Of course, one cannot totally negate the arguments put forth by the defenders of photographs of agony. As chroniclers of history, the role of a photographer is also to record all possible significant events around the world. They say that the power of traditional media is immense, and that entrusts the photojournalists with the ability to influence public opinion. The depiction of the pain of others is believed to raise society’s awareness and encourage them to act against senseless violence. If photographs do not inform the world of the unfavorable events, then it would be akin to putting the rest of the world in a bubble – blind to what is really happening.
Agreed. Partially at least. But, as claimed, do photographs of agony give voice to the people in distress? And, what is the role of the subject? Most often than not, the people who are photographed do not have any choice over being photographed, how they are being photographed, and how it is being circulated. In the case of extreme contexts of agony, they may not even be aware of being photographed, as they are lost in their own world of pain. Bandeep’s quote accompanying one of his photographs better summarizes this, “…on the road is this young kid – more middle class in appearance – resting on his backpack… his younger sisters sitting on the edge of the pavement… As I bend to take his picture, his body reflexes to get up …but is pinned down by fatigue .. he averts his gaze from the camera – as if to blank me out .”
So, what gives one the right to photograph people in their moment of powerlessness? In this case, the information that thousands of Indians are forcefully displaced is news in itself that warns people of the disaster in progress, then what is the need for such a graphical depiction of people in suffering? Does an altruistic sociological concern permit one to graphically document people in agony? Robbing one’s right to appropriate representation is indeed a violation of the fundamental rights of the individual. It is exploitation, and as long as this exploitation is allowed and accepted – people will continue to be made voiceless. Such repeated representations invariably dehumanize the people and reduce them to be merely a means to an end. Let’s not be fooled by appearances and ignore the flawed system that this points to – firstly, at the level of the photographer, secondly the publisher/curator/exhibitor/archivist, thirdly the viewer, and fourthly the social structures that allow such representations.
It is often claimed that the photographer has the power over deciding which event, person, or place is worth photographing. The fact is, it is most often influenced by those in power and those who have access to power. In this case, India Today is the decisive factor. Mind grabbing visuals increase the chances of its magazines getting sold. More sales means more profit. So, invariably, the photographer serves the agenda of the agency they work for. Also, one should not overlook the possibilities for recognition such as the World Press Photo Award, etc., that are reserved for such adventurous images, shot in the most difficult of circumstances. Besides, most of the opportunities in the world of photography are for photo-journalism. Even museums and galleries frame the agonies and sell them.
This also points to the particular set of viewers, who either need such gruesome pictures for waking up to reality or secretly enjoys visuals of violence. Even after so much exposure to intense visuals of people in distress – if we need more images of sad moments to understand the harsh realities of social inequalities – then as a society we are failing somewhere. As viewers and consumers of photographs of agony, aren’t we bordering on sadism? For the photo-journalists, it is just a week’s story and a photo opportunity. For the viewers, it was a piece of news to indulge, respond/act/ignore, and then forget. But for the people, their private pain has become a public affair – and worse, nothing much actually gets done.
In Bandeep’s photographs, the very workers– who had dared ‘to work their way against the tide’ become reduced to helpless victims. The ones who are facing the atrocities of the brutal class/caste division, become a tool to brush the egos of the privileged few, who could look at with the same impassion that allowed one to press the click button of the camera while witnessing agony. The top-down, privileged, I-am-here-to-inform-the-world attitude doesn’t legitimate such documentation of people. Today, social media is more active, fast, and informed than traditional media structures. In this updated world, it is high time that the ‘world of photo-journalism’ revisits their ethics and expression. Sooner or later everyone would become a chronicler of their own life. In that age of self-expression, people in agony/distress would have found their voice and representation.
But for now, no argument can deny that photographs of agony promote the culture of silence. Why wasn’t there any resistance from the side of workers? Why haven’t directives been implemented in the protection of the tenants? Why did they silently accept all misfortunes as fate? The same migrant workers had organized a protest in Kerala – they wanted Chappathis instead of rice. They had found their voice in their home away from home. But in their very homes, their voices are numbed – politically, sociologically – and sadly, nowadays, visually. No matter what the justifications are, these cruel photographs will be a living witness to the human madness which consumed the profound sadness and abandonment of the piercing eyes that saw Bandeep’s car pass by with a weapon at hand – the camera.