Both feminine and bold optical illusion-like photos crowd Joshua Sim’s Instagram page. In one photo, a woman stands holding a mirror that reflects delicate rose petals. Peering closer, you can see a man is holding the bouquet. In another photo, a man stands in a field with floating lavender balloons behind him. There’s a matching flower in his hair. We’re left looking at Sim’s photos like they are in an art gallery, noticing small details here and there, wondering if they were intentionally put there or if the photo captured natural magic.
Melbourne-based portrait photographer, Joshua Sim, is challenging and distorting Westernized and cookie-cutter notions of beauty and photography.
As an Australian-Chinese-Indian, Sim has learned to take these cultural tropes and mesh them with contemporary ideas. His work on his Instagram reflects like a classical painting. Through the composition, lighting, and models, Sim’s photography style emulates a stunning dialogue between an artist and an art historian. Sim showcases the complexities of assimilation, diversity and decolonization.
Sim hasn’t received any formal training in art or photography. He studied philosophy and anthropology. Despite this tangent, Sim uses these fields to tell the stories of people of color. His lens captures those who have experienced troubles of being on the peripheral of modern-day beauty, all while challenging the answer to who gets to have their story captured.
The question, “Where are you really from?” might seem trivial and innocent, but for racial minorities and people of mixed ethnic backgrounds, it can often be invasive and traumatic. (I was born in Australia to Singaporean-Indian parents with grandparents from South India, so I share a very similar cultural background to Sim.)
Sim himself was born in Singapore to a mother of Indian Goan heritage and a Chinese Peranakan father. He knows a struggle of never quite being able to form a one-worded answer to where he’s from. It left him confused.
“Growing up, I had been left to believe that to be Indian was of the face to don a bindi, of the body to adorn a sari or sherwani, and of the tongue to speak Hindi,” Sim said. “Yet the Goan identity serves as a challenge to this brash desi place maker; with a style that has been described as Westernised, of the Portuguese influence in our mother tongue of Konkani, and of architecture that would make one believe they were in the streets of Europe.”
He has slowly begun to learn the beauty and power that comes with holding so many different cultures and stories within himself.
Through the models he selectively chooses to be the face of his work, Sim is not only returning to his roots, but he is also helping others do the same and reclaim their identities back from the grimness of colonization.
Tired of feeling disconnected, unrepresented, and uninspired, Sim is dismantling walls through the subject and stories he chooses to showcase in his work. Sim recently published his work in the glossy pages of Vogue Australia’s August feature.
“This achievement serves as a disruption. A disruption of the status quo that has defined this industry since its inception during and after the White Australia policies. To say that a brown kid from a working-class background has the opportunity to be published in one of the world’s largest fashion magazines is far from unimportant. To me, this represents that our waves of protests, conversation, fights, articles and cries for change are no longer falling on deaf ears.”
He doesn’t want to grant too much catering to white publications that he believes have alienated minorities.
“If we as subjugated minorities and silenced populations have the ability to tell our stories on platforms like these, it’s a step in the right direction. To help establish our own voices and our own platforms for our own selves,” Sim said.
Honing in on Inspiration
Cultural identity is what influences Sim’s photography. Specifically, he finds inspiration in diverse cooking. For years, he struggled to find the exact recipes for the meals his parents made him.
“Perhaps the single element that best unites the cultures of my parents is this idea of a sense of feeling and trust within the spirit,” Sim said. “I’m sure any ‘ethnic’ person can relate, is that unlike the West, our trust does not come in numbers or quantity, but rather so a sense of feeling and intuition. A dash of salt, a sprinkle of turmeric, a handful of cinnamon. These are all but guides that our spirit has to decide for us.”
This is the same formula he applies to his photography and writing.
With decolonization as a vivid theme in Sim’s photography, he reflects on how he honors people. For Sim, he believes a camera is a tool of the colonizer.
