February 29, 2020
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Shots Of Intimate Distances

The more we try to approach the person whose name is on the cover, the less we understand of her interior world.

Shots Of Intimate Distances
Dayanita Singh

Introduction by Carlos Gollonet , Carlos Martin Garcia
Text By Aveek Sen , Sunil Khilnani , Mona Ahmed
Penguin Studio | Pages: 256 | Rs. 5,999

This book is a compendium of several exhibitions by the acclaimed photographer, Dayanita Singh. Presented in one volume like this, the pictures have narrative continuity, like a collection of short stories written around a single theme. Dayanita begins with autobiography. She turns her camera towards friends and family members, her own presence like an invisible filter that conditions her access to the interiors of private, elegant spaces. Her subjects look back at her with fondness, drawing her into the photograph by their expressions.

In ‘Myself Mona Ahmed’, the camera shifts away from the privacy of privilege to explore another level of access: that of friendship across class barriers. The subject is a middle-aged transsexual, telling her story in her own voice, through letters to Dayanita’s publisher. These photographs are as powerful and unforgettable as dispatches from a war zone. Though it’s very clear that Mona participated in the record made of her life, we are all transformed into voyeurs just by looking at images that we could otherwise never have seen.

The more we try to approach the person whose name is on the cover, the less we know of her interior world.

With ‘Go Away Closer’, the focus shifts further outward: to objects, places, silences and absences. In ‘Sent A Letter’, the camera’s eye enters unfamiliar territory. From autobiography to iconography: rooms of books and clothes, shelves and display cases, some of them in the Nehru Museum in Delhi. The famous clothes hang vacant, like headless ghosts waiting for an audience to haunt. Groups of Indian museum visitors gaze in the way of blind men staring at a mirror, unable to see themselves in the physical artefacts of their own history.

With ‘Blue Book’ a dark tide rips across the photographer’s vision. The intimacy of all the earlier pictures is swept away, replaced with harsh impersonal surfaces and monstrous, menacing machines. Suddenly there is colour, but instead of adding softness, the acid blues, rust stains and malevolent shadows introduce a brooding atmosphere completely absent from the earlier pictures. In ‘Dream Villa’ the mood shifts again, but only a little. The photographer is still travelling, searching for something. The people within her frames look like deer caught in the headlights of a car, staring passively at the camera, unable to bridge the distances that separate them from the viewer. There are interior spaces here too but none of them look like home. It is as if the photographer is searching for the intimacy of the earliest pictures, but discovering an otherness that she cannot conquer with her lens.

I loved this album as a gallery of wonderful images. As a book, however, I found something lacking. There’s no title other than the photographer’s name and no editor’s name on the cover. While the essays by Aveek Sen and Sunil Khilnani are well-researched and thoughtful, they nevertheless report on Dayanita as if she were unavailable for comment. ‘Go Away Closer’ might have been the title of the entire book: the more we try to approach the person whose name is on the cover, the less we understand of her interior world. At the end of the book we know much less than when we began. Which is wonderful, in a sense: the more she shows us, the more we yearn to see.

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