“I call this book Let’s See because these images are about exactly that: how we see, what we don’t see, what only the camera sees,” says Dayanita Singh about her photo novel.
The visual artist’s last book, published by Steidl in September, invites you into an unfamiliar but recognisable world. In this world there are birthday parties, lively hostel rooms, chiffon-draped ladies deep in conversation around a dining table, and a sudden funeral, the abruptness of which is counterpoised by a series of gentle embraces. Through the book, images flow into each other in a sequence that echoes life itself. Hair is a recurring motif in its pages, as we frequently see women grooming each other or captured in languid moments, their hair loose and free.
Let’s See is culled from 40 years of archives and includes images that were taken at a time when she did not yet see herself as a photographer. This gives the book the quality of a retrospective. Flipping through its pages, as characters recur, an astute reader can see Singh’s stylistic language emerging. Singh doesn’t subscribe to the conventional diktats of the art world. Instead her fluid and accessible practice speaks a language of its own – and at the centre of this practice is books.
Let’s See might be understood as a novel of Singh’s memories, but it also holds memories of India’s collective past from a time before globalisation. Compiled through the Covid-19 lockdown, it offered Singh a chance to connect with a younger self she feels she no longer has access to.
Earlier in March, I spoke to the visual artist and recipient of the Hasselblad Award over a Zoom call, about her photo novel and the journey that led to it. Edited excerpts from the interview:
There is a certain democratisation in your practice, which makes your work not just accessible, but also personal in how a viewer chooses to display it, read it, look at it, interact with it. Where did this instinct come from?
I think it’s something that’s intrinsic in photography, you know – photography allows for dissemination in all kinds of ways. Everybody stresses on the image in photography, but that is not my way at all. And it never was. The image is a means with which you do something. And one of the things you do very well with photography is dissemination. But the art world, to create value for photography, gets into editions and various other limitations. And I just feel that photography is something that can go beyond those limitations, and still be a valid art form, you know. So I’m constantly checking that boundary and sort of pushing it bit by bit. That’s one aspect. The other aspect of it started actually in Saligao [in Goa].
I had an exhibition at the Saligao Institute in 2000 of all the people I had photographed there. They all came to the opening. And after the exhibition, they peeled the images off the wall and took them home. So my work is hanging in about 30 homes in Saligao.
Was this something you wanted them to do?
I wanted it. Because I already knew that if my work could become part of people’s domestic archive, that is far more significant than any museum. It was the second show of my life and this exhibition, Demello Vaddo, was the start of this kind of thinking. I had never imagined that any museum or institution would be interested in my work. I mean, my own colleagues in India were not interested in my work. With the exhibition in Saligao I realised that I actually can make my own route through this world. It just so happened that I got involved in the art world soon after, but that memory is a very important one for me. I did it again in Calcutta in 2008. When I showed Ladies of Calcutta, people took the works home. By that time, I had made Sent a Letter with the same idea that my exhibition could be in your house.
So, you could say that this practice has been brewing in my head for 23 years. Because I was born to be an album-maker, every surface in the house, including the one I’m sitting in front of, was always covered with photos. It was an ongoing curation of photos. If there was someone I didn’t like, I would take that photo out. If there was someone I liked more, I would add their pictures. It was a very organic way of engaging with photography.
There’s a sense of comfort and intimacy in Let’s See. It’s not just that the people in the photographs seem comfortable. It’s also a sense of comfort derived from seeing them. As a viewer, I feel sort of included in that world.
It’s very easy to explain in a way. It’s all in conversation distance.
Photography was just part of the conversation. I was not making photographs. I was talking. And at a certain point, because we were sitting on the ground, I may have leaned back, I may have laid down in those days… Photography at that time was a form of friendship. Even with the sex workers of Bombay, it was only after a certain level of friendship that the pictures were made.
There are people in Let’s See who appear again and again. They’re sort of secrets because I don’t want to spell them out. Yet, the strength of the book is that the web in it is very strong. But it’s not necessarily a web that you can decipher. For me, there is not one extra image and that’s why it took me two years to build it because there couldn’t be one extraneous element.
Secrets is an interesting word to use, because there is only very little revealed…
That was very much part of the edit note I gave myself, that I give you a jhalak of something. But the whole picture I will never give you. There has to be tautness about the images. They have to lead to the next image and the next. I couldn’t have a picture that was complete in itself. I accentuated that by putting the gutter through the image, so that you could no longer look at it as a beautiful individual image, because beautiful images…there are quite a few of them. That’s not what I wanted. That’s not what I want for photography, especially since I had this idea that there can be such a thing as a photo novel. You know, sometimes it’s a photo novel, sometimes it feels more like a memoir novel. Because I’m so present in it. But I didn’t have a choice. I had to be present if I was going to present all my friends. I couldn’t hide behind the camera that’s not on.
Yes, it feels like you are also a character in the novel…
Absolutely, absolutely, I’m central to that novel. And that’s why I’m on the cover. Some of my colleagues were like, ‘Oh, my God, how can you put yourself on the cover?’ I said, ‘You know, I have to take full responsibility for this novel that has been constructed.’
I’m also one of the characters because a lot of the story is in response to me. Our relationship to the camera was not one of suspicion at that time. If someone saw me with a camera, they didn’t put me down as a photographer. Because that’s not what women did. I was not seen as a photographer. But even more importantly, I didn’t see myself as a photographer. I love being in conversation. And I loved meeting people, all kinds of people, and the camera was something that allowed me access into different worlds.