“To ‘capture’ the lives and bodies of the ‘Other’ world and to be put on display for the Western world to view with exoticism and fetishization,” Sim said.
“Objectified for the colonizers as our culture was put on display. Placed in confinement inside the box that is the frame of a photograph. Our culture is commodified and packaged as our voices silenced. Colonizers would collect and learn about our cultures; and in turn, learned how to dominate and colonize us in the process. The camera is a single tool amongst their arsenal of guns, whips and money to control the Other.”
Sim says the camera can still spread unique messages because the subject within the photo is worthy and vital enough to be captured.
“In the past, the colonized peoples were put in this frame to signal the concepts of inferiority and exoticness to the White audience,” Sim said. “Today, however, we as artists behind the camera now have the capacity to use this signal as a way to tell our own stories, of power and beauty.”
His work represents a shifting narrative of power to minorities.
“There is still a very long way to go to create a sense of equity and justice, but the very presence of my, and so many others’ art in these spaces is an inherent form of decolonial practice,” Sim said. “We as descendants of colonized people may not experience the pain to the extent our ancestors did. But, we still bear within us their trauma, as well as their stories — which I believe is our duty to continue to share.”
January 18, 2023January 18, 2023 5min readBy Arun S.
From receiving his MBA from Harvard business school to being the CEO of Asia’s largest music festival brand Sunburn, Karan Singh combined his interests to push his passion for music! Singh received his bachelor’s degree in management from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He worked as an investment banker for three years at Ambit Corporate Finance before working at Sunburn which is a part of his family’s business. Sunburn started providing the music festival experience starting in the year 2007. The first festival was in Candolim, Goa. The music festival brand has put on over 5,000 events over the past 15 years. In 2022 The Sunburn Festival will be in it’s 16th year. Continue reading to learn more about Karan Singh’s journey with the Sunburn music festival!
What does the Sunburn brand offer and what made you have the festival in Goa as opposed to other parts of India?
We believe that Sunburn offers a really unique experience and is a melting pot of diverse people & cultures from not only across India but around the world. Goa is the ideal setting for this as there is something magical about Goa in the winter-time and truly enables us to tap into that global audience.
Safety at live events has always been a concern among concert goers. Considering recent, events more individuals have asked brands and artists to do more to ensure audience safety. What are you doing to ensure safety for live concerts?
Safety is a huge priority for us. We work with the best-in-class security agencies as well as closely with the police and requisite authorities. For anyone in the crowd a Sunburn safety officer will always be close by and easily visible. We also run an awareness drive on both social media and on ground.
What was the first Sunburn Festival like and what did you learn from this experience?
The first ever Sunburn Festival was in December 2007, and I had actually attended it as a fan, not part of the crew. However, it was absolutely eye-opening as the first proper music festival on Indian shores and opened up our minds to a world of possibilities.
As Sunburn houses so many electronic dance musicians who have been your favorites throughout the years?
It is difficult to pick from the list however the favorites for Sunburn, in no order and because of the amount of love they have shown Indian audiences, are Martin Garrix, DJ Snake, Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike, Hardwell and Armin van Buuren.
Do you plan to expand the festival to add other genres into the mix as well as more activities?
We have already expanded into different formats like Arena, Campus, Club, Reload and things like merchandize & academy. In terms of genres, we have been dabbling with genres like rap, hip-hop and pop, however our focus remains on electronic dance music.
What can someone expect from the festival as first-time goers?
Apart from a state-of-the-art production & line-up, one can expect a special experience, meeting interesting people from all over the world, and embarking on a creative journey of the theme for the year.
How does the festival help local musicians from Goa as well as the surrounding areas in India?
This year we had set up for the first time a special stage and village in the festival only for Goa which gave a platform to local Goan artists. But beyond that a huge focus for us has always been to showcase domestic home-grown talent and indeed 60-70% of the line-up each year is locally sourced.
What was the experience like this year in 2022 and how is it different from previous years?
