Absence in the Desert: The Quiet Ethics of Gauri Gill
Paper short abstract:
This paper explores the ethical dimensions of Gauri Gill’s extended photographic engagement with rural communities across Rajasthan, arguing that her attention to absence as well as presence offers her subjects a bridge to the broader world through the powerful medium of photography.
Paper long abstract:
This paper explores the ethical dimensions of Gauri Gill’s extended photographic engagement with rural communities across Rajasthan. In particular, I examine two specific series within the broader Notes from the Desert project. The first, Jannat, focuses on the daily life of a single family—Izmat and her two daughters, Jannat and Hooran. The second project, Balika Mela, evolved at the site of a rural “fair for girls” organized by a nonprofit, where Gill set up a makeshift studio for portraits. Working with just a few simple props, the girls decided how they wanted to be photographed, producing a series of portraits that were at once charismatic and enigmatic. Grounded in a close reading of these two projects, I argue that Gill’s practice embodies a distinct mode of ethical engagement characterized by attention to absence as well as presence, and motivated in part by the desire to offer her subjects a bridge to the broader world through the powerful medium of photography. Because the political sphere in Rajasthan is overwhelmingly dominated by men, the absence of men can be read as emblematic of the absence of both organized authority and of the state. Through photography, however, Gill offers a quiet reprieve from the isolation incurred by state negligence. In passing on the art of photography—encouraging girls to direct their own portraits and later to use the camera and to print their own negatives, Gill is extending this power to Rajasthan’s most disenfranchised citizens, young women.
Photography and Political Belonging