Dayanita Singh reveals why she describes her latest book Let's See as a novel

In a chat with Firstpost, Dayanita Singh speaks about the Award, her relationship with images, her new book ‘Let’s See’ and about Saligao village which holds a special place in her heart

Arti Das May 07, 2022 12:44:42 IST
Dayanita Singh reveals why she describes her latest book Let's See as a novel

Photographer and artist, Dayanita Singh, who has won the prestigious Hasselblad Award 2022, believes in the power of image which is not static, open to interpretation, and also as a source of documentation. During the launch of her latest book, ‘Let’s See’, at the locally organised Pustakamchem Fest (Book Fair) at Saligao, Goa, she advised young photographers to be an archivist of their own lives.

The book, ‘Let’s See’ is a photo novel of her earlier years as a photographer. It features her hostel roommates, friends, family, weddings, funerals, and some important characters of her life: her mother Nony Singh, Zakir Hussain, Mona Ahmed whom she depicted in the emotive visual biography ‘Myself Mona Ahmed (2001)’.

In a chat with Firstpost, Dayanita Singh spoke about the Award, her relationship with images, her new book ‘Let’s See’ and about Saligao village which holds a special place in her heart

Recently, Sweden-based Hasselblad Foundation announced their 2022 Hasselblad Award and as we know, you are the recipient of this prestigious award and probably the only Indian to receive this honour? How do you feel about this?

I think I will only believe this when I actually get the award in October. It’s a very formal ceremony in Goteburg. Yes, it’s the first time someone from our region gets this award. It’s when I see the list of masters who received this award before me, that I just can’t believe it. Robert Frank, Ansel Adams, Cartier Bresson, are names one studied. But then I accept it as a validation of where I have tried to push this medium of photography. Just when you think no one notices.

On April 19 you released your book, ‘Let’ See’ at Saligao. You like to describe this book as a novel and not just a photo book. Can you elaborate on that? And also how does this book take shape?

I think a photo book like any literary work can also have many genres--biography, travelogue, fiction, etc. so I started to wonder if I could make a photo novel. A stream of consciousness kind of novel, where the image is such that it provides a clue and you turn the page and start to read the narrative, except the narrative is built by you as the book has no words. To further accentuate this we designed the book in the same size as a literary paperback, and Steidl printed it on the paper used for novels and actually made a special printing so it no longer even looks like a photo book. It is also a memoir of my life in the 80s and early 90s. And what was amazing in the two COVID years, when I poured through my archive, seeing many images for the first time, the interconnectedness of my archive was staggering. This novel was built from those images. It is an experiment, let’s see how the reader experiences it.

Speaking about Goa and Saligao, you came here more than two decades ago, and now you are based here for some time of the year. In these 20-odd years, what are your observations about Goa? Does it still inspire you?

‘Demello Vado’, my exhibition in 2000 at the Saligao Institute is one of my most significant exhibitions. It led me to realise the possibility of disseminating an exhibition. All the portraits in the exhibition were taken to their respective homes by the sitters. It is not Goa that I come for but Saligao, this beautiful house of Rudolph Demello, that I feel I am a caretaker of. And the chance that the name of my exhibition is my address now. So it’s only fitting for me to have the inaugural launch of my photo novel ‘Let’s See’ at the Saligao Institute 22 years later. I also love our Tuesday market, the made in Saligao market and so I will be selling my produce at the same market, means a lot to me.

Dayanita Singh reveals why she describes her latest book Lets See as a novel

When we think of photos/images we consider them as something static. But for you it is beyond that which is evident in your mobile museums where the images can be edited, re-sequenced, archived, and displayed by visitors, allowing them to participate in the museum as well as observe. So do you consider taking just photos and putting them in albums or uploading them on social media is a restrictive form? Why do you think of such a format?

Photographs are raw material; they need to be activated by the form you create for them. I want much more from photography than a single image framed on the wall. Maybe someone is happy presenting on a table all their vegetables as their work, for me the cuisine that the vegetables ask to be formed into, is the challenge. I want people to experience my work not just look at the images. Of course, it goes without saying that to create a fine meal/cuisine you need the finest raw material.

Dayanita Singh reveals why she describes her latest book Lets See as a novel

When we look at the body of your work, most of these images are Black&White. Any particular reason for it?

Photography is overburdened by its factness. I like to be able to create something else in the photo, something more than what is there, black and white become the first tool to step away from the ‘reality’. I only use colour when it does ‘something else’ like in ‘Blue’ book or ‘Dream Villa’. Colour or black and white, it has to offer something more than what is in front of the camera.

You always mentioned that you never intended to be a photographer but an incident at a music concert made you realize to take this profession as it in a way liberated you. How you look at photography now anyone with a camera phone is a photographer. Do you think it has become democratic in a way or are we overdoing it?

It is fantastic that photography is now what it set out to be-a democratic language, that anyone with a smartphone has access to. I love Instagram and am quite active on it not just for images but also for putting out thoughts about this wonderful medium of photography. Such as ‘why photograph’ or ‘the photographer as archivist’.

When we look at your Instagram page, one gets a feeling of nostalgia as there are beautiful images of people who may not be around us; the good old days, the honest expression of people, their surroundings, etc. And also your book, ‘Let’s See’ has a similar kind of work. What is it about the time gone by that interests you?

That’s the irony of photography, it's ‘go away closer’, the moment you make the photo has gone, it’s always in the past but that’s not nostalgia, I think. It’s an archive of 40 years, so I can imagine for a younger person these images could seem like ‘good old days’ but it’s just my life.

What’s next for Dayanita Singh? Should we expect more such books from you?

I hope. Many more books, many more forms. I think now that I have been able to remove the print from the wall and place the book on the wall- publishing will become even more of a focus of my work. Even the retrospective in Berlin ‘Dancing with my camera’ has books on the wall and they hold their own. The large wooden ‘Museum of Chance’ holds an entire room, but equally ‘Sent a Letter’ does so too. Another room is held by the Zakir Hussain maquette. So the separation between print and book is now redundant for me. Now the fun starts!

Arti Das is a freelance journalist based in Goa. She writes about art, culture, and ecology.

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