Looking at Atrocity Images

[su_quote]Did you look away? Did you look and argue What, If & But? Did you look and not feel sick in your stomach? There is NO other side to this story.[/su_quote]

With these emphatic words, Barkha Dutt tweeted the image of blood-soaked Mohammed Naeem begging for his life minutes before he was beaten to death in Sobhapur in Jharkhand. Several major news outlets have been circulating this image, and Buzzfeed India shared it on its Facebook page with the headline ‘Every Indian Needs To Look At And Lament This Photo.’ The image has been showing up incessantly on my Facebook timeline because of how actively it is being shared by my friends. As a shocking testimony of the threat of mob violence to marginalized communities in India, questioning the sharing of an image such as this may seem to be an illogical exercise. However, complex power relations inherent to the act of viewing and sharing this image make me raise some concerns.

Previous to this, the tensions in Saharanpur in Western Uttar Pradesh threw up some extremely graphic and disturbing images on social media. One set of these images shows the bloodied body of a woman lying on the ground. One of her arms is a gory stump while the remnant of the arm lies next to her body. The page on which these photographs were published claims that this is the body of a dalit woman who was attacked in Saharanpur. Another item shared by a number of friends is an older video, which was published on April 27, of two naked women being beaten up by another group of women. The video description says that these are two dalit women who are being stripped and thrashed by upper caste women for taking water from taps in the upper caste area of the village.

Graphic ‘atrocity’ images like these often do the rounds in social media and are very different from the kind of pornographic and prurient images of violence which are always in ready circulation for the express purpose of disgusting or titillating the viewer. The images currently in question are captured and circulated with the intention of being records of human violence and the interest in them arises from the idea that their dissemination is of political importance.

The discussion that images like these should only be shared with trigger warnings is a separate one. I question the sharing of these images in the way that it is done because of concerns about what this kind of sharing means for the bodies which become spectacles through this circulation. For all the good intentions with which these images are shared by my upper-caste and upper-class friends for the purpose of rousing their fellow upper-caste and upper-class friends into awareness, I’m afraid that the entire exercise of sharing and looking at these images ceases to be about the signified bodies in the images, and the subject of the images is no longer the people whose bodies feature in them but the ‘public conscience’ which needs to be stirred and stunned through them.

In most cases, images like these are captured without the consent of those whose bodies figure in them, and very often the photographed subjects are dead bodies in which case the question of consent and agency does not even arise. The subjects of the images have little or no say about how they are seen and how their bodies are mobilized. It is also worth noting that more often than not these images are of already marginalized bodies, particularly of dalit, adivasi, Muslim and bahujan women. Perhaps we need to ask why it is so easy to circulate images of these bodies in states of extreme indignity.

In the video that I had mentioned at the beginning, the video description says that it was taken by the upper caste women who are thrashing the dalit women. The gaze of the camera is unwaveringly focused on the naked bodies of the women while they are repeatedly hit, although their breasts, genitals and faces have been blurred out, while the women who are hitting them are hardly visible. The gaze of viewers of the video will be fixed on their violated bodies and even though those sharing the video are doing it because they think that it is politically important to do so, the relationship between the signified bodies and the sharers and viewers, I think, can lean towards being an exploitative one.

Several theorists, particularly photography theorists, have argued extensively about the problematic nature of the act of taking and viewing ‘atrocity’ images. Susan Sontag had even provocatively argued that the only people with the right to look at images of extreme suffering are those who can do something to mitigate it. Susan Crane questions whether the ability of atrocity photographs to cause outrage or disgust is sufficient reason to introduce them, given that most of them are taken without the consent of the victims of the atrocity.

One of the most memorable photographs of this nature to my mind is the image of an adivasi woman running naked down a street in Guwahati, clinging on to a blue cloth, while onlookers behind her laugh and click photos of her on their phones. The image was taken in November 2007 while she was fleeing three men who had stripped her when a protest demanding Scheduled Tribe status for the adivasis working in Assam’s tea plantations got violent and it was splashed across newspapers in Assam and other parts of eastern and north-eastern India. The shocking nature of the image was also galvanized by NGOs and adivasi leaders to demand justice for her and bring to light the atrocities against adivasi bodies. Here again, the woman’s body, anyway rendered lifeless by being frozen in time and space by the camera, ceased to be a person with subjectivity and became a symbol instead, the violence upon which was exhibited to stir consciences. Madhuri Xalxo also criticizes the way that male adivasi leaders mobilized this image and her body to talk about collective adivasi rights, without ever trying to shield her nudity and vulnerability.

The context in which a particular violent or shocking image is circulated, and who decides the terms on which the photographed subject is framed and exhibited significantly changes the very meaning of the image. The images that have been spoken about can be contrasted to the iconic images of the twelve middle-aged Manipuri women who had stripped themselves in front of Kangla Fort in Imphal to protest against the killing and possible rape of Thangjam Manorama. The willing exhibition of their bodies and their defiant nakedness changes their equation with viewers of images of their protest. Here also the intention is to shock, but the bodies in focus are in control and powerful.

Views on the appropriateness of sharing certain kinds of images for political awareness and galvanization may vary but at the very least keeping in mind the power relations between the photographed subjects and takers of the images, viewers and sharers could make us think before unquestioningly and well-meaningly sharing them and could make us conscious that the act of sharing the image is a complicated one.


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Sukrita Baruah Written by:

Student at TISS, Mumbai

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