Dayanita Singh: “When I photographed with the Hasselblad, I’d call it my third breast”

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This article is printed in the latest issue of British Journal of Photography magazine – a special edition with a double theme, Love / Ukraine. It can be delivered direct to you with an 1854 Subscription or available to purchase as a single issue on the BJP shop.

In Singh’s first major survey, on show in Berlin, the movement and physicality of the photographer’s creative process manifests in her free-flowing images and the many forms she employs to create and show them

Photography connotes the eyes – an artist squinting through their viewfinder, framing an image. And later, audiences’ gazes consuming it intently. However, for New Delhi-based Dayanita Singh, photography is an inherently physical process, closely entwined with her body and its movement. “When I photographed with the Hasselblad, I’d call it my third breast,” she tells me, referring to the camera she has favoured throughout her decades-long career. “Because I didn’t photograph from my forehead or eyes, I would photograph from my belly… moving my hips to get the angle I wanted. Dancing around what I was photographing.”

The physicality of Singh’s process underscores her first major survey show, at Gropius Bau, Berlin, which runs until 07 August 2022, and is aptly titled Dancing with my Camera. “I would have loved to call it Dancing with my Hasselblad, but it would have sounded like a promo,” she quips. “And then I got the Hasselblad Award [Singh received the 2022 iteration of the prestigious prize this March]. I mean, talk about chance.”

I am as I am. 1999 © Dayanita Singh.

Nevertheless, the exhibition’s title evokes Singh’s deep connection to her camera and the elegant fluidity of her process. An approach rooted in twisting and turning photography – wrestling with it, as Singh has articulated, to excavate the potential with which the medium is pregnant. Indeed, akin to her dynamic physical approach, Singh’s intellectual engagement with photography is equally elastic: a free-flowing excavation of the format that manifests in unexpected ways, divorced from expectation or convention. “I have a different relationship with photography,” she observes. “The image is the raw material. But however hard [the raw material] is to find, however beautiful it is, it’s not an end in itself. It’s not enough.” 

Singh’s defiance of neat artistic categories connects back to the very start of her relationship with photography. For her, the medium presented an escape: a means to transcend the strictures of marriage, family, gender, nationality, and even art form – “[Photography] was my ticket to freedom, from all the social obligations,” she reflects. “I became an artist to be free, so I am hardly going to let you categorise me.”

Let’s See. 2021 © Dayanita Singh.

Singh was born in New Delhi in 1961, the oldest of four sisters. At 18, she had plans to become a graphic designer and embarked on a course in visual communication at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad. It was here that Singh found photography. The artist was assigned to make a book and decided to document the renowned tabla player Zakir Hussain performing at a concert in Bombay. Her initial attempt failed after an organiser forbade her from photographing, pushing her into the crowd. However, the 18-year-old Singh persisted, waiting for Hussain outside, where she confronted him directly, convincing the musician to allow her access. The encounter marked the advent of a years-long collaboration that saw Singh accompany Hussain on tour for six successive winters, culminating in her first photobook, Zakir Hussain: A Photo Essay, published by Himalayan Books in 1987.

The publication – the maquette of which is on show in Dancing with my Camera – encapsulates the documentary style that defined Singh’s early practice. Indeed, in 1987, the artist persuaded her mother to contribute her dowry money toward Singh studying at the International Center of Photography in New York. Here, she also interned for the late American photojournalist Mary Ellen Mark. However, after working as a photojournalist for several years, Singh became disillusioned, feeling she could not go on “earning a living from the distress of others”.

Nonetheless, the photobook has remained a central element of Singh’s practice, providing a means for the artist to liberate the image from the flatness of the wall, imbuing it, and audiences’ experience of it, with movement. “I have a different connection to photography. I want to share the possibility of a more physical experience of images with you. That’s why it’s been important to find all these different forms,” Singh says, referencing the many structures she has developed. From the photobook to the mobile museum – a form she conceived in 2013 with the Museum Bhavan, which has since become the uniting title for her travelling family of nine “museums”; large-scale, free-standing wooden structures that hold a multitude of images. These come alive in the show, encouraging visitors to physically engage with the work – to move around it and draw connections within individual pieces and between different forms themselves.  

Museum of Chance. 2013. Installation view. Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, Delhi. Courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London.

Despite being a retrospective of over five decades of work, Dancing with my Camera presents new pieces never exhibited before. Singh spent the pandemic scanning all of her contact sheets and, although engaging her archive has always been a central facet of her work, the process allowed her to discover and rediscover “each frame I’ve made throughout my entire life,” she says. Fittingly, Museum of Dance (Mother Loves to Dance) (2021) was created especially for the show, and consolidates Singh’s ongoing fascination with movement – from her relationship to the camera, to the movement of those she photographs, to how audiences engage with her images. The elegant structure comprises 108 images of people dancing. Many are individuals frequently depicted throughout Singh’s oeuvre. From the late Mona Ahmed – a transgender individual whom Singh met in 1989 and remained a close friend and inspiration – dancing at her home in an Old Delhi cemetery, to Singh’s mother, and her friends from the National Institute of Design. 

“The images that show her long-term friend Mona Ahmed dancing are especially powerful,” writes curator Stephanie Rosenthal in an essay from the show’s accompanying catalogue. “Mona herself is dancing with the camera: whether dancing at the cemetery or dancing on the street, the camera is always present as her dancing partner. She looks at her as her lover, turning towards and away.” Indeed, in Ahmed, we see reflected the physicality of Singh’s approach. A practice rooted so deeply in the body that Singh’s emotions, and connections to her subjects, manifest within her photographs themselves.

Dancing with my Camera is at Gropius Bau, Berlin, until 07 August 2022.

Hannah Abel-Hirsch

Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she was Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.