Intimate Durations: Reimagining Contemporary Indian Photography
This dissertation examines a mode of photographic practice in contemporary India marked by intimate, long-term engagement between artist and subject. I argue that the aesthetic of intersubjectivity embodied in this work lays claim to a sophisticated, progressive politics of gender and alterity through attention to complex negotiations of social hierarchy within contemporary India. In exploring the under-examined role of photography in the development of recent South Asian art, I further argue that this work anticipates the participatory paradigm that came to prominence in South Asia in the early 2000s, and that the unique history of photographic practice in the subcontinent opened significant possibilities for more substantially relational engagement between artist and subject. Building on this history allowed the three photographers at the heart of my project to develop a form of quiet activism, exemplary within the trajectory of contemporary art in South Asia.
My analysis is grounded in the work of three Delhi-based photographers: Sheba Chhachhi (b. 1958), Dayanita Singh (b. 1961), and Gauri Gill (b. 1970). Each embraces a mode of social outreach across boundaries of cultural difference over long periods of time, often more than a decade. Chhachhi began her work with women activists, and later explored the lives of female sadhus (Hindu religious renunciates). Singh photographed Mona Ahmed—a member of the highly insular hijra (transgender/eunuch) community in South Asia, and later focused on the equally insular communities of India’s social and economic elite. Gill pursued relationships with several rural communities in Rajasthan, and spent more than eighteen years photographing girls and their families as they negotiated harsh conditions of survival often beyond the purview of the state. This dissertation proposes a framework for understanding the intersubjective aesthetic embodied in these works on the basis of three interrelated qualities: a long temporal duration that enables complex representations of time within the work; a struggle for personal and cultural recognition on the part of both photographer and subject within South Asia’s complex social hierarchy; and ethical agency on the part of the photographer to represent her subjects responsibly and bear witness to the complexity of their lives.