Sammya Brata on immortalising culture on the blockchain

Ola Kalejaye
December 2, 2022
“As a street photographer, hitting the shutter is the least important part” — Sammya Brata

What started as a hobby for Indian-born Sammya Brata quickly developed into an integral part of his life. Now an award-winning photographer, he draws the extraordinary out of ordinary life in his hometown of Calcutta. He talks to Ola Kalejaye about finding his style, the NFT landscape in India, and the life lessons that accompanied his artistic journey.

In his own words, Sammya Brata’s relationship with photography is more than just a passion. After adopting the craft over a decade ago, it has since become an instrumental practice for the Indian native — and one that’s taken him across the globe.

As a full-time consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers, Sammya’s photographic exploits have always been restricted to the hours outside of his working schedule. But Sammya's day job has been far from a hindrance to his craft. Indeed, it is what brought him to photography in the first place; Sammya was first inspired to experiment with the medium whilst travelling for work. He really dived into his craft, however, upon returning to his home city of Calcutta.

“I thought I should start with my home city, where I was born and brought up,” he explains. “I wanted to see what stories I could bring out in my daily life. I went outside almost every day, early in the morning before my office hours started, to see what my city looked like in the rising hours of the day.”

Sammya’s love of photography continued to blossom as he honed his skills. But he also had the desire to be part of a larger community. Eventually, he took the initiative to build one himself, comprising local people who shared his passion, and decided to create the Instagram account, Calcutta Instagrammers. Now exceeding 135,000 followers, the platform has become a major hub for local photographers, and a repository for thousands of images that paint a vivid story of the city. 

Sammya's photograph, Floating dreams, depicts locals revelling in the flooded streets of North Calcutta.

Although impassioned by the craft, it would take Sammya about four years of practice before he finally settled on his signature style. “In 2014, I got the chance to exhibit one of my works in Calcutta,” he recalls. “That exhibition was curated by Raghu Rai, the photographer and photojournalist. I got a lot of positive feedback about the kind of work that I'd been doing, so storytelling through street photography has pretty much been my favourite genre of photography since then.”

“It makes you bring the extraordinary out of the ordinary.”

Sammya Brata

But that feedback was not the only reason that Sammya decided to make street photography his bread and butter: it is a style that has piqued his curiosity and fortified his ambition for several reasons. “Street photography is mysterious to me,” he says. “It brings out certain thought processes that allow me to observe and document the things that usually go unnoticed in our day-to-day lives.

“As a street photographer, hitting the shutter is the least important part. What is most important is observation, the way you anticipate a moment that is going to happen. I think most street photography work actually happens in your mind. It makes you bring the extraordinary out of the ordinary.”

Sammya Brata's The Exuberance of Childhood, displaying a carefree child seated in a rickshaw amidst a monsoon downpour; photographed in Mumbai.

Like many others, Sammya was deterred from pursuing a full-time career in photography for the lack of examples paving the way. He saw no street photographers making profitable careers from their niche. “I’ve always wanted to do photography full-time; there's no doubt about that,” he says. “But I have not seen street photographers making a huge living out of their work. It's not commercial.”

Another element that kept Sammya erring on the hobbyist side of his art was the fear of losing what made the craft so important to him in the first place. “One more reason is that, you know, when you are shooting your heart out, you're expressing yourself to the fullest. But if you do it professionally, you are bound by a client brief, right? So I was sceptical about whether or not that love would still remain.”

NFTs came to provide a solution to both of those issues. “I heard about NFTs when some of my friends started migrating from Instagram to Twitter,” he reveals, adding that the move occurred as a result of his platform becoming inundated with Instagram Reels. “That's when I started following exactly what was happening in the crypto space.”

Diving into conversations about NFTs on Twitter and Clubhouse, Sammya was soon hooked. He immediately saw the potential of the technology to expand the collector base for his art, especially in comparison to the other avenues available to photographers.

From Sammya’s perspective, Instagram’s large and diverse consumer base was hardly any benefit at all to artists when it came to actually turning views and likes into income. Indeed, that inequitable relationship between creators that depend on a platform's audience and the platforms that depend on creators' content is one of the biggest factors that the early crypto art movement has sought to address. Although artists may still be sharing their work on a web2 platform, typically Twitter, they’re doing so with an audience who is much more likely to compensate them for their art. “With web3, artists have managed to connect to art enthusiasts specifically.”

“With web3, artists have managed to connect to art enthusiasts specifically.”

Sammya Brata

Given that Sammya’s artistic pursuits have existed independent of pressure to find a source of income, it makes sense that he highlights the cultural impact that crypto art has had, in lieu of its much discussed financial ramifications. “The intermingling of cultures has been a great possibility, and sales and getting traction has nothing to do with it. It is pure human connection, a connection which has now crossed all the borders, and now we are talking real art.”

Indeed, if Sammya had a specific artistic statement, it would centre centres around bringing little-seen Indian culture onto the blockchain. He is currently working on a book, telling the stories and sharing the images of India’s hidden cultural festivals. The ones that “are not anywhere on the internet.” His ultimate goal is for the contents of the book to be immortalised on the blockchain at some point in the future, in alignment with other movements to permanently record cultural traditions onchain.

As far as opinions on the NFT art scene go, however, Sammya is largely alone in his convictions amongst his Indian peers. “It’s pretty sad,” he reflects. “I don't know what the reason is. It's probably the fact that it's a long-term race: it's not that you will enter and immediately taste success, and understanding the dynamics of how web3 works is not that easy. Penetration of NFTs has been really poor.”

Sammya Brata's PILLARS, showing four Gomira folk dancers from the Kushmandi district of North Dinajpur, West Bengal.

Sammya feels that India’s strong tradition of showcasing the work of local artists has meant that NFTs have not been as well-received as they have in other nations; there simply has been less of a need. But he suggests that showcasing this art via blockchain is particularly useful. “I hope that this changes in the next year. I'm planning to host a few physical workshops in some popular venues. I want to invite college students, involve schools, and include senior photographers, and let's hope that the scenario changes, because we really want the local culture to come over to the blockchain.” 

One such event is an exhibition that Sammya is planning for this December in Calcutta, where physical art and digital art will be on display in the same place. He hopes that artists and enthusiasts alike will come together to learn about the potentials of this new artistic frontier. 

For Sammya, who has enjoyed his own fair share of success when it comes to sales, it serves artists well to invest their time into the community and stay consistent. He never thought that he would be making the sales that he has, and he knows firsthand the pressure that artists can feel as they strive towards that first sale.

“I think that if you do things right, you will attract people not just to your pictures, but also to your tweets, and you will make a strong portfolio for yourself. This will give you the potential to make sales and establish yourself. It could be fast at times, it could be slow at times, but you will eventually make those sales.”

Sammya Brata's 'Dream Theatre', pictured on a gloomy morning at Yamuna Ghat, New Delhi.
Sammya Brata's 'Dream Theatre', pictured on a gloomy morning at Yamuna Ghat, New Delhi.
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Ola Kalejaye
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Ola is a US–based writer and digital nomad. He loves thinking, learning, and writing about all things web3, particularly its impact on major creative industries like film and art.