Intro: Welcome to the #Just Add Gratitude Podcast. Here, you’ll discover inspiring stories of personal and professional growth, level three fun, marketing tips, business development, and travel adventures from entrepreneurs, digital nomads, and creatives alike. Now sit back, grab a drink, and take a 30 minute gratitude break with your host Shannon Kuykendall.
Shannon: Hi, everyone. Welcome to episode 6 of #Just Add Gratitude. On today’s episode, we have Saunak Shah from Pursuit of Portraits. Saunak is an Indian born in New York, city based portrait photographer and art director. He is the founder of Pursuit of Portraits, a New York city based collective that represents diverse global creators. With over 13 years in the advertising industry, Saunuk has fueled his professional life as an art director using photography as a medium for self-expression. His work focuses on the underlying narrative of people and the environments they live in, and largely surrounded themes around sense of place, people of color, fashion, and identity. Saunak recently led a global pursuit over one year to five continents and over 21 plus countries with Pursuit of Portraits. I had the privilege of traveling with Saunuk during that time with our Remote Year group called Sisu. Sisu, if you’re wondering, is a Finnish word for defying the odds at all costs. Hello, Saunak. Welcome to #Just Add Gratitude.
Saunak: Thank you, Shannon. Thank you for having me. This is amazing. It’s great to connect you here on the podcast.
Shannon: Oh, it’s so good to hear your voice. Last time we saw each other was for dinner in Mexico city.
Saunak: Yes, oh my god. That’s right.
Shannon: Like, right after we were done.
Saunak: Yes, yes, and we are coming up close to our one year anniversary.
Shannon: Yes, we are. We’re meeting in Tulum, which I’m really excited. I am in need of a beach weekend.
Shannon: One of the questions I like to ask people when I meet them and I know that they’ve done a Remote Year program is what was going on in your life when Remote Year appeared and you decided to join?
Saunak: That’s a great question, Shannon. Well, in a nutshell, life. There was so much going on with my life at that point. I had just bought a house less than a year ago. I remember specifically that I had my parents visit me that summer of 2017, and I stumbled on this ad on Instagram. It was completely random and I’ve told myself, wow, this sounds like an interesting and amazing premise. Not quite sure if I’m going to do it. But I literally submitted a form and next thing I know packing my bags. Life is so surreal, Shannon, I tell you. I had no idea that everything would fall into my lap so quickly and it was nerve-wrecking. There was so much going on at the same time, I was so comfortable in the space that I was living in, that I had to challenge everything and shake myself to be able to tell myself this is something I need, and I was at the right time, and there is no right time. I took it upon myself to pursue it. I can’t say I have any regrets.
Shannon: Well, so if you saw the ad in the summer of 2017, we started our program November 5th. We all met in Hanoi, Vietnam. That’s a really quick turnaround time to buy a house and then next thing you know you’re putting your stuff in storage, you’ve got to find a renter. I mean, there’s a lot of activity and movement happening right up to the point that you’re leaving and then you’ve got all that additional movement once you arrive in Hanoi. That’s pretty intense. That’s a lot of work.
Saunak: It was. I also am on a green card, so what it meant was I had to get visas for a dozen countries already, or at least started the application, which was also a huge challenge. And of course, packing up my entire house in storage, selling my car, and getting used to the idea that I’m going to be living out of a suitcase for the next year.
Shannon: Well, and you went to more than just 12 countries. I know that there are some challenges that you had to deal with because of that, because I that there’s the visa issues, which you had to get a lot more pieces than the majority of us who are traveling. What did that look like for you and how did you overcome any sort of obstacles that may have been thrown in your way? Did you have any events that you had planned that you couldn’t make it to because of these issues?
Saunak: Yes, it was definitely a challenge. Fortunately, with the program, with Remote Year, I had access to a lot of resources and the program connected me to a few people who had been in my situation and were traveling, so I had the help that I needed. But just the fact that I had to make these embassy runs to submit my application, and then they had a timeframe for when I would receive my passport. There was a lot of back and forth going on. At one point, I wasn’t even sure whether I would get my last visa. I literally got my Schengen visa a day before I flew to Hanoi.
