By Sohrab hura
I had never really been influenced by Dayanita Singh’s photographs. When I looked at them I felt a lot like I did when I looked at Raghubir Singh’s work. I was never overwhelmed or had felt like I had been hit on the heart by a speeding truck. Yet I could never deny the importance of their works in the context of the history of photography even if it was from an arm’s distance. It was at that time more an instinctive feeling than anything else. I could never really explain for Dayanita’s work why I felt it was really important.
@ Dayanita Singh, Self portrait Berlin 2008
I think when you are young (or old) it matters a lot that you come across work – in my case photographic work – that grabs your heart and squeezes it so hard that looking at it is both a beautiful and a painful experience; Painful because it opens the doors to a beautiful infinite world that until that very moment you hadn’t realized had existed at all and more importantly because it’s not yours.
Dayanita’s photographs had never done that to me. I came from a very different world and I had always felt that I belonged to family of photographers like Masahisa Fukase, Daido Moriyama, Paulo Nozolino, Mario Giacomelli and Antoine D’agata. Experiencing their work was always a heart break. Over the years I had found Dayanita’s photographs to be beautiful and evocative, but at the same time very meticulous in every detail. I, on the other hand went through a long phase in the opposite direction. I had been very anti-meticulous, if it makes any sense, and I believed that what made a photograph was its soul irrespective of how beautiful and perfect its printing was. This is something I still believe in.
Her photographs were beautiful, evocative, meticulous in every detail. I on the other hand went through a long phase in the opposite direction. Anti-meticulous, if that makes any sense; I believed that what made a photograph was its soul, irrespective of how beautiful and perfect its printing was. In fact the more terrible the printing and the more the bursting of the grains the more I loved it.
Things have changed a little over the years though. I’m tired of seeing photographs. I think I hate photography now. Or perhaps I have a love-hate relationship with it.
In the beginning I believed that the objective of photography was just to create photographs. Later, photographs became the tools to create a book or an exhibition. Right now as I write this, I feel I want to use photographs to create a book or exhibition and in turn recreate my world and ideas. It’s here, at this point, where I feel myself slowly embraced with the realisation of how important Dayanita’s work is to me. It’s her books. Each one is a beautiful and unique treasure full of love and made with a deliberately different purpose. There’s a deep love for literature rooted in all her books, and at times I feel she’s more a writer working with photographs.
Photography is no longer just about the photographs. It’s also about how you use them. And experiencing Dayanita’s work is completely different if seen online, in an exhibit, in a magazine or a newspaper or in a book. People sometimes complain about the splitting of all the photographs in her last book Dream Villa. But it’s not about the photographs, it’s about the book – it’s about holding it in your hand, how its size feels, you spreading the pages apart to peer into the gutter to see one half of the photograph disappear and then reappear on the other side, one half sometimes leading more to the next photo as you flip a page. On the other hand Myself Mona Ahmed, one of her older books, is more about the person in the book than the photographer. . The beauty is in its simplicity; heartful photographs interwoven with words, more importantly words from Mona Ahmed. Love explodes out of these pages. Love that Mona Ahmed has for her adopted daughter Ayesha and for her many pet animals, love shared between her and Dayanita and also the love in her correspondence with Walter Keller, the book’s publisher. Love is something that’s slowly disappearing from ‘contemporary photography’ – it is sadly becoming cold, heartless and hollow as it props itself merely on intellect.
Over the last five years or so lots of changes have taken place. Instead of photographs using the exhibitions to show themselves it is now the exhibitions taking those very photographs as pieces to build together an idea or an expression. It is only a matter of time before photographers also start looking at bookmaking seriously and go beyond considering catalogues and ‘cataloguish’ collections as photo books. I think this is when Dayanita’s work will truly have a major influence on the younger generation of photographers.
Susan Sontag had written that a slideshow is the most efficient way for a photographer to communicate with the viewer. Unlike in a book or in print where a viewer could ponder over a photograph for as long as he or she would want and have the liberty of going back and forth the pages out of the initial sequence, in a slideshow a photographer had maximum control in how a viewer would experience and be affected by the photographs. The time duration spent on each photograph by the viewer is determined by the photographer, more importantly the fixed sequence of photographs as well as the accompanying sounds all get to together to allow the photographer to realize in the viewers the emotions that he or she wanted to in the first place. This worked incredibly well for Nan Goldin whose slideshows had been incredibly powerful, but Dayanita too in a lot of ways has similar control over our experiences through her books.
I can understand now the reluctance on her part for her work to be taken in the context of “Indian Photography” and I hope the younger generations of photographers also find in themselves a similar reluctance. Such categories can sometimes become a justification for bad work. While it is always interesting to look at work in the context of the geographical and cultural background of the photographer, it should be able to stand strong amongst photography from anywhere else. Unlike music, where the instruments can be unique to particular countries, photography’s tool – the camera – is universally the same. We just express a difference in visual language and sensibility. Dayanita’s work has transcended any such categorisation, and in the end it doesn’t really matter where the work comes from, all that matters is that it comes from her. While photographers in India chase after something called ‘contemporary photography’, hers remains one of the last few honest bodies of work unconscious of any category it’s supposed to fit into.
I saved money and recently bought myself a copy of Myself Mona Ahmed, a book that has intrigued me from the first time I picked it up in my hand many years ago. I must confess that my heart still didn’t get hit by a speeding truck; I stopped getting hitting by trucks a long time ago perhaps when I lost that innocent way of looking at photographs. But since then some nights I have woken out of my sleep in a bit of a daze with the words Dear Mr Walter… being the only trace of clarity in my thoughts. I hate the fact that they’re not mine.