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Dhiraj Singh

My Name is Dechen

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I was in Manali for the Foundry Workshop. We had to find a subject for a multimedia photoessay as part of the workshop. Walking around the streets of Manali I was looking for something that I could connect to. And then after two days of aimless wandering around, I stumbled upon this monastery. There I saw this window which had scribbling and doodles etched with perhaps lipstick on it. It made me curious. As I stepped closer to inspect it, Dechen appeared out of nowhere. And as I started to talk to her, I was fascinated by her Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde personality. The recesses of her mind were a ceaseless stream of consciousness poem. I have noticed increasingly that what we see in the media are the ends of the spectrum – either the very pathetic or the supremely glamorous. There is no room for the ‘everyman’ of daily life. This is what drew me to Dechen – her everyday-ness. She could talk to you about mundane things and get away with it. But, if you caught her in one of her moods, you would never think that she could be a ‘normal’ person. Her anomaly, at some level, touched me. There are so many Dechens around us everyday. Very rarely do we see them at all. I’m happy I found one.

The story is basically a glimpse into the outer expressions of the inner being of a woman who I met at a monastery in Manali during the summer. She was just an ordinary person I bumped into while on one of my wanderings in the sleepy town and without her explicit co-operation this project would never have been possible.

I would like people to think about the “Dechens” they pass by everyday. Stop, take a moment to acknowledge their existence and the fact that they too lend a brush stroke in the canvas of life.

This essay has been published in RESOLVE – The liveBooks Photo Blog and a blog by my multimedia instructor during Foundry Workshop, and on Tewfic el-sawy’s  The Travel photographer.



Dhiraj Singh is an independent photographer based in Mumbai, India. A graphic designer by profession, he turned to photography to explore the world around him. He has been working professionally since mid 2007 and began by focusing on stories from India. His work has been published in Newsweek, Vanity Fair, Lens Blog, New York Times, Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, MSNBC, L’Espresso, Respekt, The Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times and others. Dhiraj recently won the third place in the ‘war and disaster’ category at the China International Press Photo Award-2009 and third place in Spot News at “The Asia Media Award” 2008. His work has been exhibited at Global Gallery in Sydney, Australia and The National Maritime Museum, Finland has a permanent collection of his images.


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Dhiraj Singh


Editor’s note:

please only one comment per essay….

-david alan harvey

42 thoughts on “dhiraj singh – my name is dechen”

  1. Really impressive!!!
    I don’t think this needs any more or any less than what it shows.
    I have a friend who’s is schizophrenic and I am working on a loose story on him from about 13 years, and even though I have collected a huge number of images, still I struggle in finding the right format for it, but this multimedia piece is giving me a lot of strength and motivation to go ahead.
    Thanks Dhiraj!!!
    Thanks for sharing

  2. This is an odd essay. The herky jerky presentation is distracting to me in the extreme. Too much repetition of similar images. This probably would have been better as a simple slide show without all the motion effects.

  3. I loved the presentation, the way you conveyed motion — though it worked better in some instances (her dancing) than in others. But at its core, the essay has some fine arresting images and that’s why it works. Otherwise, the techniques would be mere gimmickry. Beautiful and beautifully done.

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  5. Really well done, well shot essay. I like the words she is singing relating to her life and emotions. At the same time this essay creeped me out, It was like watching one of those Japanese horror movies, forget the well known directors name, but at the same time very well executed and successful in what the photographer was trying to express.

  6. Great treatment, love the juddery stuff going on, really portreys the chaotic nature of the subject and subject matter. You have managed to simultaniously deal with the person in a respectful and sensitive manner and also show the split personality with grace and yet with a hard edge.

    great and innovative.


  7. wow … really, I can’t imagine a better way to tell this story … ethereal .. dijointed and fleeting, seemingly an exacting representation of her life. Albiet truths are relative for the viewer and the subject, this essay gives the impression of the shallow depths of this woman … whether the reality is obscured for the truth, or vice-versa, it was a compelling essay, and as one who is overly cautious of overt artistry in supposedly object storytelling, the technique reflected the subject.


    One suggestion, the audio seemed to blip at one point; i’m unsure if it was intentional but it did not seem so; it took away from my experience at that moment, took me out .. I believe the sound dipped the point she showed her scare, also I felt that she said more than the captions showed, but I could be wrong.

    Again, Kudos … very compelling.


  8. poetry
    in fast motion…
    great imagery
    a bit jarring at times,
    but I found it appropriate for your story telling…..
    the dance sequence is brilliant…
    simply lovely….