Forty years later, when you looked at all these photographs, what was your editing process like?
I chose based on a certain Let’s See quality. It’s what we discussed earlier: the image couldn’t be complete in itself. It had to be a page-turner. It couldn’t be a settled image. It couldn’t be the single image that everyone aspired to at that time.
At first, I was just going through all the images because it was Covid and I had all the time. I never planned it. It was there in my contact sheets. I was seeing that, for example, there were a lot of people, a lot of images of people with hair grooming each other. There were so many birthday parties, I had to take them out; otherwise, I could probably make a book on birthday parties. This is the magic of an untapped archive. I only read it at Covid time because I had scanned my contact sheets. So, for the first time, I had the opportunity to look at them properly, to look at each image – and I was amazed. I was amazed to see what a fine photographer I was. I had this eye that was so gentle and tender. I can’t photograph like that anymore. I know too much about photography, about the camera, about myself. In the past, there was a certain innocence in the eye. And that is what made me feel that, okay, there’s something that I have to put together. And then came the idea of Let’s See, but it could have been hair, it could have been ‘Make My Plait’.
Your practice is very fluid, which is especially evident in the book. For instance, the way we’re meant to interact with it: how this book is meant to be folded or held, you can bend it and twist it. What was the thinking behind that?
Because I wanted it to be like a cheap paperback that you would buy at an airport or railway station at one of those AH Wheeler stalls. That was my brief to [Gerhard] Steidl. He printed on text paper, the paper that he prints his novels on. And for the cover, he went to a beer factory to get a cheap, glossy paper.
All through your work there are recurring characters. There are people whom you’ve known in different ways for a long time. When you first met them, did you have any inkling what your relationship would become?
Of course, not. But I’m glad you brought it up because that’s one of the things that I really felt good about when I looked at my archive. I realised there are so many people in my life who have been there for 40 years. Some like, say, Mona, Zakir, my mother, in an obvious way. But people like Krishna Chaudry – she’s one of the ladies cutting the cake – she has sort of been in the background. She’s in the background of a lot of these pictures.
That was very special to find in my archive: how I had gone back again and again to the same people. There are people that grew up in this book. There’s a little girl who becomes a young girl in this book. Of course, one never knows. Even today, you might have an idea that you like this person, but it doesn’t mean they’re going to be there in your life for the rest of your life. But somehow, that happened with me, not just with people but also with places. It’s not like I went to New Zealand and I went to Alaska, and I went, you know, all over the world. I went to a few places but I went there again and again. I think because no one took me seriously. I just continued going back to the same places and the same people. Because I wasn’t trying to be a photographer. And briefly, when I tried to be a photojournalist, that didn’t work out either. So my only recourse was to become a family portrait photographer. There was no other option left for me.
My next project will probably be about going back to these girls I met in the year 2000, including many from Saligao, who are now young, solid women.
This is a personal archive for you. But in some ways, I also saw it as an archive of our collective past. This is India of the 1980s and ’90s, right before globalisation. How do you think people’s relationship with photography has changed since then?
What has changed is the surveillance aspect of photography. You’re taking my picture, I’m taking my picture, this has been recorded somewhere, we don’t know where this has been recorded. That is not so much the problem. The problem is that we don’t know where it’s being recorded, and when it might be used for something else. I think it’s that somewhere we all know the surveillance aspect of a camera. And it’s very, very difficult to separate that. And so the safest way for being photographed now is actually on a film camera.
Also, architecturally, our houses were different, the furniture was different. Not many houses had sofas. You were more likely to have divans. And what it means is that you slipped onto the floor very easily. The body language was different. Therefore, in Let’s See, you see a certain kind of intimacy that you just don’t have now with people, because people have somehow become so paranoid about intimacy. There’s an intimacy you have with your partner, but that’s not only what human intimacy is about. I think this became very obvious during Covid. If you were with your partner, it’s one thing. But if you were on your own, suddenly there was no human contact. Also, earlier, there could be touch among your own gender, right? But now, if I put my hand on your shoulder slightly longer, you will be like, Oh, my God, what is this about? It’s got quite messed up, I think, and we in the bargain are losing so much because there is nothing as comforting or as nourishing as a warm embrace. So Let’s See is full of embraces between all kinds of people.
What was it like when you started? Let’s See is a work that begins from a time when there were not too many women photographers in India.
I didn’t have zero support. I think I can say now I had negative support. No, that’s not true. I think I had tremendous support from the musicians. Zakir taking you under his wing is a huge support. And then all the other musicians taking you under their wing is a major support. But in terms of my colleagues, there was no support when I started thinking of becoming a photographer. My support even now comes from other fields. Not really from my field. And I think that has been a huge advantage for me. Because I’ve been able to do things my way. I was never able to become a part of any clique. I would like to be, I wanted very much to be a part of the boys’ club. But I couldn’t be and they didn’t take me seriously. So I did my own thing. And I would say I did pretty well.
From all these photos, who would you like to meet again as they were back then?
Myself. Because I have no access to that person, except for these pictures. What I would give to have that eye back.
All images are copyrighted and cannot be reproduced without the permission of the author of the works.