'Photography is a universal medium'

New Delhi: Photography is not just an art form but needs to be seen as a language, says India`s leading contemporary photographer Dayanita Singh, known for her works in black-and-white.

Singh, who has carried snapshots of everyday India across the world through their striking realistic photographs, mostly in black-and-white frames like lensman Raghu Rai, is known for her photo essays in the international circuit. She shoots her images in series narrating stories of the lives of the Indian urban middle class, evolution of cities, faiths and the marginalised communities across the country.

For Singh, photography is a narrative. "Many of us speak English. We use it to communicate or e-mail or write. Others use it to write poetry, fiction, biographies and reportage. We could start to think of photographers in this way: Is she a novelist, a journalist, a diarist, a biographer....?" Singh, 49, told reporters in an interview here.

"Photography has finally arrived as the universal medium it set out to be. I think it is perhaps more useful to think of photography as a language," she said.

Her new biography, ‘Dayanita Singh’, captures her journey as a chronicler of the urban middle class to a writer penning her own creative photo-stories. Published by Penguin Studio, it also follows her through her black-and-white years to the heyday of colours.

"I think photography, now more than ever before, needs to look at other arts like music, literature and cinema," she said.

"Making photographs is a very small part of the process now. It is more about what one does with these photographs, what form one gives them, what it is composed of, what we are reading, experiencing, listening...."

According to her, a fifth of the world`s population has access to photography.

The greatest gift that photography has given her, she says, is "Mona Ahmed". In 1989 Singh began to photograph the dramatic existence of marginalised communities in India. She stumbled upon Mona Ahmed, a eunuch who became her sister, friend and confidante. For 13 years, she shot Mona.

‘Myself, Mona Ahmed’ was the protagonist of Singh`s pictorial essay of the eunuch`s life. The journey of Mona - from a man to a woman and eventually a victim of depression and agony - became a book in 2001.

"Mona is one of the most precious gifts that photography has given me. In this class-ridden society of ours, there would have been no meeting point for Mona and me, were it not for photography," she recalled.

She describes herself as a bookmaker.

"I am essentially a bookmaker. I was involved in every aspect of the biography - right from the paper, the printing, the binding to the choice of writing. I think maybe it`s time to speak of the book as an art form," she said.

Most of Singh`s photo-essays are in black-and-white.

"I was always hesitant to use colour as I did not know if I could find a way of my own with it and if I could create the same experience in colour as I could in black and white," she said.

The ‘Blue Book’, one of her creations, was a series of photographs of empty spaces - rooms, hospitals and factory premises shot with daylight films after sunset. The effect was a bland monochrome blue that filled the photographs with sudden depths and light.

"In 2007, standing on top of a tall factory tower, I discovered by accident what happens to a daylight film after sunset. I realised that it was in the limitations of colour films that I would find my sources for a language in colour," she said.

Recalling the creation of the essay, ‘Ladies of Calcutta’, Singh said: "All the ladies were friends and friends of friends; so there was a certain trust already established. I made these photos mainly in 1997, 2002 and in 2005.

"In 2008, I had an exhibition, `Ladies of Calcutta`, and on the last day - the ladies took their photos from the walls home. The 108 portraits now hang in 66 homes in Calcutta."

An avid reader, Singh`s photographs are a reflection of the books she reads. "I am inspired by Italo Calvino, Michael Ondaatje, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Sunil Khilnani, Geoff Dyer, W.G. Sebald," she said.

The photographer is currently working on a series ‘House of Love’.


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