The biggest difference was that this was the first time the festival was back to its full scale since the pandemic hit after 3 long years. It was a fantastic release for everyone there. Our theme was “the future is now” and this was reflected across the festival experience and particularly in the main stage design – termed “Cyberpunk City” which received rave reviews from all.
What was it like having the legends Black Coffee and Afrojack this year as well as the DJ duo Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike?
Afrojack and DVLM are both Sunburn & India veterans, it was amazing having them back crushing the main stage after very long. Black Coffee for us was something very new and exciting, to have a special artist and a unique sound like that close the main stage on day 2. However it was very well-received and took our experience to the next level.
As you have had the artist Avicii back in December 2011 how do you feel he revolutionized Electronic Dance Music?
Avicii is one of my all-time favorite artists and his show in December 2011 was actually my first one working on Sunburn so will always be extra special. There is no doubt that he revolutionized EDM by taking massive risks and introducing an entirely new sound which a lot of others then followed, but no one as well as he did.
How does it feel to be in charge of one of Asia’s biggest Electronic Dance Music Festivals?
It feels great, we have a very young but ambitious and hard-working team and our primary focus is to continue delivering the best possible experiences for our fans, artists and partners. India is such a vibrant and exciting market that I cannot help but be pumped about what the future holds.
Do you feel Electronic Dance Music is a misunderstood genre?
More so in a country like India possibly yes, where people who are not exposed to these experiences sometimes have preconceived notions about EDM festivals and the like. Oftentimes those people are also in a decision-making capacity and can directly affect the industry. However, things are certainly improving as the industry overall gets bigger and gets more acceptance.
What does music mean to you, Karan Singh?
Music provides a sound-track to life, it is something which is always there!
How do you choose to react when you receive negative comments about the Sunburn Festival?
Well, you have to be able to differentiate between those which are just trolling and those which are constructive or fair criticism. The latter is very important as it helps us to look at ourselves and continually improve, we are still a long way from where we eventually want to be.
Lastly, what do you hope individuals take away from this interview with Brown Girl Magazine?
I hope it allows us at Sunburn to reach a wider audience of the desi community around the world and hopefully get some more people to fly down to Goa for Sunburn Festival 2023 which I can promise you all will be the best one yet!
Dimitri Vegas Like Mike
We have had a long connection with India. The first time we played here was more than a decade ago. Going from clubs to being a regular feature at one of Asia’s biggest electronic music festivals which is now an institution in itself. It’s been an exciting evolution to see how Sunburn has grown over the years. The fans at Sunburn are some of the most insane and every show is a special one. We’ve always had an incredible experience at Sunburn.
Honestly, the energy I feel when I am in India is one of the most amazing things. I would say the culture and energy is what keeps me coming back! India is like a second home to me, just like Sunburn. I feel so comfortable and welcomed here. I’m always excited about coming to India and playing at Sunburn, experiencing new cities, meeting more of the people, hearing more of the music, and seeing more of the country that has influenced me so much.
Sunburn has helped dance music artists world over to tour India and connect with their Indian fans and I’m always excited about performing at the festival.
I’ve a long history with the Sunburn team. They are a great team to work with and they also give the fans amazing experiences. As an artist, I want to be a part of providing fans with lifelong memories and so we all share the same vision.
Sunburn is one of the pioneers of the dance music festival scene in India and has been instrumental in creating a truly world class platform that supports the dance music industry and all of its stakeholders. I’m always excited about touring India with Sunburn.
“Confessions to a Moonless Sky” is a meditation on the new moon and guilt. I wrote it when I was living in Dallas and was driving back from a dusk prayer. The new moon terrified me on that drive. I was diseased by the knowledge that my partner, at the time, had seen the worst parts of me. There’s immense shame in this piece—it seized my self-image. If the moon could become brand new, then I could start over.
