When I came to India, I intended to use my camera—to create art, to document my surroundings, and to maintain a visual record of memory. I was wary and cautious about the way my bulky SLR would reinforce my position as outsider and onlooker, eager to capture the newness of these sights onto my camera’s memory card. I was conscious of taking photographs only in situations that I deemed respectful;
even if the perfect lighting coincided with a beautiful child running out across a field or some such picturesque scene, I did my best to mentally gauge the way my taking a photograph in that moment might be more voyeuristic than respectful. Sometimes, I took the photograph anyway, unable to help myself, but I did my very best not to be thoughtless.
My experience thus far, in the last six or seven weeks, has given me some new thoughts about photography. The shift arose when I became the object of curiosity rather than the curious observer. Right from the beginning of our stay in this region, Natalie and I were faced with continual, unapologetic stares—on the bus, on the back of motorcycles, walking into the office, everywhere. One afternoon, those
stares turned into a photo shoot. While sitting outside on our porch reading in the late afternoon, 7 young Indian women ages 17-20 walked right up to our porch uninvited and began snapping away in our faces
on their cellphones. Our first encounter with celebrity-dom was wholly unexpected, felt slightly violative, but proved to be absolutely hilarious. Most of the smiles now memorialized on random young girls’
cellphones are really us staving off the urge to burst out laughing.
After this first modeling experience, we become quite accustomed to people asking to take photographs with us, and the novel turned commonplace. While I had originally been so wary about pulling out my
camera to capture a scene, here I was turned into the scene itself. Using very unsophisticated logic, I reckoned that if I would be photographed freely, often without permission, I could be less scared
about using my own camera.
This new freedom with the lens has allowed me to use my camera as a mode of capturing already present beauty and affirming its value. I have decided to shoot portraits of each of the 45 women who I have and
will be interviewing through the course of my internship project. I ask each woman at the end of my interview whether it would be okay to photograph her and then always show her, and her family and friends who are inevitably around, the photo on my camera’s display screen. Usually the image is met with a smile and a verbal seal of approval, “Acha” (“good” in Hindi). I’m not sure yet what I will “do” with these photos.
An American friend of ours who we met at SPS—he had interned here for about a year and had returned for a brief visit—was actually engaged in a project called “Farmer Portraits” in which he too was
photographing portraits of farmers whom he had interviewed or formed relationships with during his time at SPS, and then printed and framed those photos as gifts for the farmers. His project was inspiring; he had raised his own outside funds to cover the costs. Perhaps his way of returning photos to the photographed can serve as a model for me in the future.
Another time I was on the bus back from Bagli to the central campus, a 1-hour ride which leads from the higher plateau into the valley below along a windy undulating road and offers a stunning view
of the green forested hills in all their glory. I tentatively took out my camera to document the ride and the woman sitting next to me was so excited and supportive that she urged me to the front row seat of the
bus, right next to the driver with the expansive bus window as my only barrier to the outside. The driver first posed for a portrait of himself and then throughout the ride excitedly pointed out views which would be great to photograph. Sometimes, he even seemed to slow the bus down allowing me to construct and take the shot. At a certain point, all the green hills looked undistinguishable and the photos weren’t turning out too great anyways but I could see how happy the driver and the woman next to me were as I was photographing—capturing the beauty of the land, their home. Sometimes I would show the woman
who had encouraged me to the front the images I had taken and she would smile. Here, photography became a form of wordless communication, of a mutual appreciation of the land she called home, a
way of validating and transforming these hills and everyday scenes into something worth preserving for others to see. Even the portrait of the driver, which he indicated that he wanted me to take by posing
against the driving wheel without any understandable linguistic exchange, was a process of image-making not initiated by me. My camera was simply the vehicle to capture his image and show it back to him.
Despite these freeing and playful experiences with photography, I have more recently encountered the uncomfortable and objectifying possibilities that come from taking a photograph. More often than not,
it is because I am the object of the photograph. While at first it was funny, being photographed by strangers quickly became annoying and then eventually uncomfortable. Last week while I was interviewing women in Dewas, the urban district capital about 4 hours away from here, during several interviews, male family members took out their cell phones and took photographs of me while I was in the midst of the interview. At one home, the woman’s son even offered/threatened to call a local photographer over so that they would be able to keep the printed copies of photos with me. I vigorously refused and asked that they please not call a photographer.
This outright objectification, which in the urban setting was tinged with a feeling of violation and exploitation rather than merely the result of innocent curiosity, tried my patience last week. Last
Sunday, Natalie and I went for a day trip along with 8 others from SPS to Maheshwar, a touristy temple site along the Narmada River. There, when people took our photos from afar, I grew frustrated. When a young man asked to take a photo with us, I said no for the first time.
Although I know that such things are harmless, I had grown tired of being viewed and treated like a curiosity, a “creature” as a friend of ours has said. At that moment at least, I felt the need to assert my
own autonomy as a real, living and breathing human being that didn’t particularly want to be one of the images in the library of some Indian kid’s camera.
Like conducting research, which can sometimes feel exploitative and one-sided, with the researcher asking a whole slew of questions to gain information, while at the same time meaningful and beneficial,
valuing individual’s stories and experiences, photography has the same tricky set of possible valences. I’m not sure that any situation is ever either one or the other, that any photograph is ever pure, untainted by the possibility of disrespect, turning subject into object and the human into exotic other. As I continue researching and photographing though, I’m struggling to find my own ways of dealing with these questions.
P.S. Unfortunately my internet is too slow to upload photos–use your imagination!