Beauty & The Culture of Criticism
I genuinely don't know where to begin. The past couple of weeks have been a happy haze. After ages, I've got my reading rhythm back (more on that in another post perhaps) and consequently, I've been burrowing my way into book after book after book. It's been glorious, particularly because the world seems to be determined to go to hell in a hand basket (America, what IS that healthcare bill ? And Thailand, thanks yo for this. Warms the cockles of my heart. Venezuela is collapsing, has severe food shortage -- according to a 2016 report, 75 per cent of the population had lost up to 8.7 kg of weight due to lack of the required nutritious food -- protesters are being shot. And let's not even start on India). So yes, I've been quite happy to retreat into fiction. It's felt more insightful than most of the non-fiction discussion anyway, which is my excuse for hearing of Souvid Datta so late.
I'm not familiar with Datta's work. The only examples I've seen are the images that are embedded in two Peta Pixel articles and an interview of his with TIME, in which he apologised for his plagiarism. What is evident from the now-notorious image is that Datta's Photoshop skills are pretty darn awful. I'll come to the issue of plagiarism in a bit because I'm actually far more disturbed by a photograph that is unquestionably his.
On Labour Day -- if someone wrote this in fiction then we'd tear them apart for forcing the point with symbolic references, but that's how reality rolls -- Peta Pixel put up this post about an entry for a competition run by Magnum Photos, a hugely respected collective of photographers, which originally appeared on Duckrabbit on April 30. The entry was by Datta. It showed a man's bare back. He's on a bed and a woman is under him. She is looking away from the camera, but her face is painfully exposed to the lens' stare. That woman is a sex worker and what the photographer does with his camera is record her being violated in a way that doubly violates her.
I know you can't see the image, but do read the description.
Oh and by the way, she's 16. So really, I should have written "teenager", not "woman". You can see an unpixelated version that obscures her face here.
Datta did make a statement about this photograph, but Datta's website and social media profiles are no longer available so I haven't read the whole thing. But I did find a quote in which he appears to justify the photograph. "She [the sex worker who is also a minor] functioned as more of a functional and responsible adult than than many people I know," Datta wrote.
Which is full credit to her, but doesn't take away from the fact that Datta was taking a photograph that exposed her and left her vulnerable. From what I gather, Datta stressed that he had the sex worker's consent and so everyone should back off. That he's witnessed and is therefore complicit in a minor being raped is evidently not something that bothers him. Because that photograph does not suggest consensual sex by a long shot. There was another one in Getty Images -- again a man's back and the sex worker's face -- that had the caption, "Pinki, 17, grimaces in the embrace of an older customer". Grimaces. Take a moment to process what was actually happening to Pinki to make her grimace. Now take a moment to process that this is happening in the presence of a photographer.
Even if you accept Datta's argument that the sex worker was aware of becoming his 'model', was this informed consent on her part? Was she aware that there could be consequences to this and what those consequences could be? And even if she'd agreed to let Datta watch and document her being abused, should Datta have done it, especially since these photographs will not help help her build a case against her violator(s)? Datta goes so far as to give her a new name: "Beauty". I gagged with disgust when I read this because oh my god the entitlement that reeks from that gesture! You can expose her face claiming consent, but when it comes to her name, you as a photographer give her a name that fits the narrative you want to tell so that she becomes your device.
I keep imagining Datta looming over the bed on which this teenager lay, being rutted by a man she doesn't desire and muted by her abject poverty, while a camera clicks away. This moment, when she's at her most desperately powerless, immortalised.
Perhaps Datta's intention behind identifying the sex worker and not her client was to suggest that it isn't one particular individual who exploits this girl, but patriarchal, masculine society at large. The problem is that the only one vulnerable in the photograph is the one that the photographer should be protecting. Add to that the fact that the photographer is a man who is using the girl as his subject.
'Subject' is one helluva word. Among the layers of meaning that swirl around it are:
A person who is the focus of scientific or medical attention or experiment.
A member of a state other than its ruler, especially one owing allegiance to a monarch or other supreme ruler.
Likely or prone to be affected by (a particular condition or occurrence, typically an unwelcome or unpleasant one)
Under the authority of.
Under the control or domination of another ruler, country, or government.
(from the Oxford English Dictionary)
The thing about that specific shot is that it doesn't hint at any level of shared confidence between subject and photographer. It's not just her client that she's turning away from; she's also looking away from the camera. This is a not a scene that the photographer has chanced upon, but one that he has worked to bring into being. There's a predatory quality to it because planning and thought has gone into it, rather than it being a quick, reflexive need to document. The photographer wanted to get an image of a woman being fucked and fucked over.
