Interview with Photographer Mona Singh

Mona Singh is a street and travel photographer from Delhi, India. She calls herself a “gypsy photographer who loves to travel with a camera in my backpack.”

Mona was a finalist in the 2020 v1 Awards. In the following interview she shares with the DFA her current series, Souls of our backs. Mona talks about how the series originated and evolved into a process of self-discovery, examining the vulnerability of her photo subjects as well as her own.

Photography for me is like a breathing exercise,” she says, “and I do it every single day. It’s like cleansing my soul and feeling pure from within.”

Durga, 23
Coping with the societal pressures is trapped in a rat race of looking good. This might take a toll on her mental health but she chooses to continue with a life that is meant for others. She can be tired but still wants to look her best.

‘Souls of our backs’ is a series where I have taken portraits of people’s backs. The emotions and feelings I gather by seeing the back of a person’s head and shoulders is actually more than what I could understand by looking at their faces. I shifted my focus from front to back since it revealed so much about them. Our faces may hide our vulnerability, but our backs will give it all away. 

Through these frames, I have tried to capture the stories of a few people I know and also some who I just met once. They all have a story to tell in the most mundane or in the most extraordinary circumstances.

Bulti, 19
Frail and delicate, drooped shoulders and weak back, all this tells me how she compromises and adjusts herself with everything, everyone. She submits totally since she recognizes that for the honor of her own self.

This series includes people from my family, people I met on the street, a cleaning lady who comes every week. There are instances when in some images these people are caught unaware, and sometimes requested to pose. All this has been very fascinating because there are unique experiences attached to every single frame. Some were willingly photographed, while others took longer to get convinced. And some are simply candid shots where the subject itself is a mystery. 

Neither seasons, nor reasons can touch or affect the shield like back of the sage in saffron. Sitting at the ghats of the holy Ganges, his back signals of not being disturbed. He wants to be left alone.

For the candid shots I tried to be around my subjects, like the sage on the ghats of Ganges in Banaras, India, and the braided girl in a small village near Naraina, India. I even followed them to places they went and tried to learn about them through their body language, the way they talked, the way they moved their hands. And then I finally went on to focus on their backs.

I see the prim and proper braided girl in a neatly dressed uniform. Her back tells how her not so strong shoulders are ready to carry the burden of her heavy school bag and how she looks forward to everyday learning at school. Oil in her hair, is a sign of obedience.

All of this began when for the first time in so many years I realized how drooped, sloped and lifeless my Mother’s shoulders had become. I have always spent a lot of time with her. We give each other company in almost every possible way. She had always been known for her beauty, grace and charm. Little did I know how old age had taken a toll on her shoulders until I saw her from the back once while running our errands.

Normally we walk side by side, talking to each other or looking at each other’s faces. It was only when I saw her from behind that I realized how the structure of one’s back can reveal so much about the person. I could even relate to the baggage she had carried from her traumatic past which made her look that way.

Ashish, 27
What makes him stand out is his weirdness. His clothes and sense of style has a narrative of him trying to fit in by being what he is, creative or maybe absurd.

There was surely something that I did not want, as a daughter, to see in my Mom’s back. Maybe it was something not even visible for others to see, but for me it was absolutely unacceptable or perhaps best delayed. Never had I seen on her face the kind of expression I saw on her back. 

This stuck with me for a while and instead of taking her picture first, I started with other people I came across. The only reason I can think of why is at that point in life I felt vulnerable asking her to show her bare back and pose in front of the camera. The kind of expressive person I am, all this was so unlike me. Maybe I was not ready for her and so I always bailed myself out, saying that this might also be challenging and disturbing for her.

Daljit, 47
Oblivious like a child. Ignoring the obvious of religious symbol of long hair, I prefer to stick with the kiddish ignorance I see in his heavy and broad built back and shoulders. Relaxed and comfortable in his own skin his back narrates how carefree and free spirited he is.

It was surprising for me to see how despite all the closeness, bonding and love we had for each other it was difficult for me to ask for such a thing. Or all the love and bonding was actually the reason I couldn’t ask for such a thing.

Although this is an ongoing photo project, my first picture became my last (as of now). The entire thought process which went into preparing myself to ask her to pose for me was the most vulnerable situation of all.

Surprisingly, the vulnerability I wanted to show in my Mother’s back was mine. I was being coy about what I saw and wanted to show. When I finally spoke to her about the project and showed her pictures I had clicked of other people’s backs, she without any doubt and inhibition stood in front of the camera with poise displaying utmost beauty, and the flower in her hair symbolizing grace and brilliance in whatever she does.

Kamal, 64
Confidence and grace of accepting old age cannot be seen in all. This is a perfect example of acceptance, loving one’s own self as the inevitable happens. Her inner damage may be irreversible but it’s the beauty that she exhibits that hides the irreparable. Just like her name she blooms and emerge as the spirit of the sacred lotus i.e. ‘Kamal’.

She, like others, cared less to actually see her picture and her only question was whether I intended to post it on Instagram….

This project has not only helped me discover people, their emotions, feelings or physical strengths and weaknesses but it has ultimately led me on a journey of self-discovery. Learning about the people I photographed has helped me know myself better.

Shy to come out in the open, not yet ready to be seen. It’s the acceptance of one’s own self first and then comes the world. She does not want to be named, lays inside her heavy shawl wrapped and secured, tucked away in her own comfort zone.

In these frames I have captured a fragment of these people’s souls that is perhaps more visible in their backs than the wholeness of their bodies or faces. Partial glimpses of their backs, exude the mystery of their characters. They have allowed me to look at them closely by touching their souls through their backs. 

You can find more of Mona’s work on her website and on Instagram @monasinghphotography

All photographs © Mona Singh

The Documentary Family Awards is an international competition in search of the insightful and meaningful ways that documentary photographers explore the interpretation of family.