A realistic photograph by Dayanita
© Dayanita Singh/NB Pictures
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 IANS 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
"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,
According to her, a fifth of the world's population has access to
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
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,"
The photographer is currently working on a series "House of Love".
Chatterjee can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)