When the mirror doesn’t crack

In her exhibition ‘Aaine Tak Ka Safar’, Nanki Singh, a 22-year-old Delhi-based photographer, documents the lives of acid-attack survivors in an effort to restore their agency
Nanki Singh
Nanki Singh

Women are the worst affected by social evils, often bearing the brunt while men are let off the hook,” says Nanki Singh, a 22-year-old Delhi photographer. Singh is showcasing her collection ‘Aaine Tak Ka Safar’ (A Journey to the Mirror), a documentation of the lives of acid-attack survivors, at the Stainless Gallery in Delhi.

She believes that photographs have the power to restore the agency that was taken away from women. Her photographs of survivors, who were teenagers at the time of the attack and now live with permanent disfigurement or blindness, bear this out.

“‘Aaine Tak Ka Safar’ holds special significance because these girls have repeatedly told me how difficult it has been for them to look in a mirror after their attacks,” says Singh.

The beginning

This project began four years ago as a college assignment in 2020, and was sparked off “by curiosity”. Singh says that she grew up hearing and reading about these young girls and wanted to be part of their journey—she wanted to show their stories and their faces to the world. While pursuing her project, she discovered the Chhanv Foundation based in Noida, which assists acid attack survivors with medical, financial, and psychological rehabilitation. “Most of them knew their attackers; these were the people the girls had refused to marry,” Singh points out.

Reflecting on her journey as a photographer, Singh recounts that in 2018 she travelled to South Africa and developed an interest in wildlife photography. “When I returned to Delhi, I visited places like Chandni Chowk and did some street photography. That is when I realised I could pursue this, so I enrolled at the School of Visual Arts in New York and learnt the technical aspects of photography,” she says.

However, this exhibition was not an overnight effort; it took Singh around four years to bring it to fruition.

Singh celebrates one of the acid attack survivor’s birthday.
Singh celebrates one of the acid attack survivor’s birthday.

Building rapport

“These girls are accustomed to having people come and photograph them. Documentary filmmakers and journalists visit them often, so they are used to talking to people and sharing their experiences. But I wanted to develop a deeper connection with them. I wanted to know everything about them, what they liked, what they didn’t. I didn’t want to reduce their identity to ‘victims’, so, I made it a point to keep visiting them,” says Singh.

Over the course of four years, Singh visited the survivors annually during her vacations. She spent time with them at the Sheroes Hangout—a café run by acid attack survivors—or celebrated birthdays together. “Sometimes I would give them a call and tell them let’s go out for a shoot or let’s hang out together,” she says.

In March, Singh’s first ‘Aaine Tak Ka Safar’ exhibition at the Chelsea Art Gallery in Manhattan raised $13,000, which went towards supporting the café. This time, too, she hopes to raise a substantial amount of funds for them.

Lights and camera

“When being photographed, there’s a fair chance the subject may feel ‘othered’, so it’s crucial to develop a relationship between the photographer and the subject to avoid this,” says Singh. She deliberately captures and displays her photographs in black and white because lighting works best on this background.

Additionally, coloured images can distract viewers with their hues and backgrounds, whereas black-and-white photos direct attention straight to the subject. “The main motive of the exhibition is to show how comfortable these women are in their own skin. It’s important for viewers to notice the subject immediately when they look at the photographs, hence the black-and-white images,” she explains.

Singh has always been drawn to the stories of resilient women. She has previously worked on projects surrounding domestic abuse and documented the taboo topic of menstruation through her photographs.

‘Aaine Tak Ka Safar’ is on at the Stainless Gallery, Mathura Road, till June 22, from 11.15am to 7pm

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The New Indian Express