In his statement about getting the sex worker's consent for this photograph, I wonder whether Datta had acknowledged or discussed his own position of privilege, which gives him so much power to influence her decision-making. He has the camera, he has the social capital, he has power and so when he asks for her compliance, imagine how monumentally difficult it is for her to say no to him. This is setting aside the desperation she may have felt to tell her story and be heard by a sympathetic ear. Yet, there's nothing to suggest that there's any level of dialogue or participation between photographer and subject.
This is not to suggest that all of Datta's photographs are exploitative. Like I said right at the outset, I don't know his work. Maybe he's done good work that does sensitively tell his subjects' stories. Maybe he hunts out scenes of poverty that he can exoticise to feed the stereotypical vision of India in the West. I've no clue. This particular photograph, however, is intensely disturbing and yet, it seems we're more concerned about plagiarism than discussing issues like a subject's human dignity, a photographer's responsibility and consent. The British Journal of Photography discusses this. Sad that there isn't an Indian publication that had this article? Well, please rewind and first shed a tear for the cultural pages being dropped in publication after publication.
We've actively discouraged criticism in India. Criticism hasn't been taught and frequently, those who persist in doing criticism are attacked or boycotted. No critical thinking means no analysis, no debate and an assumption that you can get away with anything. Often you can. After all, Datta wasn't called out by a fellow photographer or a critic (though this could be because we barely have any critics left, particularly for visual arts), but a social worker (three cheers for Shreya Bhat!). Demolishing the space for critique in mainstream media may not have been as damaging if there were alternatives, like offline gatherings where these discussions could take place among peers. Clearly, that isn't happening either. Instead of developing perspective, we've decided to outsource it. We still look to foreign institutions and publications for certificates of merit and approval. At home, we either shower empty praises or bitch one another out apparently. Unfortunately, few foreign institutions are knowledgeable enough about India, its history, society, dynamics and distinctive politics. They're almost always informed by a few token Indians/ Indian-origin people, whose perspectives are rarely wide and learned enough to make sense of this country that is still maddeningly diverse. Foreign publications routinely make cringe-worthy assumptions about India or write about it with that Orientalist cocktail of contempt and exoticisation. As for critique, we've dismissed critics and opened the space up to trolls and their attacks. If vitriol is all that you can expect by way of criticism, who will take it seriously? No one. Of course you'll think you can get away with not acknowledging influences in these circumstances.
Coming to the image that contains an element from a Mary Ellen Mark photograph, I'm amazed that anyone fell for this because the insertion is so shoddily done. She looks like she's been graffiti-ed on the wall. It's appalling that photo editors, in India and abroad, did not notice how Datta has appropriated the work of other photographers. Is it really the case that no one in the photographic community noticed? Because if so, then we have cause for worry since the two explanations for this blindness are illiteracy and lack of ethics. A photographer friend, who has been understandably troubled by Datta's work, mentioned that she doesn't want to write about her concerns and criticism because the tribe of Indian photographers is unforgiving to those who speak out. That's just death, culturally speaking.
In his interview to TIME, Datta does take responsibility for his "mistakes", which seems commendable until you consider the fact that with his unethical behaviour exposed and institutions distancing themselves from him, there was no option of brazening it out. He gets to make his point on a platform as widely-known and respected as TIME -- just that in itself is a display of enormous privilege. After all, he didn't respond to Peta Pixel's questions. Speaking of TIME, there's not one question about the photograph of the sex worker in this interview. * There is, however, a line at the end of the article that reads, "This interview has been edited for clarity." To do so is standard practice, but I'm very, very curious to know precisely what this editing for clarity entailed. When you edit someone, you are inevitably taking a stand on how you will let them be depicted. Your final edit could show the chaos in the interviewee's answers, which would suggest they are dubious at the very least. Or you could clean it up and present the interviewee as coherent and neatly put-together. Rarely does it happen that all interview subjects are treated equally.
The one reality that connects the apparent nonchalance with which Datta assumed a sex worker's abuse was his to use and his plagiarism is the absence of a culture of criticism in India. First, the Indian establishment held the humanities in contempt and as a result, intelligent people were encouraged to study sciences. Second, we've emphasised the idea of learning as an act of indiscriminate absorption. Accept what's in the textbook, memorise and regurgitate. In subjects like literature, we teach excerpts and don't encourage students to read the entire text. In history, periods are taught in a way that suggests they aren't part of a continuum. We've encouraged myopia at the schooling and university stages. The lack of insight, critique and perspective in our cultural sphere is a direct result of that, aided by the collapsing mess that is the Indian media scene. Culture sections are gone and the Indian internet lags depressingly behind when it comes to setting up websites that discuss culture. All we want is traffic and critique can't guarantee that. Net result: we're not just stupider for it, but also less humane.
* The editor of TIME's Light Box has said on Twitter that he asked Datta about "the child photos" and that his answers will be "part of a larger report on these photographs".