I often ponder on the moon’s reflective nature and pairs of eyes. I’m hyper-fixated on how I am seen by others. Unfortunately, the brilliance of seeing your reflection in another person leads to negativity. After all, those who are too keen on their own reflection are the same people who suffer from it. It is possible to use shame to fuel one’s retribution and personal growth, without becoming consumed by it.
We can look to Shah Rukh Khan succumbing to alcoholism in his own sorrow and then later imbibing his sadness in Chandramukhi. “Confessions to a Moonless Sky” is a lesson for us: Don’t be Shah Rukh Khan in Devdas, instead embody pre-incarnation Shah Rukh Khan in Om Shanti Om!
Sometimes when the moon abandons the sky, I wonder if I drove her away.
If she comes back, will she be the same? How I wish she would come back new, truly new! That way she’d have no memory of the sin I’ve confessed to her. You noxious insect. Sin-loving, ego-imbibing pest. You are no monster, for at least a monster has ideology, it sins with purpose. You sin just to chase ignominy.
But the moon won’t say that, she never does. She’ll just leave the sky and return days later, slowly. And I’ll wonder if she’s new, perhaps she won’t remember my past confessions. What does it matter? Were the moon replaced with one from a different god, I’d drive her away, too.
An exclusive standing-room-only crowd, dressed in dazzling colors and shimmer, packed SONA — an upscale South Asian restaurant in Manhattan — in February to celebrate queer love and allyship in the desi community.
The event, ‘Pyar is Pyar’ (which translates to “Love is Love”), recognized the landmark bipartisan legislation that President Biden signed into law in December: the Respect for Marriage Act. The event raised $168,000 to support Desi Rainbow Parents & Allies, an international nonprofit that provides peer support and resources to LGBTQ+ South Asians and their families.
Maneesh Goyal, founder and partner of SONA, organized the event with Shamina Singh, the founder and president of Mastercard’s Center for Inclusive Growth. Both Goyal and Singh are openly queer South Asian leaders and thanked the crowd that evening for their support of other LGBTQ+ desis.
Opal Vadhan and Gautam Raghavan from the Biden/Harris Administration read a letter from President Biden to commemorate the event.
“Jill and I — and Kamala and Doug — hope you have a wonderful night celebrating our nation at our best,” Biden wrote. “May we all carry forth that American promise of freedom together. May we also know that love is love — and pyar is pyar.”
“The work that you do to become visible and powerful, to form narratives, to change minds, and to make people feel something about a cause for equality — that is incredibly important,” Raghavan added, before introducing Vaibhav Jain and Parag Mehta, a same-sex Indian couple that got married in 2019 in Texas.
“They denied us because we are a same-sex couple,” said Jain, who grew up in New Delhi. “This is a violation of the Indian constitution, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex; so we filed suit.”
“Parag and I are hopeful for a positive verdict. If our case wins, it would bring marriage equality to nearly 1.4 billion people across India,” he continued. “Just to put that in perspective, the total number of people today who live in a country with marriage equality is about 1.4 billion. That means our cases together could double the global population of places who live in a place with marriage equality.”
“We need a mechanism to help build allies in our community and to help provide the support that LGBTQ people need,” Mehta added, encouraging people to donate to Desi Rainbow.
Rayman Kaur Mathoda, Desi Rainbow’s board chair, challenged allies to put their dollars behind their vocal support. Her family announced a $50,000 donation to the organization’s ongoing work.
Founded and led by Aruna Rao, a straight cisgender mother of a transgender adult, the nonprofit has served more than 2,000 LGBTQ+ South Asians and their families since 2020. The goal is to serve 10,000 in three years; a million in the next 10 years.
Mathoda, a wife and mother of four, recalled how painful the lack of family and community support can be.
“For most of us who come out in the desi community…coming out is still a negative experience,” she said. “It is not a moment of pride. It is a moment of shame.”
Mathoda thanked all allies in particular for making the road easier for queer South Asians. To find the love and acceptance they want and need.