“I look for ways to distill the complexities of heartbreak and joy”: Prarthna Singh reflects on gender and politics in India today
The Bombay-based photographer talks us through two emotive recent projects. The first captures female athletes in northern India while the second documents a female-led protest in New Delhi.
- Jyni Ong
- 13 May 2020
With an enviable list of clients under her belt, Prarthna Singh still manages to find the time to work on personal projects. After studying at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, the Bombay-based photographer went on to work in New York for a few years before returning to her birth country. So far, she has contributed to the likes of The New York Times, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, FT Weekend, Wired, The Guardian and has been commissioned by Nike, Instagram and Uniqlo, to name a few.
Fundamentally, when it comes to the subject of Prarthna’s work however, the beautifully lit compositions explore the notions of female identity, with a particular emphasis on gender intersecting with contemporary India’s fraught nationalistic politics. She tells It’s Nice That, “my images reflect on the economic and political trajectory of India, creating a visual arc across the duality of feminine vulnerability, strength and empowerment.” Given India’s “historically problematic relationship to gender,” she goes on to explain, its current changing landscape presents the photographer with a fascinating space to explore which she delves into whole heartedly.
The medium has always had a presence in Prarthna’s life. Her mother was the designated family photographer growing up, and Prarthna remembers how she would tell stories through family albums, still “frozen fresh” in her mind’s eye. From an early age, Prarthna began to appreciate the narrative power of images and by the time she was old enough to go to university, she felt ready to explore photography in a deeper way. Quickly, she fell in love with the dark room and the alchemy of picture making. Then, soon after, she was encouraged to find ways of applying the medium in the external world.
She found that a whole world could be understood through highlighting an individual’s story. Predominantly drawn to portraiture, Prarthna is particularly interested in stories “that stand at a confluence of radical vulnerability and strength.” It’s a theme exemplified in her ongoing project Champion; a labour of love for the past six years. Here, Prarthna creates sculptural images of professional female athletes in their specific milieu. She took much of the series in the northern Indian state of Haryana, photographing young women from across the country training at a boxing camp.
“What made this particular project fascinating was the strange contradiction that existed within the locale,” explains Prarthna. “Haryana has one of the worst statistics on gender, and yet this is where India’s elite women athletes come to train.” There, the photographer had the pleasure of spending time with the aspiring champions who were brought up on moving conversations on empowerment. They all dreamed of winning medals for India, which for Prarthna, was a “powerful and stirring affirmation in a country where young women are still judged on their marriageability and derided for harbouring ambition”.
Elsewhere in Prarthna’s moving portfolio, she documented the women at the helm of the Shaheen Bagh protests in New Delhi. Last year, she tells us, “the ruling right wing Hindu National Government announced a draconian and discriminatory act – the Citizenship Amendment Act – that could potentially render India’s Muslim population devoid of citizenship and left stateless.” As political upheaval and state sanctioned brutality followed, in an unassuming working class neighbourhood called Shaheen Bagh, an unlikely wave of protests arose. Entirely community-based and women-led, the protests led for a hundred days and have since become a landmark in contemporary Indian history. In turn, Prarthna journeyed to the neighbourhood and joined a sit-in protest; quickly, she realised the urgency to document the moment.
Now a fully fledged series documenting the monumental protests, Har Sham Shaheen Bagh captures “a unique brand of courage and self-empowerment which caught the country’s imagination and became the heartbeat of an uprising to protect India’s secular constitution”. With a sensitive lens, Prarthna creates human connections with her camera, finding tenderness in each striking composition through a simple and uncluttered visual language. “I try to look for ways to distill the complexities of heartbreak and joy,” she finally goes on to say, “and above all, imbue a sense of empathy."
Champion, Sarita and Pooja