A photographer and artist whose practice spans art, photojournalism and publishing, Dayanita Singh is known for highlighting alternatives to traditional modes of photographic display through her work, particularly her later work and experiments with the narrative and sequential structure of the book format.
Singh was born in New Delhi. Her mother, Nony Singh, who also made photographs, encouraged her to join the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, in 1980, where she studied visual communication. She began making photographs for an assignment at NID, which would go on to form the basis of her first photobook, Zakir Hussain Maquette, which featured images of the tabla maestro Zakir Hussain that Singh had taken over a period of six years.
Following her time at NID, Singh studied photojournalism and documentary photography at the International Center of Photography (ICP), New York, where she also interned for noted photographer Mary Ellen Mark. She took up several assignments as a photojournalist during this time, including a series on the Anandamayee Ashram in Varanasi in 1998, becoming the first photographer to be allowed into the ashram. Upon graduating from ICP, she joined the London-based photo co-operative, Network, where one her first assignments was to document the transgender community in New Delhi. Through the assignment, she met Mona Ahmed, a hijra person who became a close friend and the subject of some of her most seminal work, including Myself, Mona Ahmed (2001). Created as a visual novel, the publication combines her images and personal anecdotes with email exchanges between Mona and the publisher Walter Keller. This publication marked the beginning of her departure from traditional photojournalism and her move towards more experimental forms.
In 2008, along with her longtime collaborator, the publisher Steidl, Singh produced Sent a Letter, a calico-covered box containing seven small accordion notebooks, each inspired by the photo-journals she kept while travelling. The publication was designed to encourage its collectors to display it as a private museum in their homes. She also approached Satram Jewellers, a shop on Park Street, Calcutta, and arranged for the book to be displayed in the vitrines on the shopfront as a means to explore alternative methods of dissemination of her work.
The idea of alternative exhibitionary strategies continued to evolve through her works, including in the File Room (2013) book-object; Museum Bhavan (2017), which is composed of nine individual museums in book form; and Pothi Box (2018), a set of thirty unbound images meant to be acquired directly from the exhibition wall. In 2020, as part of Art Basel’s Online Viewing Room, Singh debuted a collection of her photographs exploring the medium’s relationship with architecture through the works of architects such as Geoffrey Bawa and BV Doshi. The images were installed within three spatial forms — a pillar, a ladder and montages — that encouraged viewers to explore the images by moving around them, challenging the norms of photographic viewing.
Singh’s works are a part of the collections at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York; Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi; and the Tate Modern, London, among others. She has been the recipient of the Prince Claus Award in 2008, the Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2014 and the Infinity Award by the International Centre for Photography in 2018.
At the time of writing, Singh works and lives in New Delhi.
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