charge like around 2000/3000 bucks for a wedding.
That’s quite less! When did you being charging professionally?
Yeah, but I was scared to take even that money because I never thought that what I did was worth that much. Over time I learned that I should start valuing my work, and I had to make the difficult decision in increasing the pricing and that’s where the advertising background helped. Once I knew what I was good at, it helped me set myself up. And things went on from there.
Architecture faded into the background – do you ever feel that architecture helped you in this, in any way?
Subconsciously, yes. I will always put it down to that because it helped me form the basis of good taste, I would say. I think to be a good architect; you need to be a person with good taste. Otherwise, you’d just be another contractor, or a drafter or a builder or…one from the money-making side, perhaps. But if you want to be someone artistic, you need to have good taste. That helped me; all those random exercises we used to do in the 1st year. Basic design and the rules as we know it. Every time you put your camera to your eye, you need to follow those rules. But because I was in architecture, those rules came naturally to me.
The start is always the hardest – that dangerous mix of self-doubt and adrenaline. How did that you handle the initial pressure?
Yeah, well, the initial years I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. In fact, if you check my Facebook page, I don’t know if I’ve changed it but, 2 years ago, my page said on the bio – something like “What will Waseem be” – architect or photographer or writer. I still wasn’t decided on what I wanted to be, I could never fix on it, just doing too many things.
But, the last 4-5 years I made sure that I concentrated only on wedding photography. Because I believe if you’re doing something you should do it with your entire heart. I see a lot of people trying to get involved in a lot of things – trying to be an architect, trying to be something else, opening up many things – but I really believe you have to be sincere about what you pursue – only then will it bring success to you.
Just because you’re a start-up and trying to make money out of it then sell it and just go for the next business – I don’t know how that feels like – probably increases your bank balance, but I don’t know how much satisfaction that gives at the end of the day.
…and at the end of the day, career satisfaction is what matters.
For me, it does. But apparently for a lot of people it doesn’t, so I don’t know. Many people just think about the money.
Have you considered other streams of photography, though you seem to have a strong personal connection with weddings in particular?
Initially, yes. I started out like most other people. All my friends were part of my photography experiments! I’m just glad that they trusted me and came with me for shoots. At that time I was thinking of getting into fashion, or movies. It sounded glamorous – at 20 years old that would really appeal more than a wedding. I realized later on that doing weddings was personal to me- I could get involved with human emotion. As I said, that’s the very thing we think about when doing architecture – how it affects the person you do it for; this had that effect. The photos that I was taking started moving people; it started meaning something to them. It has a timeless quality about it.
I decided to do this; I didn’t like the sound of movies or fashion. Because it’s nice once in a while, especially when you don’t do it for money, but once you start doing it commercially there are too many people telling you what to do. And there is no connect emotionally – you just do it because you’re good at it, perhaps. For me, dealing with people has that effect.
You have done around 600 weddings thus far. What has been the best part of all this?
Getting involved with a lot of people’s lives. Almost every client we’ve shot becomes our friend. We get involved in a lot of stories in life – we’re there right from the time they met their loved ones, and, till today we stay in touch. Most of our clients come through referrals – because people really like us and pass the word on. So, it forms a really big network in our lives. And it’s beautiful because you get involved with so many love stories, which has a huge positive impact on your life. It’s a really good place to be in – being there for the best moments in someone’s life.
What about the worse parts?
In the early days when I was shooting alone, it used to be a lot of stress because I was there alone and everything depended on how I shoot the moment; many times you have people blocking the view. That’s difficult. Apart from that, nothing else has come as a challenge. You just need to be prepared for the stress, for the pressure that comes with the wedding, the early mornings, the late nights. But that comes with any part of life, with any work you do in life. If you’re committed to something you need to give it your everything.
Now I have a team of about 10 people who back me up these days. Very talented people working with me, who’ve started from a very young age with me. They’ve really developed. I’m glad that they share my passion and enthusiasm I have for this work.
In your website, you’ve mentioned: “Photography helped you SEE again”. What’s that about?
A little-known fact that I don’t necessarily advertise. I have back vision, since 16. I don’t have stereo vision like everyone else – depth perception is not there. That’s why photography really meant a lot to me. The moment I got special lenses, I started getting serious about photography.
So in a way, the camera is almost an extension of yourself?
Yeah, you can say that. You just need to use these things to your advantage. Too many people out there complaining about themselves. I’m just happy that I was able to fix in something that I like doing, which meant something to me. In a way, I was really lucky that people pushed me towards this. Appreciation counts for a lot.
What is your work schedule like?
Weddings, ah they have no fixed schedule in a year. Our body of work envelopes all religions. We’re not known for shooting any particular type of weddings – our clientele is very varied.
There’s this very interesting fact about our clientele, actually – because of the kind of work we do, and the kind of photos we produce and the kind of emotions we capture, you’ll find that the random family who just wants a photographer doesn’t come to us – only the people who are really in love with each other come to us. So my clientele gets filtered out because of the kinds of photos we produce. It’s like a circle – we get this kind of clients who are totally in love with each other and want beautiful pictures of their wedding and then we produce that kind of pictures and then we get that same kind of clients back. It forms a circle for us which we’re really happy to be in the center of. Because I believe that only the people who are really in love with each other want these kind of emotions captured. Others probably want pretty pictures but not this intense with emotion.
Now that you’re all set, is there any turning back?
No, now I have dedicated myself to this. I do other things while I’m free – I do dabble in graphic design and advertising sometimes. I do small interior projects, but not commercial scale, only with people who matter to me.
Parental support is a huge factor in this aspect, how did your parents react when you told them what you’re up to?
Yeah, you really need that. Even though my parents wanted me to do Engineering it was only because it was that generation where everyone was telling them that. So it’s not really their fault. Once I started architecture, they still supported me when I did everything else. My family is especially a very unorthodox family – they are the kind of people who are easy-going and appreciate good things in life. So that helped. They love what I do.
Many people find that shift in career hard. Any advice?
Just do what you like, Don’t listen to anybody. If you’re good at it, it won’t be hard. You just have to prove people wrong. That won’t take too much time. If you’re good at it and committed to it, it won’t. If you’re just giving it a half-hearted shot then, there’s no point.
Waseem F. Ahmed is founder and owner at Weddings by Wfa, a premier wedding photography brand based in Chennai, who believe in a class journalistic approach to capturing one of the most important moments of a person’s life, as said on their Facebook page. You can also find them on Instagram.