Self-portraits and Discovery
Interview with Reshma Pritam Singh
Self-portraits have been a prevalent form of self expression for artists working in painting, sculpture and photography throughout history. The images often reveal an emotional story of an artist pursuing self discovery. On her 40th birthday, Delhi based filmmaker Reshma Pritam Singh realised a need to know herself better. Shot over three years, she staged these self-portraits using interesting play of light and simple props from around her. The process, according to Reshma was liberating and therapeutic. Not only did it help her articulate the discomfort around who she was, who she had become but also shape up her idea of who she could be.
We speak to her about this series of self-portraits and how photography helps her find her voice.
Tell us a bit about your background and childhood.
I was born in 1971. The year India fought the Bangladesh war, where my father participated as a young company commander.
Till age 10 I had an idyllic childhood, as a regular army kid shifting house every few years, visiting grandparents in the village for summer holidays. Then my mother died and I was sent to this quaint and charming boarding school in Dalhousie where girls from “good families” from the plains were sent to get an education and a bit of a polish so they’d make excellent matches. I was of course sent because my father, being in the army and constantly on the move, thought it was the best option under the circumstances. It was, though my trajectory was nothing like the one everyone expected.
How did your early experiences lead to photography?
I don’t think I came to photography till I was in my twenties and studying mass communication at Jamia. But my being in Dalhousie definitely sensitized me to natural beauty. I remember running up a path and coming to a standstill thunder struck by the light of a magnificent sun setting behind the mountains. I can still recall the grey stone church with its stained glass windows and high ceilings, Sister Therese’s window boxes swooning with flowers, the pale Mary in blue robes, in the grotto with the pink rambling roses. You begin to absorb beauty and it unfolds much later.
When did you start taking pictures and how did it help you find your voice?
The first year in Mass Communication at Jamia University, we simply did photography and sound. We worked with SLR cameras, black and white film, processing and printed ourselves. Then we moved on to color transparency film. These images we had to put together with sound using narration and music, pulsing it together to play on a carousel. I don’t think I have enjoyed anything so much in my life as that – telling stories with still images.
After a few initial lessons, we were pretty much left to our own devices. That freedom was wonderful. Since there was no internet and limited access to books I only had a cursory knowledge of what was being done by other photographers. I think that was a tremendously helpful thing. I didn’t really have very much to compare myself to accept the canonized artists and my classmates. So it was very easy to take pictures in the least un-self-conscious manner. Which is quite a wonderful gift for finding your voice. I felt empowered by the camera. It allowed me to engage with people on the street, more easily, although with a thudding heart. It was always a fine dance between fear and exhilaration.
Photography helps you connect with people and your surroundings in a very special, silent way. For me it helps me find and define beauty everywhere, including within me. Maybe that is my voice then.
But after graduating from Jamia, I went through a phase that stayed with me for the next 20 years – I stopped making pictures. It started with a trip to McLeod Ganj and seeing beautiful, old Tibetan people in traditional costumes. Picking the camera was like a reflex action, but I could not shoot. I just suddenly felt like I was encroaching upon someone’s space and had no right to do so. They were gentle people who wouldn’t say anything if I took a picture. The power dynamic became clear. The same camera that was empowering to me as a student and a young woman, suddenly seemed like an exploitative instrument that shifted that put me in a place of so much power that I felt uncomfortable with it.
When I finally started taking pictures again, I knew I had to turn the camera on myself first before turning it on someone else.
What was the idea behind the self portrait project?
I began conjuring these images of myself in a frenzy to spirit away from the fear soaked banality of my existence. This coincided with me turning forty and realizing that I was a stranger to myself. They are an articulation of all the discomfort around who I was, who I had become and the solution came finally in the shape of who I could be, still.
I can say this in retrospect, because I am not given to ruminating or thinking in a linear way. My response is often spontaneous, intuitive and emotional. This began there. There was no larger agenda but several little pieces of baggage I collected over the years came into play as well.
At the time I had an extreme reaction to the big deal made around expensive equipment, studio lights, locations etc. I had the equipment but I just didn’t feel like using it.
When I started, a part of me wanted to prove that you could make beautiful images without all the attending paraphernalia – you could do so using what you had, including yourself.
One of the first portraits that I made – ‘Ophelia’ was done like that. Sitting under a tube-light, using Photobooth on my laptop with a cushion cover on my head, to look like flowers.
Of course once I started creating the images, all those notions fell on the wayside and it was no longer important.
Tell us more about the process of making these photos.
There was no discipline around it. Just a compulsive need to create.
I created when my emotions or the light got overwhelming. I have this thing for light. It transforms the most banal looking objects and people into something fantastic. I become seduced by it, mesmerized and then it takes over. And all I can do is shoot. ‘Medusa’ & ‘Cyborg Selfie’ are clear examples of just flirting with available light.
Your work deals with themes of identity, memory and historical narrative. At a time when a lot of different photographers are telling stories, why did you chose to tell those closer to you?
Like I said earlier, I felt compelled to do this, as though my existence depended on it. It was a very personal act that I felt comfortable sharing with others after some time. If I didn’t feel the compulsion I wouldn’t do it. Nowadays I don’t create images of myself because I don’t feel compelled to do it.
Self-portraits allow for creating fantasy play that can be liberating, in a sense. How did the project impact you emotionally?
It was very liberating and therapeutic. It opened up a world of endless possibilities for me to inhabit.
I could be anyone I wanted, without my realizing it. Often the naming of the portraits took place after the image was created. I’d look at the finished image and an association would be made that had nothing to do with the actual picture when it was taken. That became a fun thing to do.
Is this an ongoing project?
I think I am done for the time being. I rarely make self-portraits now. This might have to do with quietly knowing myself for the time being. But it would be interesting to look at myself as I age.
What is the importance of personal narratives being shared and heard in the world and times we live in?
I love that everyone is taking pictures now. I love that it is no longer the realm of just a few. I love that people make all kinds of pictures and eagerly share them. It’s like the tower of Babel only with images. These voices will reach the ears that will understand them. The images will be seen ultimately by eyes that comprehend them.
Tell us about how you shared this work and the response you got.
I started by sharing them with close friends and then simply posting on Facebook as my display pictures. People started liking them. At first I felt a nice little frisson of pleasure as my ego got stroked but then it became a little embarrassing. I wanted to share the images but I wanted them to be looked at within some context, not just as vanity shots. So after some time I stopped sharing those as well.
My immediate family was largely unaware of this. My partner first saw most of the images when Grist Media published them as a part of their ‘Selfie’ edition on Yahoo Originals. A friend had them printed in little books so I could present them to my father who saw it months later. He had some favourites, so I think all was well.
Tell us about your current engagements and projects.
I love shooting women. I am doing something with that. Women of a certain age in all their glory fascinate me. I would like it to be a collaborative process and create images of them as they would like to see themselves.
Anything else about your work we may have missed.
Just one thing about the practice- while I was dawdling and wondering what to do, a very dear friend said- Take one picture a day. I just took that to heart and that allowed me to get back to taking pictures. Of course when I got into the groove, I was taking many more than one a day, but I didn’t let a day go by without creating an image.
Reshma Pritam Singh is the founder and creative head of Mogstar Media, a boutique style production house specializing in audio-visual content & film making services for corporate and development sector clients. She independently pursues writing and photography.