We had the good fortune of connecting with Sej Saraiya and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Sej, we’d love to hear more about how you thought about starting your own business?
I am an artist with a business plan incorporated into the work I do. And that business started quite organically. I am a cultural-conversation photographer who was invited to exhibit my work at film festivals and gallery exhibitions, and share stories from the cultures my portraits represented. I was then advocating for bringing together traditional wisdom into our modern lives— living sustainably and in harmony with other living beings on our planet, embracing the aging process like indigenous peoples do, etc. It was then that people started to ask if they could purchase my fine art prints. The portraits of these people represented more than a beautiful artifact for their homes. They were windows into entire cultures that continue to live life harmoniously in a way we have forgotten in the modern world.
At the same time, I started meeting a specific niche of people in Los Angeles—conscious brands, artists, and musicians who wanted their brands and themselves represented in the most authentic way possible (like my documentary portraits)—who hired me to photograph them or shoot conceptual artistic covers for their music albums. Soon, I became a photographer for yogis, musicians and coaches in Los Angeles with a similar ethos. That was when the business aspect was incorporated into my art. It has been an organic process through and through.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
From a very young age, my camera shaped the way I saw the world. It was both an instrument and an excuse for me to stop time and fully engage with my surroundings, something that continues to hold true even today when I travel. I learned to see the world from a deeper perspective from behind my lens. Landscape photography taught me patience and appreciation for the only heritage we have—our planet Earth.
The reason I photograph is to experience the human spirit beyond the precinct of words. The human spirit illuminates so beautifully in silence. And photographs, in their odic stillness, have an incredible power to capture that true essence.
As a cultural-conservation photographer, my journey took me to some very remote corners of this planet, putting me in contact with the last tattooed headhunters of remote India and the medicine women of British Columbia; the shamans of the Venezuelan Amazonas to such globally revered leaders and humanitarians as Their Holinesses the Dalai Lama and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Vedic scientists and healers; all with the broader vision of preserving our world’s cultures and lands.
The portraits I take are not just windows into the soul of the person they represent, rather, they are windows into entire cultures, with every tattoo, every piece of clothing and jewelry filled with meaning and symbolism and representing centuries of rich history and tradition. I have profound respect for these people who live off the land they’re born in and exhibit so much respect for the living landscape. The wrinkles on their faces carry innumerable stories, their interaction with their surroundings is sacred and humbling.
It was a bumpy ride, literally and figuratively. Most of the places I visited weren’t even on the map, and the ways to get to them were unconventional to say the least. I was a woman traveling solo and didn’t yet possess the faculties to navigate this remote world. I often found myself in strange situations– like being crammed in the back of a pick-up van with tons of tattooed-faced women authoritatively telling me that I would be sleeping in one of their homes that night. I went with the flow. I surrendered. And came back with portraits I probably wouldn’t have gotten any other way. It was truly an intimate look into the lives of these peoples.
While it was an honor to be invited in, it was a big challenge for me to let go of control, trust the process and trust complete strangers. I faced danger along the way but learned a lot about the inherent beauty in human beings and the power of true connection, something we tend to forget in our sheltered, busy and often self-absorbed city lives. People are inherently kind and giving if we can forego the societal boundaries that separate us.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
If I had a friend visiting for a week, I’d take her on some of the hidden hikes of Topanga, spend time in nature on the sacred Tongva land doing nothing (we don’t partake enough in the act of doing nothing), swim in the ocean, watch a Shakespeare play either at Will Geers or at Point Fermin, catch an independent film at Laemmle, get an icecream at La Plage in Malibu or a rose chai at Mimosa, attend a women’s circle (my friend Tulsi hosts these), the list is endless.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
Many people played a role in shaping the person I have become today professionally, but it was Canadian ethnographer, Wade Davis, whose talk on “Ancient Wisdom in the Modern World” in Los Angeles when I was in my mid twenties became the sole reason I packed up my bags and took off on a years-long journey to the remote East with my camera gear to document remote cultures. Film Festival directors Deja Cross and Freda Sideroff asked me to display my portraits of these peoples and share their stories at their festivals, which was the first time I saw the impact these portraits had on people, and realized how much people wanted to learn about ancient wisdom and forgotten ways. Documenting ancient cultures and sharing their stories via photography and film has since become an on-going life project for me. Shoutout to my friend Jeffrey, writer, editor, musician, who has been a big source of support along the way. Shoutout to my partner, Pasha who is a filmmaker, also holds a big place in my story. We create fiction films, which incorporate traditional wisdom, to appeal to a different audience. And last but not the least, shoutout to all my sisters in LA. Empowered women, empower women!
Julianne Reynolds, Sarah Singer, Parbat Rabari, Ian