How Three Photographers Are Working through India’s COVID-19 Crisis

Aditi Jain, Uzma Mohsin, and Prarthna Singh speak about the vital role of art as a form of witness and protest.

Aditi Jain, Maze of Binaries, New Delhi, 2019

koī haath bhī na milā.egā jo gale miloge tapāk se
ye na.e mizāj kā shahr hai zarā fāsle se milā karo

(You’ll be refused a handshake if you go for an ardent embrace.
This city’s in a fresh temper, keep your distance when meeting.)
—Bashir Badr

It has been a year of looking out windows and doors that frame the world like crude viewfinders, of observing caution and of seeing from afar. For lens-based practitioners, distance, the defining condition of the COVID-19 pandemic, is an aesthetic concern as much as a hygienic one. Photographers interpret and render subjects through intimacy, remoteness, or even just an acknowledgement of the space in between. The camera’s manipulability can extend the human eye and, therefore, presence to cover spans proscribed during a time of contagion or bring its details into focus. As India battles its second wave of the novel coronavirus, photographers are either out on the streets documenting the crisis or confined to their homes, focusing on their loved ones. In my rented apartment in the hard-hit Indian capital of Delhi, I’m on the phone with photographers who’ve retreated to their hometowns, and they tell me that the temporal distance between when their work was originally shot and the present appears disorienting. Will the city they photographed exist on the other side of the pandemic?

Prarthna Singh, Har Shaam Shaheen Bagh: One Hundred Days of Resistance, New Delhi, 2020
Courtesy the artist

Prarthna Singh has held onto the moment of the protests against India’s amended citizenship law through the bonds she forged there a year and a half ago while making Har Shaam Shaheen Bagh: One Hundred Days of Resistance (2020). She exchanges voice notes with a young woman she befriended there who lost her mother to the virus. “Perhaps without this collective grief, I wouldn’t have noticed this tender aspect of the work I do,” Singh says. Though she has been on assignment in between the Indian government’s strictly enforced national lockdowns, 2020 allowed her to step back and reflect. Ironically, it has brought her closer to her subjects, many of whom exist at the edge of visibility: “Photography is a starting point, the camera just an opener. My practice doesn’t stand in isolation,” she says. “It’s the relationships formed because of it that make me believe in its worth.”

Singh is based in Mumbai, although she spent two months of India’s second wave with her parents in Jaipur. Two of her current projects include a series on people held as illegal immigrants in Assam’s detention camps, and a collaboration with journalist Snigdha Poonam comprising images of young voters in the run-up to India’s 2024 general election. She hasn’t changed her approach in the wake of the pandemic, continuing to have involved conversations with those she photographs, mask and all. At home in Jaipur with her parents, she turned down commissions requiring her to be outdoors for the sake of their health. But there are other consolations. “I’ve been photographing my mother a lot, which I’d never done,” Singh says. “Now I have this fear of losing my parents.”

Aditi Jain, Maze of Binaries, New Delhi, 2019
Courtesy the artist

Family members are a natural subject during this housebound period. In her hometown of Bhopal, Aditi Jain has also been photographing her mother, as well as the latter’s paintings and craftwork, as a way to retain the creative momentum she worries has been adversely affected by the pandemic. “I’ll shoot in my garden, even birds on the terrace. I’m someone who needs to be photographing all the time,” she tells me. In the course of developing her series Maze of Binaries (2019), on Delhi’s transgender community, Jain became deeply attached to her subjects. Given the current context, when those already marginalized by the state face further financial precarity and emotional turmoil, maintaining these long-distance friendships has become even more important. As we discuss COVID-19 and how she sees an artist’s role in times of distress, Jain brings up the work of her idol, pioneering photo-essayist W. Eugene Smith, whose photographs, she says, “communicate that pain does not belong to an individual person but is felt by society.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Uzma Mohsin when she asserts that “the role of art is to address crises.” Sensitivity to sociopolitical upheavals permeates Mohsin’s transparent photomontages that combine citizens’ applications to organize protests in Delhi with portraits from Jantar Mantar, the city’s iconic protest site. No dissenting crowds can congregate there now. Mohsin herself is away from the capital, in her native Aligarh, making visual journals and photograms in the absence of a darkroom. (During the Citizenship Amendment Act protests in December 2019, Aligarh Muslim University made headlines when its students stood up to the regime and faced its wrath.) Staying home is working out for Mohsin. “I received a grant to do a photographic study of Aligarh and its significance as a locus of liberal Muslim life,” she says. “Right now, since I can’t meet people, especially older folk I’d need to speak to for this project, I am reading a lot of history.” 

Uzma Mohsin, Songkeepers, New Delhi, 2018
© the artist

Made toward the end of the first term of the Hindu fundamentalist Narendra Modi­–led government, Mohsin’s series Songkeepers (2018) appears prescient and impossible to replicate now. I wonder aloud whether the Delhi we emerge to will be the same one we sheltered from. “A lot has changed since I accessed those Right to Information applications in Delhi’s police headquarters,” Mohsin says. “Now the city’s government buildings are inaccessible. As the virus keeps us apart, there’s a sense of being kept at a distance by the state too.”

Mohsin is referring to the Central Vista Redevelopment Project that anthropologist Arjun Appadurai has characterized as “the mausoleum of the spirit of Shaheen Bagh.” Ostensibly a renovation of the central administrative complex designed by Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker in the early decades of the twentieth century, the project is, in fact, an ominous signal. The Central Vista has served as the chief node of the postindependence capital of New Delhi for more than seventy years. Its reconstruction is widely understood as the architectural erasure of a secular, democratic republic and its replacement by the ninth city of Delhi—the heart of a Hindu nation. 

The adjustment of focal length integral to photographic practice has, over the past two years, become a mode of ordinary living for humans worldwide, as proximities are modulated at various scales—literal and symbolic. The angles and distances at which Singh, Jain, and Mohsin capture Delhi’s oft-ignored citizens enhance the city’s peripheral vision. I ask the three photographers if the pandemic made certain compositional choices challenging—if, for example, the close-up might go out of style for a bit. Jain and Mohsin agree. Singh shrugs; the close-up was never her favored shot anyway. “I maintain space between myself and my subjects,” she says. “I prefer giving them room to breathe.”

Read more about Aditi Jain, Uzma Mohsin, and Prarthna Singh’s photography in Aperture, issue 243, “Delhi: Looking Out/Looking In” (Summer 2021).