Gauri Gill’s Empathic Photography

Regardless of whether Gauri Gill photographs the Indian community in the U.S. or inhabitants of the Rajasthan desert, her pictures always attest to a special intimacy with the people in front of the camera. In recent years she has explored new avenues. Together with the painter Rajesh Vangad, she created a series of works that bridge the gap between the two media. Achim Drucks on one of the most exciting current photographers, whose work is on view at the Deutsche Bank Campus in Frankfurt.
Temples, palaces, gardens. Camels walking over sand dunes at sunset. Men in turbans. Women clad in colorful robes with golden anklets that flash while they dance. This is the image of exotic Rajasthan shown on tourist websites. But poverty, child labor, and massive gender inequality are also realities in India’s largest state. Vast areas of the region bordering on Pakistan consist of sandy desert. In the winter it is bitterly cold here, while temperatures can reach 50 degree Celsius in the summer. For many, life is a struggle to survive.

Gauri Gill went to Rajasthan for the first time in 1999. In a village at the edge of the Thar Desert, she visited school friends and saw a young girl pupil beaten brutally by a teacher with a stick. The young photojournalist, who at the time was working in New Delhi for a political weekly, was shocked and wanted to intervene. But her friends advised her not to interfere because that might exacerbate the girl’s situation. Back in Delhi, Grill suggested making a photo essay on the situation of girls at village schools. The idea met with little interest at her office, since almost daily there are worse reports in the media of greater violence against girls and women, of acid attacks, rape, and murder. Subsequently, Gill decided to take a sabbatical so that she could travel through the region on her own and take pictures of village schools, particularly the possibilities for young girls and women.

The issue of distance and proximity would go on to shape her photographic career. She is not only occupied with the question of whether and how violence, sexism, poverty, and a lack of education can be fought and whether there should be intervention in cases of injustice, but Gill also seeks to capture images in which social and formal attitudes are mutually dependent. No matter what she photographs—stone graves, classrooms, a home birth—her pictures always reflect not only what is in front of the camera but also the medium itself.

Gill’s journey through Rajasthan marked the beginning of Notes from the Desert, a group of works that over the years has developed into an almost inexhaustible picture archive. Today, it encompasses more than 40,000 negatives from which she distills very disparate series. In a highly personal, continually different way, she reports on the rigors of life in rural communities in the western part of the state. Gill photographs nomads, Muslim peasants and migrants, and communities such as the Bishnois—members of a religious community that lives in harmony with nature—exclusively in black and white, thus avoiding colorful exotic clichés. And she also shuns hard contrasts. Rather, Gill’s silver gelatin prints thrive on their subtle gray nuances. The relationships Gill develops to people and places are also reflected in her formal decisions. This sense of nuance characterizes her entire oeuvre. Classical magazine photography usually relies on emotional reports and unsparing depiction, resulting in exploitative pictures of hardship and misery. Gill takes a different path. Her photographs dispense with stereotypes and voyeurism, attest to respect, empathy, and solidarity.

This is the case in her photo essay Birth. In this series, Gill shows how Kasumbi Dai, a traditional midwife, helps her granddaughter bear a child on the sand floor of her small hut. She had asked the photographer to accompany her work with the camera. Kasumbi Dai was proud of the new obstetric methods she had learned at an NGO. Gill lived with the woman and her family for ten days. Only through this closeness and the resulting relationship of trust could these intimate yet very discreet photographs emerge. The series documents the entire birth process, but at the same time keeps a certain distance. Gill never photographs expressive faces or dramatic interaction. Her silver-gray pictures direct the eye to the materiality of the fabrics, the sand floor, the hut. Often, the people she shoots are partially outside the image, look away, or are veiled. The narrow confines of the hut, as well as the intimacy, become palpable from the detail she chose. At the same time, Gill printed the photographs in the series in a small format, requiring the viewer to come up close to them.

Her series of portraits, Balika Mela, also documents Gill’s communal approach and how she formally negotiates proximity and distance. She took these photos in 2003 and 2010 during a Balika Mela, a fair for girls organized by the NGO Urmul Setu. Alongside magic booths, puppet shows, and “mock elections” at which girls became acquainted with the principles of democracy, there was an improvised studio in which they could be photographed by Gill. The girls could decide whether to be photographed alone or with girlfriends, with or without props. In this playful atmosphere touching portraits were taken. Often, the girls look surprisingly serious, even when they posed wearing hats made out of newspaper. At the same time, her pictures, with their clear compositions, the static and frontal poses, recall classical Indian studio photography.

Balika Mela was created before the smartphone era, when being photographed was still something special. Thus, there are no rehearsed smiles, no representative selfie poses. The camera, it seems, proves to the girls that they exist, that they are important, which fills them with dignity and pride, as well as uncertainty. Later, some girls attending workshops given by Gill learned to photograph and exhibited their pictures at one of the subsequent Balika Melas. One of the girls even opened her own photo studio later.

Other groups of works from Notes from the Desert do without people completely. An example is Traces, pictures of graves in the desert on which family members of the deceased delicately piled rocks, branches, bramble and also personal items such as vessels, teacups, incense or a piece of cloth. The gravestones are usually hand inscribed. Gill presented large-format images of these ephemeral tombs, which are reminiscent of Land Art, at the last Kochi Biennale. Documenta 14 featured works from The Mark on the Wall, the series with which the artist is represented at Deutsche Bank Campus in Frankfurt. They are pictures of empty classrooms in state-run schools whose walls are adorned with diagrams and maps  as well as political symbols or drawings from nature. Gill’s photographs show carefully selected, sometimes emphatically geometric details, with tablets, pennants, and window frames recalling elements of abstract compositions. Natasha Ginwala, one of the curatorial advisors at the documenta, called the series “a visual grammar of collective learning.”

