INTERVIEW: Devika Daulet-Singh

Fòcas talked with our judges, Devika Daulet-Singh (curator and publisher, PHOTOINK) and Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert (photographer) about what drives their work and how they see the future – and the present – of photography in India and Scotland.

F: You founded PHOTOINK in 2001 as a photo agency and publishing design studio. What inspired you?

D: In 1997 I joined the New York bureau of Contact Press Images straight out of college. It was there I learnt the nuances of editing photographs from the inimitable genius and my mentor, Robert Pledge, who founded the agency. When I moved back to India, I tried to navigate my way around the photo community but it was difficult to find people who shared my interests in photography. Photojournalism reigned supreme and discussion around any other genre was dismissed. In this environment, finding photographers for whom photojournalism was the means to an end but not the end itself was not an easy task. It definitely provided a much-needed income for photographers who wanted to develop independent projects. PHOTOINK was set up with this motive in mind. We largely focussed on working with business magazines that demanded portraiture. Robert opened many doors in Europe and in the US to syndicate our material.

My interest in bookmaking goes back twenty years and even as a student, I preferred buying photo books over camera equipment. In 1995, I bought a limited edition book with 8 photographs by Walker Evans, published by The Steinhour Press. The quad tone reproductions were beautiful and surpassed the quality of the actual prints I had seen. Unfortunately, these printing techniques were never widely used in India and to achieve this quality of printing is still a dream.

F: The gallery came later, in 2008 and you’re still one of the only galleries in India purely committed to photography. That must have been a really exciting step. How did the Indian art world – and the photo community – respond?

D: We started exhibiting in 2003 but had to contend with renting spaces for very short durations. In 2006, the then director of the Rencontres d’Arles, Francois Hebel invited me to co-direct a major presentation of Indian photography at the 2007 edition of the festival. This was perhaps the first time Indian photography was on view through 12 exhibitions ranging from late 19th century / early 20th century vintage photography, to retrospectives, solo print exhibitions and projections by photographers not known even in India. With increasing international interest in photography from India, it became imperative, if not necessary, to think about developing a permanent photography space.

When we opened the gallery in 2008, the art world was very supportive and by this I mean, the artists. Even though we began selling prints in 2004, ‘art’ collectors didn’t embrace the photographic print very easily. It probably sounds absurd but even today I encounter important art collectors for whom the very reproducibility of the negative/digital image hinders its acquisition. That being said, the photographic print did find its patrons and supporters in India — a younger generation who found collecting photographic prints much more affordable than the other visual arts. That said, we do have a few serious photography collectors now in India. Also, the photography community has grown considerably and apart from the many art galleries that now exhibit photography, there are close to 10 photography festivals in India.

F: Eight years on, your gallery represent a wide range of Indian photographers, and you host guest shows of international work – Roger Ballen in 2015, and Martin Parr, of course. What makes you want to represent someone?

D: Given the few photography-centric galleries in India, the pressure on PHOTOINK has always been immense. A lot of projects by both Indian and international photographers arrives on my desk — a great bonus of my job. I enjoy working with (Indian) photographers in the early stages of their careers a lot more — it’s more challenging to develop interest in somebody relatively unknown than in work that already has a following. It’s for this reason I also like excavating old and neglected archives. However, with international photographers, unless the work is produced in India, I approach representation in quite the opposite way. Working with unknown or mid-career international photographers doesn’t make sense. In the absence of a photography museum (in India), it’s important for PHOTOINK to exhibit works by influential photographers and artists who’ve had an extensive history of exhibiting at museums. How else can we explore the potential of this medium unless we start dialoguing with such individuals and works.

F: What do you feel an emerging photographer in India needs today to succeed at home, and to be seen, also, internationally?

D: We are living in a hyper-real digital world where images are flung at you if not via social media, then through television. For a young photographer, the challenge is to find an original way to tell a story we are familiar with or find a new subject, which hasn’t been explored by other photographers. More importantly, and this is pertinent to the generation growing up using social media — how long can you hold a person’s attention with your photographs? In the mid-90s, my professor in college sought to deflate our egos during a class critique, when he said the average time spent in front of a photograph (in a museum) had been calculated to 7 seconds. We were appalled by that conclusion. I’m wondering how much time has further compressed on platforms like Instagram, Tumblr and Snapchat.

