Photography is much more than just seeing the world through a lens, says well known photographer Dayanita Singh, as she explains why her eponymously named new book is an attempt to explore the overlap of photography on literature.

Life is a series of stories that could be broken down into a sequence of images that run fast enough to seem like a continuous spiral of activity without the punctuations of blank spaces. Each of these images can be captured, memorised, by the mind and often is, only the finest details blurred over by time, age and eyes that may not be quick enough to fix them for eternity. And what the eye can see, the camera can freeze, too, each photograph keeping a log of what happened, where, when and how.

A really ‘good' photographer can also steal a little bit of the feeling, the emotion, the soul of that particular moment in time – in fact, in many cultures, a photograph is dreaded, sometimes even forbidden, since it is believed to take away a tiny slice of the soul, perhaps even the life, of the subject being photographed. But for the viewer, a photographic image tells a story, or a bit of one, leaving the rest for the imagination to conjure up and embellish.  

Record of life

In telling that story, photography, once considered to be merely a way of capturing a moment, be it as a family portrait of a facet of breaking news, gradually became an art form – a creative story-telling, fiction perhaps – or a means of documentation – a biography or a record of a life and its living.

“You can call it art, documentation, literature, whatever you like,” says Dayanita Singh, well known photographer whose work illuminates and illustrates a new (eponymous) book from Penguin Studio. “It's my work. It's what I do.” Supporting her form of story-telling is writing that comes from the minds of Aveek Sen and Sunil Khilnani and, as a set of e-mails, Mona Anand.

She was once someone who thought that “Photography was one of the most irritating things to have around childhood.” Singh has said that “I had no interest in becoming a photographer.” It meant, more than anything else, that she had to sit still while her mother, Nony Singh, took pictures…and more pictures, “every departure was delayed by her picture making”. Some of the images her mother captured are included in the volume, in the section called Sent a Letter. “If I could write, I would not be a photographer,” Singh says, as she tells wordlessly of an “inner universe”, as the introduction poetically describes it, through her work.  

Written word

And even as she tells stories looking through the eye of her camera, Khilnani and Sen have their own tales about what she is trying to convey. In the photographic essay called “In I Am As I Am”, a vision of Benares through the lives of young girls in the Anandamayi ashram, there is a tangible awareness of the tacit acceptance of the children's way of life, the austerity, the simplicity, the peace, the gentleness that they learn to know and understand and the way they “…gaze - in wonder, confusion and horror – at all there is on view”, as Khilnani relevantly puts it – he is speaking of tourists' reactions to the city, but he could be speaking of the girls themselves, their eyes wide and absorbing as they look out from their sheltered haven. The writing focuses on the city and its photographic potential, the way it has been portrayed by various people in writing and images.  

Sen's treatise on “Ladies of Calcutta” speaks of the “mad party” that was held at the gallery in Stephen Court when the show opened in January 2008. There were “friends and friends of friends who had opened their homes and lives to this woman with a Hasselblad from another city”. And Singh had a unique thank you gift for her visitors and subjects – each was allowed to take home the photograph she had made of them, leaving behind just four unclaimed.

The images tell more stories than their subjects would perhaps have imagined. The unsaid says more than that which is spoken of, conveying mood, relationships and affections in that one snap in time. And there is history in each frame — culture, tradition and age, as reflected in the way the women pose, the clothes they wear and how they are worn, the furniture, even the pictures on the walls. Each has a special story; its meaning and interpretation left to the viewer.  

Universal language

Singh herself is blunt about herself: “I would say that picture making is about a quarter of my work,” she says, “it is much more about the sifting, editing, weeding out, sequencing, thinking about the form, and what you want to create out of these images.”

For her, “Photography has finally become what it has set out to be; a universal language. It's not in the photographs, not in itself; but about the text you put into a book, what kind of writing you connect your work with.” The same passion that emanates from her photographs comes through her voice and her words, as she explains how photography is so much more than just seeing the world through a lens and then showing that world what it looks like. “I am very interested in how far one can push photography and the overlap it has with literature. The kind of photography I am interested in needs to look to the other forms now; to cinema, to literature, to music, to create something more.” 

This inspiration comes from interacting with her friends — writers, photographers — and from reading: “I read a lot of (Italo) Calvino, who is most important for any photographer to read,” an unconventional choice for a tribe that usually focuses on (Susan) Sontag et al. “It opens up a Pandora's box. My advice to young photographers is always to read, read and read more.” Singh believes that “It is not about the picture making, but about the form that makes it. It cannot be all that you do in your life, I think. It is about bringing something else into your work, from travel, reading and conversations, reading being absolute number 1; no way around it!”

It is sustenance for her, since “Literature certainly informs and shapes the thought that I put into my work.” Photographs thus become facets of a larger story. When you look through Singh's Dream Villa set, for instance, “could they evoke a certain story, a certain symphony? Think of these as clues to a story in Michael Ondaatje's style of editing, with no fixed beginning and no definite end.”  

And this is how she wants to work, what she wants her work seen as. “If we can have texts that somewhere go into how one creates; that would be quite a big step. This book has made a big shift in the world of books, in the kind of text it has. The writers are not talking just about the photographer, they are not concerned with just photography; they are interested in the arts, in literature, in music.”

With the book, Singh aimed to try and start to “push the limits on what has been written on photography; it would be worth it. These are some of the most important texts to read if you are interested in the medium. In this book I think I have laid the foundations for some kind of a change. It is not just about photographs, it is about the text.” The text was selected by Singh herself, as “an extension of my work. It is a way of thanking people in my life that have shaped me, all the different experiences that form who we are become the sources that become whatever we are trying to create. If we could have a book that deals with the sources of what we create, that is what makes sense.”

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