A girl sits at the edge of her dorm room, staring at the construction site outside her window. A boy plays the violin, for an audience of the few people still around him. Elsewhere, a set of hands carefully writes in a notebook.
These are some of the moments captured by Vamika Singh, a final-year student at New York University of Abu Dhabi (NYUAD), where she and her peers decided to remain, as life went into lockdown. With the pandemic spreading across the globe, universities worldwide were confronted with a dilemma: should students remain on campus or should they leave, immediately, for home? No institution was saved from having to make this decision. Classes began to move online, students booked flights back to their home countries, and many campuses closed their doors indefinitely.
But NYUAD gave their students a choice. So, since March, Singh and a handful of international students have been living together. The university’s island campus, in the heart of the Middle East, was one of the very few institutions that remained wholly functional and open for students who felt it best to stay. Singh decided to capture the essence of this time and to use photography to outline the uncertainty of their lives.
“Photographing closeness and intimacy becomes almost radical in its resonance in a time where people literally cannot be close together,” Singh said.
Her visual project was birthed in examining the small moments of the lockdown, and in gazing at her peers – their emotions, their habits, their hobbies, their relationships. As life slowed down around them, their closeness enhanced. This is encapsulated by the softness and fluidity of the photographs, each representing a community isolated and bound together. The result was a series of quiet, intimate photographs: a reminder of the odd balance of tranquillity and anxiety that existed on the campus.
“I loved that I could capture these moments of togetherness and stillness,” Singh said. “I found this so fascinating to photograph, to find dynamism and meaning in stillness – through the curving, fluid lines of blankets or clothing brought into focus, the diagonals or folding motions of limbs that are crisscrossed or bent, the juxtaposition of human skin with the textures of various fabrics and objects: pants, socks, blankets, rosary beads, diary pages, glass bottles.”
Singh personally found “immense comfort” in staying at NYUAD, she says. The policies on campus and the healthcare system in place were additional sources of comfort. Mental health campaigns were implemented for remaining students, while social distancing and widespread Covid-19 testing occurred early enough to prevent uncontrollable outbreaks. The ways in which NYUAD administration handled the pandemic reinforced the feeling that staying at university, oceans away from her parents, was the right choice for Singh.
“I think this experience allowed us to see ourselves and our peers in this new, vulnerable state, together in a global, vulnerable moment of uncertainty, and to find empathy for each other in that. The photos also helped us look at our campus afresh, as a place of beauty in small moments, of boredom or sameness or the mundane, in its almost over-familiar spaces that we got to look at differently through a photograph.”
You can find more of Vamika Singh’s work at instagram.com/foodqueenhoney