During the corona pandemic lockdown, India saw its migrant workers walk in an ardent will to reach the safety of their homes… History repeats itself, they say. Well, not exactly the same situation, but during Indian’s partition, thousands of Muslims and Hindus had to cross over – in search of a new home in unknown terrain. Seen through the photographic eyes of Margaret Bourke-White and Sunil Janah – the horrifying events of Indian Partition 1947 comes alive – once again in the Corona days – much more violent, cruel, and gruesome. It is a stark reminder that even after 70 and odd years of independence, India still has not healed itself of poverty, inequality, and oppression.
There have been several photographs of the unfortunate long walk made by India’s poorest among poor – the migrant workers who cut across different castes and religions. The most popular and gruesome was made by photographer Bandeep Singh for India Today. His sensational, horrifying, unforgivable, high definition graphic images of the migrant workers in their moment of distress has indeed caused a stir. But then, the one who has taken the photograph and the ones who had seen the photographs, by now would have forgotten the event or have buried it underneath, convincing themselves that there is nothing much that can be done. Well, for what it is worth, these photographs of agony did make some to think and a few to act. There is nothing to be said about those who had brushed aside the suffering of the migrant workers as mere collateral damage. However, even those who had been affected by it had to get on with their life. Increasing exposure to images of violence rather numbs one’s feelings and sensitivity, and these disjoint moments of violence cannot be prolonged by the ones who are not directly experiencing it.
While we continue to hear information about the difficulties of the migrant workers – nothing much has changed, sociologically or politically. In the second phase of lockdown, another wave of workers were stranded in the bus-stations – struggling in Bangalore. More are scattered in many parts of Indian central vista. So what was the effect of such graphical depictions? It is the hard truth that some of these workers have died on their way back. Some have reached their respective homes with sore legs and other illness. Some have been locked in make-shift shelters – reduced to living in sub-human standards and lifestyles. Those who managed to reach their homes are probably finding it hard to meet ends. Some may have received government aid. Some may have contracted the virus and suffering alone in impoverished hospitals. Life goes on for them – one struggle after another. So, while the life of the back-at-their-homes-but-still-displaced workers continues on the brink, the viewers for whose sake the images were produced, continue with their everyday life.
However, the photographs have a different lifetime and timeline. In the future, Bandeep’s photographs would be hailed as a historical document. What not, they will surely find its way into museums or press photo awards. As the former photo-editor of India Today and who is presently with Fortune India, he has such a reputation and reach. When not shooting agonies, Bandeep Singh doubles as a fashion and fine art photographer. He achieves a fine balance between passion and impassion – be it a popular corporate persona in their moments of glory or a person in distress – as per the demands of his clients/company he is attuned to produce sensational content. He adds his photographs with eloquent words, which means additional emotional content when it comes to editorial/social documentary works. Bandeep closely follows the style of Sebastião Salgado, a famous Brazilian social documentary photographer, and photojournalist whose works were praised for its graphical content and sociological concern. Bandeep repeatedly attests his knowledge about the questions surrounding the ethics of photographing people in distress – shares his dilemmas and his eventual submission to doing his duty. Inadvertently, he places himself as a victim – a helpless single man witnessing an unfolding dramatic situation. As if it is a realistically unfolding “unreal” tragic performance, the photographer silently watches and shoots – for the highest good of informing the mass, the so-called uninformed that needs graphic content to be woken up to the realities of life.
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.