  9. Contrary to one the sentences in your statement, your essay gives me the impression that Dechen is a breath away from being one of those who you describe at the pathetic end of the spectrum. She is a drug addict isn’t she? Or an alcholic? Perhaps you mean something different by “everyday”. She doesn’t come across as ordinary in any way through your essay. She’s a free spirit gone wrong. She looks and sounds damaged.

    Whatever she is, you’ve made an interesting essay. There are some strong images though I found rather too many of the art and extreme abstracts which took the emotional layer out of essay for me. I actually found it hard to be moved by the pictures and sound until it got up to the dance sequence. These are lovely I think and show her personality. I like the way you used text to convey the factual details of her story to give it factual substance – if you know what I mean. I just found all the art and abstracts distancing. My favourite picture is the one of her hand holding a cigarette. The pictures of her face and body show that she is has had a rough time are also strong. I like the opening sequence of prayer wheels and Tibettan prayer flags to set the context. Images which suggest she is a Tibettan refugee or she could be a Ladakhi. I think many people viewing this from outside India may not comprehend this and so it might be useful to state it in your statement for an international audience.

  10. When you get access to someone like this then two days of aimless wandering is definitely worth it. This looks fresh and minimalistic and you’ve sequenced it very smoothly. Text, audio and images work well together, nothing disturbs me, it feels like everything adds something useful to the whole. This encourages me to get out there and peek into another persons life. Beautiful!

  11. I really like this one. The multiple shots used in progression like the close-ups beginning about the 0:40 mark brought me in, making me feel I was there.

    As far as the criticism about the jerky motions, I think it is appropriate and make interesting parallels to the mental stability of the woman.

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  13. “Sad are only those who understand”–Arab Proverb

    It is nearly impossible to recount the ways and means of our passing days; nearly impossible to grab for a moment, with arched words, dissonant sound, flickering broken light and curving shadow, the countours and the meaning of all that inhabits and haunts our lives. The recounting of things is, at the heart of each of us it seems to me, the essence of what it means to be alive: to ring out the darkness with the drumbeat thud and thump of our songs and sadness. How else does one begin to make with and mark time of all that defines this life, all that will disappear and shadow us, all that we will be forced to reckon and reconcile with. It is, seemingly, an impossible task for our own lives, let alone to scribble something as a way to offer testament to the lives of others around…

    But we continue.We continue to try, to speak and to sing out against the banishment of so muc that seems so unknowable: this dying spirit.

    How does on begin to offer to someone else the life story of themselves let alone another? To begin means to begin all roads, all paths along which one has journeyed. Now imagine attempting that for another….though it will always end in failure, what our attempt and our approximation can lead to is some kin of recognition, some glimmer of our connection and connectivity to all living things, to the lives of others borne up throug the making and unmaking of the circumstances of our lives. We speak because somewhere in the darkness, in the pale room of our imagined selves, we figure that our reconfiguration of things ill allow a joining….of the joinery of our lives, with one another…stories wrested from the demons that define us….

    My name is dechen is one such effort. Of course the photographs are strong and powerful, haunting and challenging, reimagined and picked and plucked to visually speak out what it appears to that Dechen’s full ad complex life suggests. How can we, at least for a moment, get inside that room, touched th pained windowpains bruised by pinklipstick, words of a life misspelled, colliding into a dhervish of fever that best speaks about th life of hunger and the hope and choice of being love and left and loving yet. All of the phtographic elements of this essay allow us, at least allowed me, to not only get closer (can we ever get closer to people through artifice, i ask myself all the time) to this woman but mor important, allows me to re-see…look harder, look around all the lives that are surrounding us, outside ourown small windowed lives….

    her dance at the end is both remarkably beautiful and horribly heart-breaking…for it, to me, captures the entire madness and loss and suffering and celebration of what it means to be alive…to be loved nd to be discarded, to love and to love againand to be haunted….

    all of these choices achived through both powerfulo photographs,intelligent and insightful use of cinematic elements, but most important a convincition on the part of dhiraj singh to offer the viewers an opportunityto hear Dechen’s song….her voice…..

    we having nothing else in thi life but one another, and how often all of all, each one, fails to listen, listen well enough…as photographers, we look constanstly, but how often have we failed to actally listen….

    remarkably powerful story, especially given the short time Dhiraj spent with Dechen…

    just powerful….

    as strong a story of ‘humanitarian’ photography/essay as i’ve seenat Burn….

    thank you so muchfor sharing her story with us…

    i shall not soon forget her……or her song….or her poems…..

    or this story….

    thank you

    all the best

  14. dhira, congratulations.

    This is certainly one of the most powerful things I’ve seen anywhere for a very long time. I’m very moved by it, and impressed by your sensitivity and skill.

