After Dayanita Singh presented her previous works and her new projects, “book object”, we asked her some questions about what inspires her.

Before starting with the interview, here’s some quotes from the presentation she held at San Servolo, on April 13.

Dayanita Singh on her idea about the book as an object: “I don’t like books only for their democracy, but also for the dissemination they can guarantee. Books are the most undervalued objects in the world. Photography, exhibition, art, in one object. That’s what I tried to create with the project The book object.”

Dayanita Singh has already carried out two photography projects on archives: “The importance of paper archives is also because of the archivists. They’re special people.”

Her paradox: “in 2010, I was completely obsessed by the book. The book came first, the exhibition second. The exhibition was the catalogue of the book.”

“Photograpgy can bring you to the unseeable. It’s on this contradiction I work.”

Here are our questions and her answers:

You want to express what great literature and music have the power to express. What is the unique power of photography?

Photography can really go to a place where other forms of art can’t. It’s possible, but it doesn’t happen all the time and one has to aspire to that. So on one hand there’s a lot of inspiration, guidance even, from music, from great literature, but finally photography must go beyond the words as well. It’s a contradiction, but I want to try to explore both . Can I go to those places where Mahler’s symphony takes you? Did I this afternoon, for example, show a combination of images that might have moved you in some way, that might have beaten you in some humor as well, in old memories, in some emotions that came through, I hope. So, photography can do that if it goes beyond what there is in the frame. If it is just a picture of two women standing with their phones and mobiles, that’s not interesting. But if it can’t suggest something else… it’s all about that “something else”. And since I’m not a writer, I don’t know what that word is. But it has to be something poetic that goes beyond what’s in the frame. Because otherwise a machine can take photographs. You can wear a hat with a camera on it that can take photographs of everyday life in every direction.

A very traditional question: what about your first experience with photography? When have you decided that photography could become your job?

I didn’t speak about it, but it could be very interesting, maybe not for your generation, but for my generation. I started to make photography because I realized that it might have been my ticket to freedom, that if I became a photographer I didn’t have to do what society expected me to do, because at the time there were no women in photography. I didn’t want to get married, I didn’t want to have children, I didn’t want to do what society wanted me to do. I wanted to be free of all the social norms. And suddenly I thought: “this is it, photography is my ticket to freedom”. You know, if I want to go to Venice, because I want to live there for a year, I can do that, I don’t have to ask anyone, as one is economically independent. That is what my mother told me at the beginning, so that’s what I did. I’m completely economically independent, I’m completely free. I can decide where I want to live, what I want to photograph; nobody asks me to photograph archives, nobody asks me to photograph the factories, I do it because I must. Nobody said “we want to do more with the books”. I want to do it, I want to push the limits.

Why is Italo Calvino so important to you?

Because Calvino, more than everybody, understands the madness that is possible in photography. But Calvino is an inspiration only because he finds a new form for each book, it is not always the same stuff.

What is the impact that Zakir Hussein had on your personal life and character?

Zakir is a life guru because he has really given me the tools of which to be an artist; which is that single-minded focus. That’s why I wake up in the morning and say that’s not enough. I want to present something new here. You can read on the web all my other book objects, but I wanted to see if I can create an experience here. That’s why I wanted the room to be dark. You were forced into an experience, you didn’t come for that experience. So, that sort of obsession, focus and rigor are from Zakir, and those other things that make a difference came later. Initially you can get by because you are photographing, and people like the work, but it is not enough. That’s not what it is about, and with Zakir it is never enough. So, when I was in the Venice biennale in 2011 for the first time, Zakir called me and I said: “see, I’m also a star now”. Zakir replied: “sweetheart, I hope you will never believe that and I hope you will never start to think about yourself as a star, because the day you think you made it, it is the day it will be over”. And so, I lived by that. So, now I said I can die tomorrow, and it will be okay; because I have managed to do what I wanted to do with the book object. It is an exhibition, it is unique, it is multiple; it is all of those things. I could only do that because he showed me the importance of believing in what I’m doing, and when you have a great master who somehow gives you all of that focused attention then you actually start to believe: “I am going do it”.

Nobody took me seriously, nobody thought it was very important and they still don’t think so, but I think so; so, I just do it. And then, it doesn’t matter whether there is success or failure at the end of it. Like I said, both of us might have probably lost all of our money. Can you imagine the size of the container that brought three thousands of these boxes into Germany? He could have just made these boxes in Germany, except they would have not been unique.

What is the source of your spirituality or philosophical meditation?

I have never articulated it, because photography is essentially recording light; it is all about the way the light is falling on my face versus the light on the back. On your faces the light is very beautiful, on my face I’m back lit; it is not very nice. So, it is all about studying the light. There is a certain meditation that you are always doing. I am listening to you, I am answering carefully, but I’m very conscious that when I move, the light on your faces move; it is unconscious. In a sense, you could say that you become a light worshipper. When you are working with light, it’s possible there is a slight spiritual element that comes in; it does for me. And it’s all about the light, whatever the setting may be, it really comes down to how the light is at that time. Regarding the philosophical perspective, this is more for other people to answer. It does not matter what I think. What matters is: was this in any way a slightly spiritual experience? Was listening to Mona something that makes you think what does it mean to be trying to be this female voice that you can never be?

If my photographs can evoke some question in you, then that’s good. If you come away thinking “ah, I have understood something” then that’s no good. This is for magazines, that’s the photography I’m not interested in. I want you to wake up in the morning and ask a friend and say “why she did show us that video twice?”. And maybe you won’t get an answer, but it lingers with you.

For further information, here’s the link to her website: https://www.dayanitasingh.net

If you want to see the photographs of the event, here’s the link to our facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/waterlinesproject/


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