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The deserts of Rajasthan in northwestern India are expansive, but the photographs of Gauri Gill (born 1970) go narrow and deep.

During two decades of visiting Rajasthan, Gill produced 40,000 negatives. Her retrospective at the Sackler and Freer Galleries features a tiny fraction of those, focused on two series of Gill’s works.

Gill’s Rajasthan is a pitiless place. “To live in the desert as a poor, landless person without a regular job amounts to an inescapable reliance on one’s self, on each other and on nature,” she writes in notes on the exhibit.

In one of her two series, Gill assembled a makeshift “space” for girls attending a fair to “engage in playful self-representation.” Perhaps tellingly, the girls in this poor, highly traditional region faced the camera with poses that were guarded, even severe. Only one girl exhibited a spark, posing with her arm up, vaguely resonant of the “goddess of Democracy” statue from the Tiananmen Square protests.

More fruitful—yet more sorrowful—is a series of several dozen photographs of an impoverished, illiterate villager named Izmat and one of her daughters, Jannat.

Darkly enough, Gill met Izmat as she was with a number of fellow villagers gathered over a corpse. The pair developed a strong bond, exchanging dictated letters detailing harrowing violence, discrimination and deprivation. (Samples are included in the exhibit.) Their relationship was shaken by Jannat’s death in 2007 at age 23, from causes the exhibit doesn’t detail.

As a memorial to Jannat and an honor to Izmat, Gill assembled a selection of photographs she’d taken. Dozens of small, black-and-white images document everyday scenes in and around Izmat’s humble home. Rarely does Gill find smiles among the villagers, though the intimacy of her photographs of mother and daughter are a testament to their love.

The bulk of these photographs were taken in the open air, and they have a washed-out feel. Only when the scenes move indoors does Gill offer a more engaging chiaroscuro.

A larger-scale photograph of Jannat amps up the sorrow; she sits against a wall holding a small mirror reflecting her face. But Gill’s largest and most impressive work offers a sliver of optimism—Izmat several feet up in the air, standing amid the intricate branches of a tree. Under the sun’s gentle glow, she seems to be in a place of comfort. She’s experiencing, if not joy, then at least a fleeting sense of contentment.

Through February 12 at the Arthur M. Sackler and Freer Gallery of Art, 1050 Independence Ave. SW. Daily 10 a.m.–5:30 p.m.