Rs 1 crore. That was the price a German Shepherd commanded after it won a dog show in Dehrudun, back in 2009. This incredible figure prompted photographer Siya Singh Akoi to explore dog shows across the country with her camera and a makeshift 9×9 foot ‘studio’ made of cloth. “The kind of money dogs were costing amazed me. I decided to dig deeper to find out why, and dog shows was where I ended up,” explains Akoi, who travelled to 12 cities between November ’09 and February ‘10.
The result was 3,000 photographs, out of which 40 will be exhibited at Delhi’s India Habitat Centre, in an exhibition titled The Dog Show Project. The five-year long gap is due to Akoi’s underestimation of its potential, as well as her other work – she doing commercial photography back then – followed by marriage and childbirth. “A few months ago, I was approached to exhibit some work, and I started to go through my archives and came across the dog shows. I showed it to a few people and one thing led to another.” This exhibition explores the business relationship between humans and dogs, according to the Delhi-based Akoi. “The relationship between ‘man and his dog’ had transformed, and I was interested in exploring this new bond, the one of business and the nuances it brings with it when shared with your dog.”
Akoi’s cross-country tour on a shoestring budget was a challenge. On top of that, there was the added burden of finding an assistant in every city to man her studio while she scouted for subjects. “ I hired my taxi or rickshaw driver and gave them Rs 1000 for eight hours,” she says. The dog owners and their four-legged partners, who came in all shapes and sizes, were happy to pose for her. “The dogs were quite fascinated with this set up and how the flash would suddenly alert them,” adds Akoi, who was equally captivated by them.
“The dogs told me a different story, while their owners told me something else. Joining the two was where I came in – it was very invigorating to find the merge. I just needed their eye contact with my lens and that was it. Sometimes there were moments when I didn’t need that, since the body language spoke louder.” For someone who has eight dogs, she felt the dog as a partner in the portrait only brought more definition to the portraits she was looking for. “I took a portrait that tried to stay as real to the relationship that unfolded before me.” Her favourite memory from the shoot? “Half the dogs would pee on my curtain before or after the shoot, just to say thank you,” she jokes.
For the Delhi dog show, Akoi took one of her own dogs along for the shoot, who unfortunately didn’t have a great time.” Izi, my miniature Jack Russell Terrier, was growling at every dog that entered my studio. Also I had to have her under constant vigilance, since she is so small,” she recalls.
Akoi is upbeat about her Delhi exhibition, and plans to take it to other cities and then abroad; a book is also in the making. Any plans of going back to commercial photography? “My aesthetic style won’t allow it,” she says.