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Bring On The Misery!

By Charukesi Ramadurai

02 April, 2009

“That’s not fair, we didn’t get to see the slums, the other group did”. This happened a couple of years ago. I was taking a small group of Europeans around the Western suburb of Bandra in Mumbai. They were in India to understand the structure of retail organizations in the country and as part of this research, my colleague and I were taking them through the small by-lanes of the suburb pointing out the different kinds of shops, the merchandising activities, the varieties of window display and the procurement and storage mechanisms. My colleague was with the other group who had spotted a small slum on their way and insisted on going in to have a look.

They rejoined our group an hour later with excited verbal and visual accounts of life in the slum. And so the complaint from my group.

“We missed seeing the real India”, said one of them in anger. This is not the real India, I wanted to tell them politely. The India you have seen in the last couple of hours is just as real as the one inside the slums. So what makes that more exciting, more significant, more real? I did not say anything; I did not think they would understand.

I am thinking about this in the wake of the success of Slumdog Millionaire and the interest it has rekindled in India’s slums and the hullabaloo about “poverty porn”.

More importantly, I am thinking of it today as I read Tewfic El-sawy’s outraged notes on the photo-essay that won second place in the National Press Photographers Association in the International News Story category. The prize went to Andrea Bruce for her photo-essay on the circumcision ceremony of a young girl in Kurdistan. The photo-essay was first published by Washington Post in December 2008 and also won a prize from the White House News Photographers Association.

The photo-essay is shocking, revolting and at some level numbing. The only image that stayed in my mind long after I had seen it is the one of the young girl happily laughing at something her mother has said, as the “auntie” sits on the floor getting the implements ready for the mutilation process.

So what is all the fuss about? Is not important for the Western world, the developed nations to highlight the social issues of lesser developed countries? After all, female genital mutilation is a barbaric practice and needs to be spoken about, to be ended. According to the Washington Post story, atleast 60% of the women in the Kurdish territories of Northern Iraq have been through the process of female genital mutilation.

The fuss, the outrage, is not about the fact that the photo-essay was published or won these prizes, but about the fact that there was no attempt to protect the identity of the victim in any manner. The seven year old girl’s name and face, her family details and her unspeakable agony are all exposed mercilessly in the images.

As the photographer exposes an incident that is an unforgivable violation of human rights – not just women’s rights – is there not a different kind of violation here?

The question here is, would the publications and the organizations have allowed an American or Western European girl to be featured in the same way, name, face and all? I googled out of curiosity and came upon a report in the Daily Mail UK that talks about the plight of young British-African women who are forced to go through the procedure. This, of a victim being interviewed - "promise you won't print my name or anything?" she implores repeatedly. And they don’t.

I googled some more and found another blogger who mentions Article 12 of the Universal declaration of human rights: No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks. I can only think that publications in the US believe that a girl from Kurdistan will always stay there and will never have problems because of her privacy being invaded in this manner. And in that case, I am forced to question this assumption. As a photographer and a market researcher, I peek into people’s lives for a living and document them. And perhaps due to this, I am keenly aware, perhaps more than others, of how intrusive this can be. And I also truly believe that it is possible to be insightful and empathetic without being insensitive.

What happens to the developed world’s cherished notions of dignity and privacy when it comes to an obscure girl from Kurdistan? Surely, there are better ways of “shining the torch-light” on issues like this, than shining it directly on the wounded girl’s face? Just as walking through the crumbling shanties of Dharavi with a camera does nothing to make the condition of slum-dwellers better, watching the misery on the face of a seven year old from Kurdistan will not undo what has been done to her, nor will it prevent such instances in future.

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