As Dayanita Singh presents her life’s work in a new book, young photographer Sohrab Hura talks of his slow realisation of her impact on his generation
When you’re young (or old) it matters a lot that you come across work that hits your heart like a speeding truck. It grabs your heart and squeezes it so hard that looking at it is both beautiful and painful. Painful because it opens the doors to a beautiful infinite world that, until that moment, you hadn’t realised existed at all, and more importantly, because it’s not yours.
I came from a world where I felt that I belonged to a family of photographers like Masahisa Fukase, Daido Moriyama, Paulo Nozolino, Mario Giacomelli and Antoine D’agata. Experiencing their works was always a heart break. Dayanita Singh’s, or for that matter Raghubir Singh’s photographs, had never done that to me. Yet, I could also never deny the importance of their work in the history of photography — even if it was from an arm’s distance. It was instinctive and I could never really explain why.
Dayanita’s 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 perfect its printing was. The more terrible the printing and the more 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 or in an exhibit, or a magazine, newspaper or 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 photo 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 handMyself Mona Ahmed, one of her older books, is more about the person in the book than the photographer. The beauty is in its simplicity; heartfelt photographs interwoven with words, more importantly words from Mona Ahmed. Love explodes out of these pages. Love that Mona 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’s 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 exhibitions to show themselves, exhibitions now take those very photographs as pieces to build an idea or an expression. It’s 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.
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’s always interesting to look at work in the context of the photographer’s geographical and cultural background, 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 all 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’, her’s 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 hands many years ago. I must confess that my heart still didn’t get hit by a speeding truck. I stopped getting hit by trucks a long time ago, perhaps when I lost that innocent way of looking at photographs. But since then some nights I’ve 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.
(Hura is an award-winning 28-year-old photographer)