Saunak: There were countries in South America that I actually had to return to the US in April to submit those applications because they wouldn’t take my application three months ahead of time. But again, I mean, my brother told me you have an entrepreneurial spirit and this is meant for you, so everything in the universe is going to work towards your favor. I didn’t believe it at the time, but I have to say, you just have to believe in yourself and go with your gut and things will fall into place.
Shannon: And they do. And they did for you. Tell our audience a little bit about what you do. You did something incredibly special for every single one of us who was participating in our group, which was Sisu, and I’d love for you to share that with the audience. There’ll be more information on this in the show notes on my website.
Saunak: Definitely. Hey, everyone. I’m an Indian, born a photographer and I’ve lived in the US for the last 15 years. When I applied for Remote Year, it was through my collective called Pursuit of Portraits. Clearly I’m into photography, and through my collective, we’re bringing together other creators globally. When I joined the Sisu, I met 35 of these amazing folks for the first time Hanoi, Shannon included. I said to myself that this is an opportunity to take on a project that is longterm.
Saunak: I always say this to my friends and my followers is that to take on projects that don’t necessarily have immediate gratification or immediate results, but the beauty unfurls over time. So, I took on this project to photograph every single Sisu member over the year in their city of choice. Everyone basically signed up for their city of choice, where they would like a photo shoot by my. The beauty was that no one really knew what was going on. I worked with the individuals one-on-one and we planned the shoot, all the way from the concept, the styling, and the location. We had a launch exhibition in Bogota for our farewell party.
Saunak: That was the first time everyone was seeing all this work, and for the first time I was actually taking a moment to see it myself. It was truly magical to unfold this show that I had been working over the year.
Shannon: I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it. It was very special. It was an art exhibit and there was a main photograph for each one of us, and then scattered about were smaller four photographs from each of the shoots. I think my biggest takeaway, because you had each one of us sort of write like a little bio or something that meant something.
Shannon: I spent a year with 35, you know. Started with 35, I think we ended with 28. But I got to know people even more during that shoot based on what they wrote. It was just really inspiring. I admired you, because that’s one of those things, it’s really hard to do. You’re traveling with all of these people all year, and I know I didn’t do a good job of it of reaching out and having one-on-ones. For you, this was your one-on-one. I mean, I remember our shoot and it was fricking cold. My eyes are watering and I mean, you were just gracious and really just like throwing out ideas. I was like, “Okay, let’s do it.” It was a lot of fun.
Saunak: Yeah. Thank you. You know, I mean to a huge extent, it was my way of giving gratitude the way I love to practice it. Right? Totally selfless, but at the same time also selfish, because it was my way to book time in your calendar for a one-on-one that was special and for something for me to remember our short interaction. Of course, we were together for the entire year, but I wanted to bookmark this as something that would take us back to that memory.
Shannon: It definitely did. When you practice gratitude, because you were talking a little bit before we started recording, what are some of your gratitude practices?
Saunak: I’m a huge believer in basically taking on projects without getting hung up on the number or the immediate value, it maybe monetary. We call it collabs or collaborations. Especially in the photography community and the amount of people that I have met over the year, a lot of people would be drawn into my work, and those projects are not necessarily paid projects, but there is a huge potential to grow and learn about a new culture, or a people, or their aesthetic. I took on so many projects that were non-paid, but I felt that I got so much more in return than I put out, because the experience and the interaction was priceless. I would say focus on the work and what you’re actually putting out there rather than the end result, because that’s what’s going to make the journey or the project memorable.
Saunak: Also, I’m a firm believer in keeping doors open, because you never know. Your next paid gig might be a reference, or a referral, or someone who like your work, a word of mouth. A lot of the projects that have come or Pursuit, which are paid commission projects, have been by word of mouth. That wouldn’t be possible if I wouldn’t have put myself out there taking on and projects and being open to be working with other people.
