Jannat, from the series Notes from the Desert

Gauri Gill is a widely recognized photographer who has created award-winning photographic studies of Indians in the United States, India, and Afghanistan. Interest in her work has grown considerably since she won the Grange Prize for contemporary photography in 2011. Central to her practice is developing relationships with her subjects and experiencing the environments that shape their lives. Gill’s camerawork reflects a remarkable capacity to convey compassion and respect for her subjects, while referencing earlier forms of photographic portraiture and representations of India.

Since the late 1990s, she has been photographing in western Rajasthan and has amassed over forty thousand negatives collectively titled Notes from the Desert. The images form a rich compilation of portrait and performance, featuring both posed compositions in studios and moments captured in the unforgiving landscape. Gill returns repeatedly to this archive to compose different series of images around an individual or theme. The Freer|Sackler currently holds works from two such series: three large-scale portraits of young women taken at a Balika Mela (a village fair for girls), and a group of fifty-two photographs and letters titled Jannat.

At the heart of Gill’s story of Rajasthan is Izmat, an outspoken single mother of two daughters. Since her first memorable encounter with Izmat nearly twenty years ago, Gill has become a part of this family and its struggle to survive. The Freer|Sackler acquired a portrait of Izmat in 2014 in which she is barely perceptible at first, sitting high among the branches of a tree in a stark landscape. Izmat emerges from the blinding white light of the desert sky and dark foliage to both disrupt the gaze and assert her presence.

This single portrait of Jannat, Izmat’s elder daughter who died at the age of twenty-three, reflects the profound impression the young girl made on Gill and carries forward the story of this captivating family. Crouched against a wall with head turned to study her reflection in a small mirror, Jannat averts her gaze yet acknowledges the camera’s presence. The image is printed in the soft contrast of mid­gray tones, conveying a sense of the dusty desert atmosphere. The photograph is both a sensitive portrayal of a shy young woman and a recollection of Gill’s first meeting with her.


black and white photo of a girl holding a square mirror to her face

Jannat, from the series Notes from the Desert
Gauri Gill (India, b. 1970)
1999–2010, printed 2016
Digital archival print from negative
Purchase—Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries and General Collection Acquisition Fund   S2017.10