Study Visit – Dayanita Singh

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Beneath the Southbank.

I saw a lot of photography on Saturday.

I went to London for my second study visit with the OCA, to see ‘Go Away Closer’ by Dayanita Singh at the Southbank’s Hayward Gallery. Making the most of the trip, and feeling like the wide-eyed boy from the sticks, I planned to see the Home Truths: Photography, Motherhood and Identity shows at the Photographer’s Gallery and the Foundling Museum, and Leicestershire by Mitra Tabrizian at Bankside. I’ll write more about each as I read, reflect and understand more about them. Five days later though, one particular artist’s work has stayed with me, above all others. In fact, it’s not so much the photographs themselves as the feelings and emotions that they generated.

Finnish photographer Elina Brotherus‘s Annunciation series formed a small part of the motherhood show at the Photographer’s Gallery. The title is an ironic play on the Christian idea of the Annunciation, where the virgin was visited by angels and informed that she would be giving birth to the son of God(!). Brotherus’ version catalogues her own repeated attempts to conceive through IVF. It shows a collection of self-portraits and images of the drugs and processes involved, revealing some of the mystery and taboo that only those that have been through the highs and lows of the process know about. The sharps bin, the broken vial of white powder, the blood in the toilet bowl; most strikingly, the calendars, with dates hopefully pencilled onto them. Images that without that appreciation of the work as a whole, mean much less.

In contrast, Dayanita Singh’s work was presented without context, title or caption. Singh explains that labelling reduces the image from what she wants it to be. “…the when and the where are a burden on photography” and “if people know why and where it was taken, they think they understand the image and can move on”. My feeling however, is that unless the work is deliberately abstract, this deprives the viewer who may not understand the artist’s idea and may misinterpret it, or pass over the work even more quickly. Dates, locations and subject matter are not necessarily required, but generally, some context is essential.

In his essay ‘The Art of Missing Information’ (the introduction to Will Steacy’s book ‘Photographs Not Taken’), Lyle Rexer writes that

…an image stands mute before the inexpressible delicacy, horror and associative complexity of our experience.

Brotherus’s ‘Annunciations’ are not offering us the experience, other than by a distant proxy. We are not experiencing what she has been through, but we’re sure that, after spending time with the photographs, we certainly don’t want to be where she has been and if we know someone that has, we’ll hug them tightly at the first opportunity.

The Brotherus backstory elevates her straightforward and simply shot photographs to another level. Trying to relate this to my practice, this level of exploration of the subject matter is something that I absolutely aspire to. The technical skills are far easier to learn than the subtle art of storytelling through images in such a powerful way.


Singh, D (2013) Go away closer. London, Hayward Publishing

Steacy, W. (2012) Photographs not taken. USA; Daylight Community Arts Foundation

The British Journal of Photography, October 2013

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