    I love the way this is put together, the voice over, the masterful abstract blurred shots, the beautiful portraits. The dance sequence is brilliant, and broke my heart.

    You are an inspiration for us. Thankyou for this.

  15. I am exasperated. I am still waiting to view this essay. I have the highest-speed cable connection offered by my provider, GCI of Alaska, but the damn thing just keeps stalling and never completing. I am lucky to get two or three seconds of video.

    I have had it up for over half-an-hour now.

    I am not certain what it is, but I find Burn essays to often play out slow and erratic in a way that is true with no other site that I regularly visit.

    Anyway, judging from the comments, it must be a great essay. And since this is not really a comment about the essay, but rather the technical problems that I have encountered as I attempt to view it, I reserve the right to add a second comment about the essay once I actually get a chance to look at it.

  16. OK – Finally it played. I don’t know what I can add to the comments above, save to agree that it is a powerfully dark essay, yet with light glimmering through. And now, as it has been documented in this way and put out there for us all to see, her existence definitely does have meaning.

    I have been to India twice, south India, yet for only brief periods of time and moving so fast that I could never hunker down and truly explore any one individual or facet of life. Interesting to see this essay from one who is right in the middle of it.

  17. Love it. Love this kind of work. One-on-one with another person.

    Really well put together, did you tighten it up after the workshop or were you able to get it all done in that tiny timeframe?

  18. Go Dhiraj!

    So happy to see you published here. Love the essay.

    I first heard about Dhiraj thru my friend Tewfic who worked with him at the Foundry workshop.
    Dhiraj and I have been corresponding and I look forward to meeting him in India very soon.

    All…Check out his other work.

  19. visual poetry…………………….my preference would be the opening text and then her voice ( don’t need the words to understand just listen to the voice) no credits at the end……….. just trail of and leave us to our own ways /.,./,./,thanks for her story

  20. w-h-e-w…

    Did I hold my breath through the entire essay or was that just an exhale that escaped me at the end? Of all the amazing work I have seen on Burn, I believe this one will stay with me the longest. Haunt me actually. It’s hard to stand back and critique it so I won’t even try. This is one of the most remarkable artistic expressions of a unique individual’s mental and spiritual experience that I’ve ever seen. It takes me back to the time in the 1960s that I spent studying to be a social worker in a psychiatric hospital. But what is different is Dhiraj’s obvious respect for Dechen’s uniqueness. He doesn’t shove her into the usual “mentally ill” box but allows her to be herself without judgement.

    Thank you, Dhiraj, for your compassionate artistry. And thank you for befriending Dechen. I would guess the time you spent with her was healing to you both. Your essay is certainly healing to me.


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  22. What you’ve done here is going to stick with me. I’m moved personally, inspired by the potential of the medium… If I had to choose one photo essay that I’ve seen at Burn as a promising sign for the future of photography, it would be this one.

  23. Sad, touching, sometimes gloomy and scary.
    Good essay, even better website, I spent six months in India last winter and to see such captivating images of such a wonderful place… moves me.

  24. Stunning. I believe I have fallen in love with Dechen, as I can tell you have. I am entirely enamored with her singing and dancing. She seems truly alive.

    The animation at the beginning was a little too much (tried that stuff myself, always seems a bit too forced). However, the dancing sequence was very well done, bravo!

    Thank you for sharing.

  25. DHIRAJ,

    I found the very start of your essay a bit strange but immediately after, I got into it, holding my breadth until the end and that dance at the end was truly magical and will stay with me…. Fascinating essay overall….


  26. Such a sad situation for another human being like us, to be in. I’m feeling sad after viewing this story Dhiraj. As you know, your homeland is full of cruel stories, and also full of loving people.

  27. Fantastic! Your work takes full advantage of ‘multimedia’ and utilizes it to create a moving viewer experience!

  28. Dhiraj, when I saw this at the Foundry Workshop final slideshow I was very impressed. I almost gave you another standing ovation even though I am sitting alone at my computer! Ok maybe not, but I was still affected a great deal … just as much as the first time I saw it in Manali 3 1/2 months ago. Way to go!


  29. Dhiraj,

    I loved it. Normally I’m not a big fan of multimedia. I find most examples are not arty enough and many end up looking like a cartoon strip.
    When you work with a new media you have to push the envelope but most fail in this regards. But My Name is Dechen is perfect. It’s dreamy, surreal, emotional and cutting edge! Good work! I agree with the others that posted here – the dance sequence is the most effective part of this piece.

  30. Congratulations and Thanks for your work. It has been a long time since a piece moved me so much. Being a Photography teacher, printer and editor for over 20 years, I always ask to be surprised and you have done it.
    Keep the good work!

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