Culture

Name-Place-Animal-Thing: Photos, Children’s Drawings and Domestic Workers

This week’s column looks at how photographs and pictures help us process trauma but also produce it, in addition to a piece on the poor treatment of domestic workers in India.

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Name-Place-Animal-Thing. Credit: Vishnupriya Rajgarhia

 

Viewing death on the internet

As we collectively deal with the fallout from the ‘human shield’ photograph, there’s another shocking visual that is starting to raise questions about what happened in Jharkhand where several men were lynched on the basis of nothing but a Whatsapp rumour.

The image in question is that of a blood-soaked man pleading with his palms open as a crowd surrounds him. He was killed soon after, which makes the viewer acutely aware that they have just ‘witnessed’ a stranger’s last moments.

A charred vehicle that was torched by angry people during a violent protest and of the victims of the lynching who later died. Credit: PTI Photo

A charred vehicle that was torched by angry people during a violent protest and one of the victims of the lynching who was killed. Credit: PTI Photo

In ‘Death in the Browser Tab’, Teju Cole grapples with the ubiquity of footage and photographs depicting the final moments and deaths of people we don’t really know. To observe someone’s last moments of life is an intimate experience. And thanks to photography and the internet, this moment can be captured and circulated easily, expanding the original circle of observers to something significantly larger and altogether different in nature. This intimate trauma is always ready to assault us as we scroll through Twitter or Facebook, never more than a couple of clicks away. As Cole puts it, “In the course of ordinary life — at lunch or in bed, in a car or in the park — you are suddenly plunged into someone else’s crisis, someone else’s horror.”

Does this constant consumption of traumatic images make us immune to the actual horror of the event itself?

Cole seems to imply that the ease of dissemination doesn’t necessarily contribute to the normalisation of these pictures. At the end of the piece, he describes his reluctance and inability to talk about a particular shooting’s footage directly, instead resorting to stories and instances that resemble the actual event to express himself. Just because something is easily available to consume, doesn’t make it any easier to talk about. Which I take to mean that an increased capacity to look at such pictures doesn’t automatically make it easier to think about them. What are we supposed to do when such pictures enter our consciousness? Simply looking and moving on seems wrong. It only perpetuates the idea that we’re becoming desensitised to news of such violence. Cole doesn’t provide practical answers, but does prompt you to think about the ways in which we process such images and videos, and the impact they leave on us.

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From sunny valleys to pellet injuries

One piece of artwork by a child in a school used in the BBC article. Credit: Soutik Biswas/ BBC

As pictures inform the way we see the world, our surroundings have a way of seeping into our imaginations. In a new piece, Soutik Biswas from the BBC tells the story of unrest in Kashmir through pictures, but not devastating photographs of pellet injuries or other markers of civil conflict like police barricades on empty streets. Instead, it’s pictures created by children in Kashmir – while most kids in the rest of the country are making inverted V-s for mountains, and perfectly round yellow suns, Kashmiri kids are producing pictures that depict subjects like a girl with a bandaged eye, a boy wearing dark glasses identified as a ‘pellet victim’ and a school building on fire with children inside screaming ‘help’.

The children turned to drawing and colouring for catharsis when they returned to school this past winter, after spending a particularly violent Kashmiri summer cooped up indoors, isolated from their friends but in constant touch with the news cycle.

Masood Hussain, a Kashmiri artist who has been judging schools’ art competitions for the past four decades told Biswas that the subjects of children’s paintings have undergone a drastic shift. He explained, “They have gone from the serene to the violent.”

“They draw red skies, red mountains, lakes, flowers and houses on fire. They draw guns and tanks, fire-fights and people dying on the street.”

There’s something unsettling, almost creepy, about seeing this subject matter rendered in the uneven lines and shoddy colouring characteristic of children’s work. This is partially due to the idea that children somehow inhabit a violence-free fairy-tale world (though even those have villains) despite the very real evidence that children are consuming the same set of information – particularly images, since they don’t require an extensive vocabulary to get their point across – as the rest of the adult world.

