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Irresponsible Photography

There is no code of ethics for photographers or tour operators. Each is guided by their own moral compass and their own motivations.

Sometimes those motivations can be less-than-sensitive and thoughtless. And when that happens, it results in a backlash that must be borne by the entire community of photographers – the good the bad and the outright ugly ones.

I am writing this from the perspective of a woman with concern for my own dignity, from the perspective of the mother of a daughter and from the perspective of a responsible photographer.

So this year I was in Odisha in January. The timing of my trip was chosen to coincide with a festival celebrated by the Adivasi tribals of that state. For years I have wanted to go to Odisha and I was finally going.

My basic research before the trip showed me the various tribes and their enchanting lifestyle and I was really excited to go there.

But on the first day of the festival I was informed that photography of the tribals in their home villages was forbidden. Photos were allowed only in and around their performances.

When questioned, I was told that this ban has been in place after some photographers along with some tour operators took less-than-complimentary pictures of tribal women and portrayed them in a sleazy light.

An online search reveals names of a few operators who used derogatory terms to describe the tribals of the destinations being promoted.

And since then, in order to protect the dignity of the tribals, the government administration has imposed a near-total ban on photography in the villages.

When I reached Odisha and heard about this I was really upset and angry. Not only because I was being disallowed photography, but also on behalf of the tribals  whose dignity had been violated.

Years ago before I began photography I remember seeing a coffee-table that was well written and well-presented. The only thing that I found objectionable was the picture of a young girl in her tribal costume that consisted of only a skirt. It was clear that the purpose of that presentation was to show that such costumes exist rather than as some pornographic picture. It was clear that the intent of the presenter was academic and probably not lewd.

Nevertheless, it made me think.

The way it works is that when we go out taking pictures, we ask the subjects if it is okay to take pictures of them before doing so. In this case, imagine a photographer from the developed world – with his / her knowledge of a good range of the spectrum of world views on nudity – in the presence of a tribe that dresses with little. The photographer is wowed by the subject and wants to take a picture and asks permission.

But but but …. do the people who answer, the tribal subjects even understand all the implications of this question?

To them, they are in their normal state and wearing perfectly normal clothes and are consenting to a photo being taken. And usually say ‘yes’ to the request.

Fifty years ago they had no idea what the camera could do  and had no idea that it would be transmitted across geography. And today, even if they do know that, do they know that the world that this is being exposed to, has a set of values that are very different from their own? Do they know that there will be sniggering and derogatory remarks about their way of life? Do they know the idea of nakedness or nudity and the various views that other cultures have on this subject? Until everyone lives in their own isolated island of culture none of these questions matter. But when one is transmitted to another, there will be judgements and critiques. Are the subjects aware of this? Is there an opportunity to defend themselves and explain their context? Is there an opportunity for counter-judgement?

They may not really ‘know’ the complete idea that they are consenting to.

BUT the photographer who straddles both worlds DOES know.

His photograph – his portrayal is the singular thing that will transmit these people to a world that does not understand them or their life in totality. He is the one taking their image to a world outside their own to be judged with rules outside their own.

The photographer is therefore the only one who could have made a decision at the time of the shot about how to portray these people – how a shot would ‘look’ in the other world – and he would know in his heart if he is being fair to the subjects or not ….

Yet we have had ugly incidents in 2012 in 2 spots in India.

It is a shame.

We as photographers of today are privileged to have a view of both worlds and this portrayal is an abuse of that privilege.

And so the ban enforced by the Odisha government is definitely laudable.


May 2013

2 comments on “Irresponsible Photography

  1. Pingback: Kalinga Diaries | WovenSouls

  2. shrikrishna
    June 28, 2013

    true – The same incident was with me too in orissa – – Shrikrishna Paranjpe – PUNE – india

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