Neelam Khan Vela: Documenting life on the road

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It’s absolutely fitting to describe Neelam Khan Vela as a music photography superstar. The 20-something photographer has already proven herself to be one of the most in-demand photographers in the international indie scene, having toured and photographed The Orielles, Hinds, Confidence Man, Lucia & The Best Boys, The Ninth Wave and Dream Wife, to mention but a few. 

I sent over an interview request during the less than stellar time of the Coronavirus crisis, which, as we all know by now, has shattered the music and touring industries. Thankfully, she graciously accepted my invitation to give our readers an insight into her exciting life. This is what she had to say. 

Janelle: How would you describe your love affair with photography?

Neelam: It started when I was young, and it came very naturally to me. I don’t remember ever saying “I want to be a photographer”.I simply picked up the camera and started taking photos of everything that I loved. It slowly started becoming the biggest part of my life.

Janelle: How did you initially get involved in documenting musicians?

Neelam: I think I am more passionate about music that I am about photography, but I never felt like I had the talent to write or play music so this was my way of being part of a world I loved so much. When I was about 15, I started taking photos of local bands at small shows in my hometown, Barcelona, and when I moved to London when I was 17, I started shooting as many gigs and meeting as many musicians as I could. 

Janelle: How would you define ‘documentation’?

Neelam: Freezing a moment in time. 

Janelle: Why are professional photographers still important considering that we’re one of the most documented generations due to social media and easy access to cameras?

Neelam: Because of that precisely! There is so much bad content that there’s a thirst for good photography and videography to stand out from the average. 

Janelle: What would you consider as the highlight of your career so far?

Neelam: I feel like every moment moving forwards is a highlight, every time an artist I admire asks me to take photos of them feels as important as any other one. Shooting an album cover or meeting bands that I grew up listening to such as The Strokes have been moments that got me thinking “damn how did I get here?!”. 

Janelle: Favourite cities to photograph people in?

Neelam: Glasgow and New York. 

Janelle: How would you describe the art and music scene in Glasgow and Barcelona? Can you tell us why you’re primarily based in these two cities?

Neelam: Well, Barcelona is my hometown, and I return here a lot to visit friends and family, but I’m not connected or that familiar with the music scene here as I am with the one in the UK. I have a lot of friends involved in the industry, but I don’t work as much here given that the music industry in Spain is simply much smaller.  

Glasgow is the place I chose to live in, mainly because of how exciting the music and art scene is. There is always so much going on in terms of gigs, exhibitions, club nights, etc. There’s something for everyone, there are so many different bands and different little scenes that it’s impossible to get bored, and so many people are so talented. It’s super eclectic you have pop, post-punk, garage rock, electronic…literally any genre under the sun, and you can find people in Glasgow doing it. 

Janelle: What are some of the struggles that you face as a freelance photographer? And what are some of the most beautiful things that only YOU and other freelancer photographers can experience?

Neelam: I’d say the main struggle as a freelance photographer, and I bet any other friends in any other freelance fields can relate, is the constant stress of not knowing when and how much work you’re gonna get. 

Sometimes, I have three months where I don’t have a single day off, and then I’ll get through another where I don’t have any work at all. It’s hard to find balance when you’re still trying to establish yourself in the bigger picture. 

Having to be creative constantly, plus dealing with the business side of it, plus always making yourself available for work its quite hard, but very rewarding. The most beautiful and exciting part of my job is getting to travel and getting to make friends all around the world. 

Janelle: What are some of the peaks and pits of touring life? Favourite tour so far?

Neelam: I feel like being on tour is constantly going from a peak to a pit, with no in-betweens hahaha. Being on tour, in general, is amazing! I love it so much! Getting to travel and meeting people, and watching shows and taking photos every night, it’s all so fun, but if you don’t try to have a bit of stability you can definitely go a bit nuts. 

People think you get to see so many places, but the truth is you get out the van, into a venue and pretty much back in the van. Days off are great for wandering about and grounding yourself, doing some laundry or cooking a nice meal if you’re lucky enough to get an Airbnb instead of a hotel. 

It’s also really hard to stay in shape when there’s no time to go the gym, and the rider is full of snacks! However, I feel like the luckiest person in the world that I’m able to call it my job!

I think my favourite tour so far was the US tour I did with Hinds in 2018. All the shows were packed and mental. It was such a fun tour to photograph, and we travelled around the East Coast, all across the Mid-West towards the Pacific North West and then down the West Coast. It was gorgeous, and it had always been my dream to tour in the US. Also, the whole crew was amazing and the support act we had, this band from Toronto called Goodbye Honolulu, were the best and most fun people to be around.

Janelle: Are there any artists that particularly inspire the way you photograph?

Neelam: I feel like the music itself always influences me rather than taking influence from other photographers. When I shoot, I don’t really plan for the photos to look a certain way; I shoot by instinct. Depending on the music I’m photographing, I’m inspired to shoot a certain way. 

I had a moment last year when an artist truly inspired my photography, and it made me change the way I shoot: when I shot Weyes Blood at the Art School in Glasgow. I wanted the photos to look as her music sounds so I experimented with some filters and discovered I really enjoyed taking glowy and sparkly photos, and I have been doing that since. 

Janelle: If you could curate your ideal festival lineup, who would you include?

Neelam: The Orielles, Hinds, The Parrots, Dream Wife, Confidence Man… all my homies!! 

Janelle: How can people support artists during the coronavirus crisis?

Neelam It’s a hard time because we’re all gonna be skint, but if you can afford it, now more than ever is the time to buy records, t-shirts, prints… literally anything that will help your favourite artists survive this massive crisis. I feel like the world is gonna have to re-adjust and kinda start over after this mess, and I don’t know how we’re all gonna get through this, but we’ll have to find a way. 

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