Saunak: In a nutshell, I would say focus on the journey, not necessarily the destination or the end goal. I can tell you just in the year alone that we traveled, I have found the compassion, love, and gratitude from strangers from near and far to help me grow personally and professionally, and really be able to focus on what is the work that I want to put out that people are going to remember me by.
Shannon: Well, it becomes a part of who you are, the integrity of your work, and your work is absolutely stunning. I had the honor of us being roommates in Medina, Columbia last year. That was September. You had some, they weren’t really coffee table books, they were more like magazines, but they were the Pursuit of Portrait magazines. You had one for each month and I was in awe. This was before we even see what we’re going to get at the Bogota farewell party.
Shannon: So when I saw some of the pictures that you take them with the other Sisus, it was just like, wow. Like I mean, your style is just absolutely amazing, and intense, and artistic, and just captivating. I’m really excited that I’m going to get to share some of this in the show notes once the episode goes live.
Shannon: One of the other questions I do like to ask people as well is a level three funds story. I’ve gotten some from kind of all over the board, and so I always enjoy listening to them because I feel like those level three stories is where most of our growth kind of comes from because we’re kind of forced into a situation where you can either sink or swim. Most of us when it comes to our level three stories, we’ve swam.
Saunak: Right? Right. I have a good one from Jakarta. I remember when I visited Jakarta, Indonesia through Pursuit of Portraits. For those who are listening, with Pursuit of Portraits, we have traveled to 21 countries and be hosting meetups, which are photography meetups, and they are community building efforts that bring the creative community and the locals together in that city or the country. So when we were in Jakarta, we were planning on hosting a meetup in Jakarta. And of course if you’ve been to Jakarta or know anything of it, it’s a super chaotic city. Of course, the beauty is in chaos. We typically plan these meetups leading up to the day of the meetup, correct? So where we’re thinking of the location, we’re thinking of how many attendees to expect, to RSVP’s, we’re planning every single aspect of it. How many models are going to be there, how many guest photographers, how are we going to amplify it, because everything is shared through storytelling. There are so many different aspects, right, and be wanted to go seamless.
Saunak: Sure enough, on the day of the meetup, the meetup was going to start at 3:00 PM, and at 2:00 PM, there was a downpour. It rained, and I’m telling you it was crazy. And of course you don’t want anything to rain on your parade because it’s just like you put in so much of time and there are people who are coming from near and far, and you just want everything to be perfect. We put a wrench and all that, the cops showed up, and they were giving us a hard time because they needed a written permit.
Saunak: We had also covered that. We had gone to the police department days before and gotten a verbal agreement. But again, there were so many things, despite our planned efforts, when completely wrong. It was 3:00 PM, we were going to kick off the meet, and it was still raining. And believe you or not, everyone literally came out of their hideouts and they were there in the square, in the rain. They did not care. It was coming down. Everyone was just so excited to be there.
Saunak: And of course us as planners and initiators, we are always thinking so much, right? We tend to worry more. After talking to some of these attendees, it just occurred to me that, I mean, everything that we worry about is in our head because we are perfectionists. We want everything to be the way we imagine it to be. But sometimes the beauty is in the imperfections and things that are out of our control and to see how they unfold.
Saunak: Sure enough, the rain subsided over time and it was still drizzling, but people are out with their cameras, the models were there, and everyone had a great time. What the takeaway for me from this was that despite the rain and despite the elements, you have to be in the present and be attentive and communicate. That’s where the moments of clarity came, usually comes.
Saunak: It was a really interesting experience because at that point, I didn’t know how to handle it, and yet it was one of our most successful meetups. We had 400 people there at the meetup despite-
Shannon: Wow. Is that the largest meetup you guys have done?
Saunak: It is one of the largest, yes.
Shannon: One of the largest?
