Lit for Life 2015 Lit for Life

‘Now photography is for everyone’

Dayanita Singh. Photo: Meeta Ahlawat   | Photo Credit: MEETA AHLAWAT

Dayanita Singh’s studio — its walls covered almost completely with the photographs that speak of her art — feels a little like a sanctuary. After over three decades, Singh herself is an icon, and as passionate, dedicated and committed to her art as ever. All set to speak at The Hindu Lit or Life 2015, the photographer talks about pushing the limits of her medium, and what photography means to her. Excerpts from an interview

Tell us about discovering photography. What did it mean to you in the beginning?

I remember that I found photography irritating, because my mother used to photograph me so much. So it was photography that delayed every party I wanted to go. My mother wanted to document everything, and really, it was the only traumatic part of my childhood. And then I realised that this was my ticket to freedom. I became a photographer and, back then, I didn’t know women in photography. Of course, there were Ketaki Sheth and Sooni Taraporevala in Bombay, but I didn’t know them. So I made up my own rules — can’t get married, can’t have children, need to travel with this man, that person. Once you get used to that, it’s very difficult to fit into what society expects.

A little about your photographs, the things you look for, and the meaning it holds.

I think photography helps me slow down. You see, there is one theory in photo of the decisive moment that many people follow. But I’m more interested in the on-going moment. Is there a photo I can make that has time in it? I would like the image to not be about a where and when, you shouldn’t know if I took it in 1/25th of a second or it took me a minute. I like that quality of photo. There should be time in the photo. I like to work like that.

For me, what makes the picture interesting is what is left outside it. I might allude to that, but it won’t be in the picture. The fact that everyone can access it and make their own meaning out of it is a big thing. Photography is deductive. It’s not starting with a clean slate. A musician sits down and starts from a space of silence. Painter has a blank canvas. A photographer is starting from an existing material. It’s doing the opposite and taking away from the material.

I’m not interested in photos that say something. That’s good for photojournalists and magazines. That’s not what I’m after. I want to see if the photograph can evoke something in you. Can it? I’m not sure, but when I listen to T.M. Krishna singing, I’m in a different place. Can photography aspire to that? I think it might be able to.

You’ve pushed the limits of your medium. A little about that.

I always knew that the book was at the centre of my work. I always used to ask people if, behind my photographs, I could paste my book. And they’d tell me that a book is a book and an exhibition is an exhibition. But, for me, it wasn’t like that. I think in book, I think in large symphonies. You want to take one note out of that and celebrate it. That’s okay for you but it isn’t for me. So I thought: how do I make the book the work? When the book would arrive I would be ecstatic. After all, this was my sequence this is how I want you to read it. So I worked out a frame the book would go into, and the technical things, like not having the title of the book on the cover, having different coloured fabric, and making the images inside the same size as the front. The process started with sent a letter, and now you know what has happened? After 30 years, the book becomes the object, and my new book Museum of Chance goes on the wall. In Bombay I’m showing it like a regular photo, and since there are 88 photos in the book, there are 88 different versions of the book that go into the frame. With this, I’ve found a new structure. I hope I don’t repeat it with different books. The idea is to keep pushing. The photo is my language, medium, raw material. I want to do much more with it.

Changing technology is pushing the limits of photography too, changing its form and language...

Photography has always dealt fabulously with change. Of course there has never been a change as big as the one happening now, but incredible new voices will come out. Now photography is not just for photographers, it’s for everyone. So when a physicist, a writer, a musician, a bureaucrat start to make photographs, we are going to have all kinds of voices coming out. Yes, there is right now a glut of it, and I don’t know how many different billion pictures are uploaded.

I’ll say two things to people making so many pictures. One, back up your images. Two, slow down. Sometimes, in a talk, I give someone the camera to take my picture and they take 30 pictures. And not one is good enough. To me, a photograph should be like an arrow. You know this is how you want to do it or you allow the moment to decide how to do it, and that’s it. My contact sheets are like that, one maybe two images, maybe three and that’s already a lot.

I want to make a seven-minute YouTube video on how to be a photographer. I think there are just a few technical things you need to know. Things are going to move so quickly, It’s not about the technicalities really. It’s about how you see, and how you build your voice. I don’t think there is any need a course in photography. When I look around, I don’t think there is much scope for it. So many forms will emerge. This book object is my form. But to create your own, don’t look at photography, look to other disciplines. Gather a lot of experience. Travel. Can you make friends with someone who drives a truck? Can you wash that truck for a year and travel all over?

You’ve spent over three decades on your own riyaaz. How has your language changed?

I hope, with every work, my language has changed. I hope I’ve been able to push my own limits. The big shift started to happen with Sent A Letter. I realised I could make a form of my own. I didn’t have to listen to others. I think when I tried to be a photojournalist, it felt like there were rules. I tried to be one of the boys, and I think they didn’t take me seriously. Thank god for that. I’m grateful to all the rejections I’ve had in life. I love problems, and finding a solution to them. I can never get complacent and there is always more to do. Zakir taught me this in the beginning, that I must never think that I’d done all I could, and achieved all I could.

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Printable version | Dec 1, 2021 8:56:11 AM |

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