Dayanita Singh is an Indian photographer. She used to be an internationally famous photojournalist until the day she realized that the India editors kept asking her to shoot was not what she herself was experiencing. There was a gap between the cliches being asked of her and the complexities, human and social, that she knew lay unexamined behind so many of the stories she was being asked to do. Whether the stories were about poverty, prostitution, child labor or any number of the conventional cliches we seem to love to produce from India, Dayanita Singh was unable to turn off her mind. She was amongst the first to produce a series of images of India’s emerging middle class. She had seen this phenomenon at a time when others would not take it seriously.
Dayanita Singh’s work is beautiful, brilliant and difficult. And one project that I have always loved is a story she did on a Muslim eunuch and her daughter title ”Myself Mona Ahmed’, a beautiful, human portrayal of a subject that has been drowned in cliches and populism – we love to gawk at these creatures and stories about ‘transvestites’, ‘eunuchs’, ‘lady boys’ etc. are on the rosters of many photojournalists. And yet Dayanita’s work is brilliantly different because it is so modest and so honest.
You can read an interview with Dayanita Singh about this story and how she produced it.
You can also find pictures from the work on the NB Pictures website. Just go to the main menu and select ‘*nb photographers’ and choose dayanita’s name.
I encourage you to see and understand this work. It will help you see one very important hallmark of an aftermath photographer; the humility and courage to respect the subject agency of action.
Too often the subject is reduced to a mere victim, the better to allow ourselves or our audience to ‘insert’ itself into the story as ‘saviours’ or ‘interventionists’. This has been the traditional approach for a lot of ‘NGO’ driven work, or even ‘news’ journalism that has been arguing for ‘intervention’. Where there is such a need this is essential. But quite often photojournalists and journalists will create this ‘need’ and erase and/or deny the actual lives and actions of the people they are working with.
‘Myself Mona Ahmed’ reveals a story of a strong, independent individual confronting her society, its prejudices, proud to be a mother, dreaming large dreams and never waiting for anyone. Its an ordinary story about an ordinary person who happens to have a persona and character that is to many of us rather extraordinary.
Such respect for the possibilities, abilities, convictions, determinations, courage and agency of the others is what enables a photographer to find those more complex, multi-faceted stories that typically reflect an aftermath sensibility.