Saunak: It is one of them.
Shannon: That’s intense. I mean, so people are taking pictures even though it’s raining, so I bet some of those pictures are quite editorial.
Saunak: Exactly, and that’s the other thing, like the rain or the mood adds to the drama. I skies are overcast and they’re dark clouds, so the content that’s coming out is, again, moody and dramatic. There’s definitely a bonus to the turn of events, but the key is to kind of go as planned and believe that everything will work out eventually.
Shannon: It happened. Things happen for a reason. This was a challenge and you overcame it and something beautiful came of it. I like that.
Saunak: Good, yeah.
Shannon: I just recently saw a video. You had taken a trip to India, you were at the Taj Mahal, and I saw a video for, it looks like a commercial for a camera. Did you do the video for that? Because it was, one, your voice, just listening to your voice and it was really soothing. I think you could probably do really great at like meditations, guided meditations. You just have that kind of soft, very nice voice to relax too. I loved the vibe of the video. Tell me a little bit about that. Was was the intention to go to India strictly to promote this or is this something that happened as a result of going to India?
Saunak: No. So, this project was a commission project for Oppo Mobile. It’s a mobile phone brand and they’re based out of China. They commissioned me as a photographer to basically travel to India’s 10 iconic locations in 10 days.
Shannon: My god. That’s intense.
Saunak: Yes, it is, and it’s more intense than it sounds.
Shannon: Because you went through it.
Saunak: Yes. So I showed up, I landed in New Delhi, and that was the first city. For the next 10 days, I was basically storytelling and capturing imagery through the phone. They just launched a new phone and called the Oppo Reno and the whole campaign was around their zoom capabilities. It was a wide angle shot and a zoomed in shot, and that was what I was basically capturing through the 10 cities. I did get a videographer to actually capture the video, so the video that you saw was shot by a dear friend of mine called Shivam, who was with me on this journey. The whole video talks about how I’m using the phone as an extension of how I see the beauty in these 10 iconic locations in India.
Shannon: Oh, gosh. It was at the end of the video, and he did, gosh, the video’s and so beautifully done and then the narration on top of it. But at the end, you kind of flashed through the image of the building or what it was that you were looking at.
Shannon: Then you’d have the up so you could see the detail. It didn’t even cross my mind that this was a phone. And the details were, I mean, just stunning. I was kind of in awe. And so when I saw that, and I saw that just a couple of days ago, it just got me even more excited to get to talk to you about it. Because it was just beautiful.
Saunak: Well, thank you. I mean, that’s great, [crosstalk 00:21:40].
Shannon: We’re going to go ahead and start to wrap things up here. Why don’t you tell everyone where they can find you?
Saunak: Sure. So, I have a website, it’s called saunakspace.com. It’s S-A-U-N-A-K S-P-A-C-E.COM. I can also be found on Instagram, and my username is Saunakspace, Again. Yeah. Those are the two places that basically you’d be able to reach me if you want to.
Shannon: If they wanted to learn more?
Shannon: I’ll have some more information and some pictures on how JustAddGratitude.com if you want to check out some of Saunuk’s work. Saunak, thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to do this. I really, really appreciate it. I can’t wait. Seriously, I can’t wait to share a cocktail with you on the beach in Tulum in a month and a half.
Saunak: Oh my god, I can’t wait for it. Thank you, Shannon, for having me. This is amazing. I can’t wait to check out the final podcast. Thank you everyone for listening in. As Shannon said, if there are any questions, please feel free to reach out to me. I’d love to answer them and thank you for listening.
Shannon: Thank you, Saunak.
Shannon: Well, that’s the wrap for episode six of #Just Add Gratitude. Thank you for joining us today. Please visit JustAddGratitude.com for podcast transcripts, show notes, and resources. You can find. #just add gratitude on Apple podcast, Google podcast, Spotify, and Stitcher. Please share, subscribe, and leave a review. And remember, if you want to make positive changes in your life, just add gratitude.