Meena photographs culture & creativity, looking at topics that ‘connect the dots’. With a strong focus on India she beautifully captures the grassroots segments of society that operate innovatively alongside each other. From Kaan-saaf walls (professional ear cleaners) to street vendors that offer every item under the sun, Meena takes a closer look at people and situations that a casual observer might miss because they haven't looked closely enough at the everyday occurrence of lives and living. A background of working as a graphic designer / creative director overlapped with being an academic in design has led Meena to lecture across Europe as well as contributed to publications including Monocle magazine and the Guardian.
Hello Meena. You’re living in New Zealand at the moment right? What countries has your life taken you to so far that you’ve called home?
Yep, I was born and currently live in New Zealand. I've also lived in Hong Kong, India and Berlin after discovering that I learn more in countries where most of the population don't speak the same language as me. I find this provides me with rich avenues for curiosity by making things a bit more challenging.
Your Flickr is filled with an assortment of bright photos of India. Can you tell me about your connection to the country; do you have family who live there?
Both my parents grew up in India and we travelled there a bit as kids. My father's family home is a pretty incredible historic building in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. I was lucky enough to be the last person in our family to live there – a few years back while teaching at the National Institute of Design. It was an amazing experience to visit India for longer than the usual fleeting visits and discover much more behind the colour and chaos than I'd experienced earlier.
Your photos of the kite festival in Gujarat are so beautiful and colourful. What was the atmosphere like in the city at the time and how did it feel to be there when it was taking place?
Like many cities in India, Gujarat's annual calendar is peppered with various religious festivals. There's always something going on and I was particularly interested in taking these in at street level – in slums, villages and from rooftops in Ahmedabad's characterful Old City. Even riding my scooter to work would often provide amazing bursts of colour – like a tractor pulling a cart of roses to the market, kite makers working on street-corners or a group of tribal nomads crossing a bridge in their stunning traditional clothing. It was exhilarating to be exposed to so much sensory vibrancy.
Your gallery of curated Kaan Saaf Wallas is full of expression – I feel like I’m there next to them watching them get cleaned. It looks painful! What other sections of people pique your interest in India or elsewhere?
I'm assured it's not painful – though I've never tried it out! I'm quite partial to cycle commerce – so would chase vendors around town and hold up traffic while photographing them. I like connecting dots – so if I see a bit of something (tribal tattoos, cycle vendors, ear-cleaners, etc) I'll start looking for more and making a collection of images. I'm especially interested in street-level entrepreneurship – and have written and researched various examples of this, including beyond India. I'm keen to share images of folks in low-income communities taking positive steps as I think that many people elsewhere think it's all doom and gloom. There's so much to be inspired by in grassroots innovation.
Can you tell me quickly about how your work at OpenIDEO inspires your work outside your day job, and how they are connected?
Working as a community manager + cross-pollinator on OpenIDEO is all about diversity, innovation and global collaboration coming together as collective solution-seeking for some of the world's tough problems. When I'm out on the street photographing in places like India, Kenya, etc – I'm also trying to showcase diversity and innovation – at a street level.
And finally, what does travel mean to you and where is on your list of places to travel?
My father used to tell us: vacations aren't a holiday from working – they're homework for living. That's shaped many of my travels. If I had unlimited funds just now, I'd be quite keen to do a B-side tour: Bhutan, Burma and Bolivia.