WOMEN | PHOTOGRAPHY V
The three contributions to this edition map the territory of the photographer’s mind, raising questions of identity, ethical responsibilities and commitment to the profession.
It is always interesting when a photographer comments on the body of work of a colleague: Zahra Amiruddin, a member of the women photographers’ collective 8:30, focuses on the practice of India’s first Pulitzer Prize-winning woman photojournalist, Anushree Fadnavis who won the award as part of a Reuters team covering the massive pro-democracy, anti-government protests in Hong Kong in 2019. In her essay, however, Amiruddin focusses on Fadnavis’s series #traindiaries that documents women’s lives in the Ladies compartment of a Mumbai local train: lives that share, hide, argue on those long, daily journeys. Some commuters even catch up on TV serials. If this sounds too prosaic, there was other interesting goings-on as well – fashions were discussed, hair braided, nails painted and unpainted. A girl in semi-darkness looks pensively out of a window, a man from a neighbouring train compartment peers with great interest into the women’s compartment, a shadow flits across a frame…
Amiruddin brings up a vital ethical question – had Fadnavis ever paused and not pressed the shutter ‘because her conscience wouldn’t allow it’? She had indeed, while covering a promotional event for the film Dhoom 3. Katrina Kaif had a wardrobe malfunction moment and all the photographers present immediately got to work, but Fadnavis did not. When asked later by her head why she hadn’t captured that one-in-a-million shot, her answer was simple – ‘I couldn’t help but put myself in her shoes.’
The question of whether to press the shutter or not has bothered many photographers with a conscience. In 1993 South African photographer Kevin Carter photographed a starving Sudanese child who had collapsed on the ground from hunger on the way to a UN food aid centre. In the barren, arid landscape, a vulture – artfully photographed by Carter so that it looks almost as large as the child – appears to stalk him. The photo, published in the New York Times in March 1993, shocked readers and the world. Carter faced many agonizing questions afterwards. Why had he not helped the child and carried him to the centre? Should he have taken the photograph at all? Notwithstanding the furore, he won the Pulitzer Prize – and four months later, aged thirty-three, he killed himself, even while the photo was on posters successfully being used by aid organizations in their appeal for funds to help the famine victims. It is true that independently of the Sudan event, Carter had been mentally disturbed for a while. However, the question remains – was it his conscience that finally caught up with him, as it did with Anushree, albeit in her case for something that would have been merely embarrassing and not one that carried a huge overload of guilt and ethical issues? In other words, when and how does the need for reportage with an edge reconcile itself with moral dilemmas?
While in her interview with Jyoti Dhar Sri Lankan photographer Menika van der Poorten does not touch on this very important issue of boundaries and limits, she deals with another issue that has great relevance today: the question of identity. Of Eurasian/Sinhala descent, it resonates deeply with her. She felt at times, as she says, like a yo-yo.
As the daughter of divorced parents, Menika lived for some years in London with her father who was a ‘left-wing Trotskyist
s’ – and yet she was sent to a fancy girls’ school. Predictably, she joined the Labour Party; she got married but soon opted out of it; and then found her niche in Format Women’s Photography Agency in London that was ‘very much about empowering women in the sense of giving agency and voice to women photographers’. After becoming a mother, she decided to return to Sri Lanka and to her Sinhala mother’s world. Yet she starts investigating her Eurasian identity, looking for stories, community history, family archives. It wasn’t easy, as ‘that generation of people who considered themselves Eurasians were all dying or losing their memories’. For the audio-visual narratives for her ongoing project Where Are You From? she interviewed, recorded and photographed a number of relatives and other Eurasians. There is a back view of her father, and another of a man looking somewhat aimlessly out of a window. Expectedly, multiple versions of the truth emerged. Identities were made and re-made, questioned, accepted or cast aside.
Menika was very close to her mother, a victim of cancer, and if she recorded her Eurasian identity, she also paid a fine photographic tribute to her accomplished Sinhala mother. She juxtaposes a black-and-white archival image of her, exuding life and promise, with a colour image of a blood-red ixora. The poignant title Amma. “Tonigh No Poetry Will Serve” (2021) says it all.
Saumya Khandelwal’s empathetic photographs of child brides in Shravasti district of Uttar Pradesh are a visual testimony of the fact that this practice continues, irrespective of any law of the land. Young girls knew that they were being married only when they had haldi applied to their bodies or sindoor put in the parting of their hair. Khandelwal went through an ethical dilemma of another kind, asking questions from her position of relative privilege: why did mothers who had been child brides themselves ‘push their daughters into the same vicious cycle?’ She photographs Arti before her marriage, and a year later, after the gauna ceremony, accompanies the fifteen-year-old to her marital home. A miscarriage follows and soon after, Arti dies; she supposedly dies by suicide, and Khandelwal’s pain at losing a friend is palpable. Her images capture the confusion and stress of the child brides – there is plenty of colour but little joyousness in the photographs; weddings are supposed to be full of colour, music – and joy. In fact, more than joyousness, all three photographers featured here document the matter-of-factness of the lives of their subjects, their photographs proving once more the power of the image to speak more than words ever could – or can.
A SHATTERED CHILDHOOD
Malavika Karlekar is Editor, Indian Journal of Gender Studies and Curator of Re-presenting Indian Women: A Visual Documentary, 1875–1947 and the annual calendar based on archival photographs of women, all at Centre for Women’s Development Studies, New Delhi. Since 2001 she has been researching and writing on archival photographs. Her recent publication Of Colonial Bungalows and Piano Lessons: An Indian Woman’s Memoirs (2019), a volume edited with an Introduction by Karlekar narrates childhood memoirs of her mother, Monica Chanda.
Copy-editing: Smriti Vohra