The other very interesting aspect of the digital age is the breakdown of hierarchies, especially within the world of photography. On one side, you have a well-known photographer exhibiting at a museum where 30,000 people view the exhibition and the museum congratulates itself and the sponsors feel good. On the other side, you have a young photographer who has never exhibited at a gallery, let alone a museum, and his followers exceed 200,000. How does one measure importance in this digital age? Is it even possible to compare the impact and influence of these two photographers over a period of time? There are many photographers with extraordinarily large number of followers on Instagram, who’re simply not interested at exhibiting their works at galleries and museums.

A question then worth asking is – what is the meaning of success in the digital age and how can one measure it?

F: What do you feel are the key currents in Indian photography?

D: It was beginning 2000, when one started viewing a shift away from the Cartier-Bresson school of photography to more inward and intimate explorations — I saw a lot of work focussed around the family, the self, for instance. In the last few years, a return to the impersonal in an entirely different way has emerged. The landscape as a metaphor, the urban habitat, the dystopia present great opportunities for photographers. Last but not least, role-playing and the performative in photography are gaining practitioners. Projects using the constructed image are developing.

At the same time, one can’t ignore what’s being posted on social media. One has to really sift through to find interesting material. The ‘self’ is in a perpetual state of inquiry. No other platform has been able to fuel the narcissist quite like Instagram. Unless we join these online platforms, we cannot hope to expand audiences for photography. I grew up in a world where an encounter with the physical work was important to appreciate and/or analyse it. Today, as long as people can access a work online, this encounter is not as necessary. This is one of the pitfalls of the digital age.

F: How do you think these might shape the Indian scene for the near future?

D: As I mentioned above, there’s a lot of interesting work to view on social media platforms not necessarily always by ‘photographers’. Unless, the authors of these images start editing and cataloguing their images, I fear a lot will get lost, forgotten or subsumed in the unending digital tunnel. Photographers have for the first time tasted success on these online platforms – by that I mean they have gained a massive following without having a third party be the go-between. It’s a double-edged sword and time will mark their relevance.

Despite the obsession with online platforms, the ‘print’ as an object is still very important to many photographers. A few, who made the first leap into the digital world have gone back to using their analogue cameras and are obsessed with film and chemistry once again.

F: There are so many photo festivals in India, including Delhi’s own, and there’s a strong international presence at them all. That seems to be increasing, and I wonder what you think is driving this?

D: It’s great so many festivals have sprung up across India — they’re fantastic audience-building efforts besides promoting the medium. How many will survive is a function of their continual funding and the content they exhibit. For the moment, most of the festivals are driven by submissions but this model cannot last. At some point, as a festival matures, the organizers will have to curate their festivals in order to keep them relevant and apart from the other festivals. These photo festivals are largely driven by international content because photographers in India still prefer the white cube to display their works. How many contemporary photographers will debut their works at one of the photo festivals in India is debatable.

F: And what’s next for you – and for PHOTOINK?

D: PHOTOINK has been around for fifteen years now and I’m still very passionate about my job. However, my real interest lies in academia and teaching photography and I hope to pursue this interest in the not so distant future.

To find out more about PHOTOINK, please go here. 

To read Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert’s interview, please go here.


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Devika Daulet-Singh established PHOTOINK in 2001 as a photo agency and publication design studio, based in New Delhi. In 2008 PHOTOINK expanded into a gallery to exhibit contemporary Indian photography and international photographers. The gallery represents such artists as Pablo Bartholomew, Rahgu Rai and Ketaki Sheth.

Her engagement with the world of photography has been as an editor, curator and publisher of photo books. In 2007 she was associate curator for the Indian presentations at the 2007 Les Rencontres d’Arles photography festival and for the Photoquai Biennale in France. She was the Project Director for The Photograph: Painted, Posed and of the Moment, which included 8 exhibitions, held at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai (2008). She co-curated The Self and The Other –Portraiture in Contemporary Indian Photography for the Palau de la Virreina, Barcelona, and Museo Artium, Vitoria in Spain (2009). In 2011, she curated a group exhibition, Photographing the Street: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, which was exhibited at the first edition of the Delhi Photo Festival, Delhi.

Devika has juried for the Umrao Singh Sher-Gil Grant for Photography (2015), W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography (2010), RNG India Press Photo Awards (2004, 2006) and was a nominator for the 2016 International Photography Prize, the Prix Pictet prize for the last four years and the 2014 GD4PhotoART award.