Photographs are assessed and studied in various ways. In the realm of art, for instance, formal characteristics, affect, and authorial presence are paid more attention. Social scientists and humanities scholars remain interested in recovering meanings from images, either by trying to identify recurring patterns or subjecting them to critical interpretation. Political economy researchers continue to unravel how the entrenched and new power relations come to have a bearing on image-making practices and circulation. While all these methodologies have informed my understanding of photography, their overwhelming focus on the photographic text and its sites and conditions of production often makes me wonder if any analysis of a text is complete without considering how they are received by their intended and unintended addressees.
This question made me explore approaches which provide more space to contemplate reception of the text. While in anthropology, one discovered an established tradition of treating images as objects with an interest in their biographies and performance, cultural studies greatly nuanced one’s understanding of the place of media in everyday life. Both the approaches sensitised me to the ways in which people forge a wide variety of relationships with images, be it family photographs lovingly arranged in albums or people tinkering with journalistic images to subvert their meanings – an aspect much more common now as evidenced in the proliferation of meme cultures.
But images of instances of injustice and oppression, like the one here by Sudharak Olwe, warrant frameworks of their own. They present a peculiar challenge of perception before us: How do we stop being voyeurs, comfortably looking at them from a safe distance? How do we stir our senses dulled by overexposure, where images like these begin to appear normal to us? Is evocation of sympathy the aim of such photographs? Addressing many of these questions, Susan Sontag in her work Regarding the Pain of Others says: “To set aside the sympathy we extend to others beset by war and murderous politics for a reflection on how our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering, and may – in ways we might prefer not to imagine – be linked to their suffering, as the wealth of some may imply the destitution of others, is a task for which the painful, stirring images supply only an initial spark.”
What follows the initial spark? In what ways is our response going to be commensurate with the demand of Olwe’s photograph and the photographed – the conservancy worker looking up from the depths of a sewage manhole?
Sudharak Olwe. From the series In Search Of Dignity & Justice. “Once inside, there is nothing but darkness. The worker is totally cut off from the world above, anything could happen to him – he could pass out from inhaling some toxic gas, or slip in the slime and lose consciousness, or be carried away in the rush of water and waste. All this is done to make them feel hopeless about themselves. Yes, it is true – this work requires no special skills, just a pair of arms and legs and the courage to descend into hell.” Photograph. 1999-2000. ©Sudharak Olwe.
According to Ariella Azoulay it would require a ‘civic skill’, where the viewer of the photograph comes to assume a “civic duty toward the photographed persons”. In her book The Civil Contract of Photography, Azoulay regards photography as a “borderless and open” realm of citizenship where the photographed, having been denied visibility and recognition elsewhere, make themselves available to the photographer and assert through their images “demand for participation in a sphere of political relations within which his claim can be heard and acknowledged”. The viewers must then go beyond merely expressing sympathy with the subject of the photograph and make efforts to honour their contract with a fellow citizen. Olwe’s photograph renders without any ambiguity, literally in black and white, the dehumanising and corrosive effects of the institution of caste, which some of us still dismiss as an abstraction or a relic of the past. Our failure to fully acknowledge the stark evidence that the image presents and act within, and perhaps even outside, our lived contexts to alleviate the worker’s plight would be to suggest that while we are happy to enjoy the fruits that the “citizenry of photography” affords us we are often found wanting when it comes to discharging our duties towards it in the face of challenging situations.
Olwe’s image of the conservancy worker of Mumbai is powerful not only because of its urgency or affective charge, but because it asks of us to exercise our civic skills and participate productively in his search for dignity and justice.