“The drawings were made by teachers, local artists, and children themselves,” explains Gill,  “to study or impart learning. So they are not art for art’s sake.” Instead, the images serve to convey knowledge in class. They also reflect societal conditions. Thus, for example, the word for “wife” is at the very end of a list of nouns relating to the family. “Everything comes through,” she says. “What is deemed of value, what is taught.”

Her work on Notes from the Desert marked a turning point in the life of the photographer, who was born in 1970. “Being there on my own, without any particular agenda, I could follow my instincts and the people I met freely. I quit journalism a year later.” And she completed her academic education. In the 1990s, she had studied at the Delhi College of Art and Parsons School in New York. Subsequently, she went to Stanford University in California, where she attended seminars in anthropology, psychology, and gender studies. In 2002, Gill completed her MFA in photography.

In the U.S., she began another long-term project in 2000, which she completed in 2007. It was a kind of sequel to a group of works she had started in 1992 when she studied in New York, where she lived with her aunt. There she had begun to photograph her family. In 2000 she expanded her focus and began portray the Indian community that is both American, as well as Indian, to expand the definition of who Americans can be. For this she traveled through the country extensively. The color photographs provide an image full of contrasts: Indian entrepreneurs at a party in Washington; a married couple that works as cleaning staff at a hotel; young professionals in Silicon Valley who seem to have perfectly adapted to the American way of life. In other pictures Sikh turbans or brightly colored saris at a store in Queens speak of an attachment to Indian culture.

Gill took the title of this series from Robert Frank’s iconic photo book The Americans, published some 50 years previously. It takes a critical look at daily life in a postwar America marked by consumer culture, racism, violence, religion, and nationalism. Gill confidently picked up on Frank’s work while simultaneously addressing current discourse on migration, life in the diaspora, and hybrid identities. The Americans presents a multifaceted image of a community that is not quite Bollywood or Hollywood.

Her preference for long-term projects and her closeness to the people in front of the camera connects Gauri Gill with probably the most internationally well-known Indian photographer, Dayanita Singh, who is also represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection. Both began their careers as photojournalists and both were associated with the American photographer Mary Ellen Mark, known for her sensitive portraits of drug addicts, street children, and unemployed people. While studying in New York, Gill did a short internship at her studio, where she filed away negatives in the archive, while Singh calls Mark her mentor. Both Singh and Gill published a series of night pictures. But the titles alone suggest they adopted different approaches. Singh’s Dream Villa brings together color photos of streets and landscapes shot at various places around the world. In the light of the moon or lanterns, everyday phenomena transform into mysterious, latently menacing scenarios. In Nizamuddin at Night, Gill, however, explores the neighborhood she lives in, one of the oldest in Delhi, home to many Sufis. She is also interested in how darkness suddenly changes familiar things. But the pictures are also a portray a very specific place. Gill’s nocturnal poetry seems much more sober, much closer to actual reality.

The link between poetry and an investigation of reality as well as the history of a specific place also characterizes one of her most recent projects, with which she radically extended the documentary approach of her photography. She has worked on Fields of Sight since 2013, together with Rajesh Vangad, a painter from the Warli people. She met him in Ganjad, a village in the coastal region north of Mumbai, where his family has lived for generations. In the Warli’s ancient culture images play an important role. Since their language does not exist in written form, they record their traditions and legends in large murals. Vangad, one of the most well known Warli artists, created murals for Mumbai airport and the Tata Hospital in the city.

Gill was invited to Ganjad to do a project for the local primary school, as was Vangad. Akin to Balika Mela she made portraits of the children, of which they would get a print. During her stay she lived in the house of Vangad’s family. The artist showed her around his village and led her through the lush landscapes in the surrounding area, which, however, are increasingly being destroyed by industrialisation. “I began photographing Rajesh in the landscape—as if we were constructing a personal map of places significant to him.” But she wasn’t satisfied with the results; the pictures were lacking something. During their excursions together, Vangad had told her many stories, about old myths, about forests, mountains, and rivers, but also about political conflicts in the recent past. She thought of these stories while she was viewing the pictures, though they were not reflected in her photographs. This gave her the idea to collaborate with him.

Gill photographed Vangad, while he, in turn, covered the large-scale prints of her black-and-white pictures with a web of delicate ink drawings. “This commingling work may be seen as an encounter between two artists of about the same age with entirely different languages—one with ancient antecedents, the other more recently originated,” explains Gill. Rajesh’s drawings are a product of his memory and imagination, while Gill refers to the visible world. The collaboration is similar to that of two musicians who play the same piece with different instruments. “The final work contains parallel projections of place; it merges fields of sight, and of perception.” The series also stands for the equal coexistence of two artistic languages, of which the one is often dismissed as “tribal art.” In the meantime, works from Fields of Sight have made it to the documenta and the Moscow Biennial, to the collections of MoMA and Deutsche Bank.

Vangad’s filigree drawings show typical Warli motifs: detailed patterns, plants, animals, and animalistic rituals. Yet they not only conjure up a mythical tradition, but also allude to the skyscrapers, cars, and smoking factory chimneys of today’s India. Gauri’s photographs of landscapes destroyed by industrialization are revived by Vangad. He overlaid a photograph of a polluted, dead river with pictures of dying fish, people floating, debris, hunters and fishermen. He shows what things used to be like—and what they can be like again if people treat nature more responsibly. Gill’s pictures capture the present, while Vangad’s drawings enrich her photographs with new dimensions—with a look back at the past, but also to a possible future, and not least of all with the spirituality of the Warli. Thus, Gill and Vangad’s Fields of Sight open up new perspectives on art and on life.