In his other work, Cole discusses making images as a way of thinking with his eyes. This seems especially true for the drawings shared in the BBC piece. These pictures were made by children who spent their summer indoors, not physically exposed to any of the violence, but that didn’t stop them from being impacted by it or engaging with it. If the complexity of their emotions or trauma is too difficult for words, images provide the perfect medium of expression. Biswas rightly notes that the pictures depict a loss of innocence, which in a way evokes a similar feeling as one Cole expresses in ‘Death in the Browser Tab’:

“I recognized the political importance of the videos I had seen, but it had also felt like an intrusion when I watched them: intruding on the grief of those for whom the deaths were much more significant, and intruding, too, on my own personal but unarticulated sense of right and wrong.”

Maybe it’s this feeling of intrusion, of having glimpsed something non negotiably private that makes it difficult to discuss and address trauma, even if we know it to be a collective experience. While we struggle at the individual level, both sets of images – the lynched man and the children’s drawings – ought to be addressed on a macro, policy level. We look to the state in matters involving unnatural injuries and deaths for relief. This may not do much to ease the emotional hurt generated by the images, but acknowledging the existence of these images and the trauma they convey would be a good place to start.

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The dubious honour of being a domestic worker who is ‘like family’

Representational image of a domestic worker feeding her employers’ child. Credit: ILO in Asia and the Pacific/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Our ways of seeing the world don’t always work to reveal the truth of a situation, more often than not our perspective obscures our own complicity in “someone else’s horror”. A couple of weeks ago, Alex Tizon posthumously published an incredibly moving and highly controversial piece about his family’s slave, Eudocia Tomas Pulido, though his family simply called her Lola. Tizon’s description of Lola’s life struck a particularly uncomfortable chord in me and several other readers.

“Her days began before everyone else woke and ended after we went to bed. She prepared three meals a day, cleaned the house, waited on my parents, and took care of my four siblings and me. My parents never paid her, and they scolded her constantly. She wasn’t kept in leg irons, but she might as well have been. So many nights, on my way to the bathroom, I’d spot her sleeping in a corner, slumped against a mound of laundry, her fingers clutching a garment she was in the middle of folding.”

Sandip Roy, writing for Huffington Post, grasps that uncomfortable feeling and carefully draws out a comparison with his family’s domestic worker who was deeply involved in raising him.

“Chhor-di, as we called her, widowed early in life, raised my sister and me, nursed my dying great-grandmother and grandmother, wiped bottoms, emptied bed-pans without complaint.” They constantly referred to her as practically family, although never actually just ‘family’. She was not allowed to sit on any of the chairs or question her “master” (presumably Roy’s father or both parents) but they were allowed to yell at her if they so wished.

Roy is careful to acknowledge the crucial differences between a slave and paid help, his Chhor-di was paid, though he does not know how much. She got holidays, her family members were allowed to visit her and unlike Lola, Chhor-di retired to spend her old age with her family in her village.

But despite this list of differences, it is difficult to ignore the fact that Lola’s circumstances are shockingly, uncomfortably similar to those of women who work for Indian families full-time. Roy notes this while musing that any pittance paid to Lola would also have been insufficient compensation for the physical and emotional labour she performed non-stop for all her adult life. To be fair and to avoid stretching the comparison, he adds that Lola suffered egregious behaviour by Tizon’s parents – her teeth fell out because they refused to take her to the dentist, making her circumstances undeniably worse than most domestic helpers’ in India or other places in Asia.

Tizon has been widely criticised for not doing anything to help Lola even after he realised she was his family’s slave. In his piece, he admits to telling neighbours Lola was a distant relative who just liked working a lot. He wanted to save face and protect his family’s reputation despite knowing the truth himself. Others have argued that Tizon’s family was from the Philippines and the cultural norms he was raised with mandated obedience to his parents at all costs.

Roy doesn’t deny the merit of the cultural defence of Tizon but calls out the idea that Tizon and all of us who claim cultural difference are still fully aware of what we are perpetuating, even though we refer to our help as “family”. This complicity and our collective masking of it may come off as “honouring” the help but in practice it allows us to treat these women as not-quite-employees, and so we get to knowingly, and unknowingly, indulge in oppressive behaviour that we wouldn’t dream of perpetrating with formal employees. He doesn’t have an answer for how to treat domestic workers as employees, but Tizon and Roy’s accounts both help to create a personal narrative for what is often solely discussed as a socio-economic problem; probably to avoid confronting our own complicity in their existence.

Want to suggest a piece that should be included in this column? Write to me at [email protected]
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