Pictures of Lankesh’s body are evocative in entirely different ways for those who believe in the liberal values they shared with her and those who characterise her as anti-national.
A friend messaged me saying,“People need to stop sharing the photo.”
I responded saying I’d successfully avoided encountering any.
She warned me, “Yeah, don’t go on Twitter.”
Minutes after the news of Gauri Lankesh’s murder broke, the news machine, by which I mean not only journalists but everyone with a social media account, got busy with the task of creating and controlling the narrative of Lankesh’s life. Sharing pictures of her brutalised, bullet-ridden body is a major part of this.
Lankesh’s body of work and her personal relationships, nurtured over a lifetime, are flattened into the singular image of her corpse by the sharing of these pictures. None of us want to see our loved ones dead, even the peaceful repose of a shrouded corpse looks unmercifully cruel because it makes us confront the person’s irrevocable absence.
By extension this means that we’re only ever comfortable viewing pictures of death and violence when we’re sure that the same could not happen to us or one of us. When we feel that the “other” somehow had it coming or was deserving of it. Susan Sontag broke this down clearly, ‘‘The frankest representations of war, and of disaster-injured bodies, are of those who seem most foreign, therefore least likely to be known.”
Pictures of bullet-ridden bodies are usually produced in war zones, where there is purportedly a clear divide between an “us” and a “them”; where death is normalised because it poses an existential threat to “our” way of living. Even these pictures are not free of politicking and academic concern – publications like the New York Times have been accused of romanticising war through the pictures they’ve published. But it’s undeniable that such photographs do not emerge from events that took place in the middle of a city, in a democratic country. Lankesh was not a criminal or an “othered” dehumanised soldier, not an extrajudicial player who partook in violence herself. There is nothing remotely justifiable about this death, no matter how people contort it to seem so.
Pictures are not neutral, the lens is not an objective purveyor of truth. A picture, no matter how objectively shot or how unaltered, is still consumed in a given context which colours how we view the people and situations depicted in it.
Sharing this picture can send one of two main messages. The first being, ‘Look, this is the fate that awaits those who question the state or step on powerful toes.’ It is a threat meant to deter others who fight the good fight like Lankesh did or those who dare to question the status quo.
In the hours after the news broke, I stayed away from Twitter, from Whatsapp, from the TV, from any screen that could assault me with the image that I so desperately wanted to avoid. So many of us didn’t have that option, the image crept up in our newsfeeds, on our TV screens and I wonder how many of thought we were looking at the image of a criminal, because in our imaginations who except Narcos baddies dies in such a brutal way – that’s what happens when we see decontextualised pictures, our previous associations pile onto the picture currently before us, we form notions we haven’t even thought about consciously, but they’re there.
As Bertolt Brecht noted, ‘‘The camera is just as capable of lying as the typewriter.’’
So what’s the second option? As a very small faction has suggested, the picture can be contextualised and used as a call to awareness and action for those who are concerned about the maintenance of democracy. ‘If we don’t speak up now or ensure justice for the killers, this will happen with increasing frequency all over the country.’
The second is harder to stomach, harder to explain, infinitely harder to communicate. And yet, it is the only acceptable way to consume such an image.
It is not an unprecedented approach either. When 14-year-old Emmett Till was lynched and thrown in a river for allegedly whistling at a white woman in a grocery store, his mother decided to go with an open casket at Till’s funeral. Thousands saw his mutilated and bloated corpse in person, several more saw pictures of it as they proliferated across newspapers in the US. In the US of the 1950s, the picture displayed the brutality of race relations in the country, it was an indictment not only of Till’s killers but a state and society that could allow such a thing to happen in the first place and then let the killers escape.
Others like Teju Cole have argued for the sharing of more violent pictures, not fewer. Discussing the violence visited upon US soldiers in war zones, he wrote, “We ought to see what actually happens to American bodies in situations of war or mass violence… We must not turn away from what that kind of suffering looks like when visited on ‘‘us.’’’
Pictures of the kind Cole is talking about de-romanticise war, they show that its cost is borne by both the “right” and the “wrong” sides. Cole’s idea raises questions about how we view violence and those who show the results of violence. We are primed to see those deceased by bullets as the vanquished bad guys; usually it is not palatable or desirable for the nation’s purposes to show its own soldiers or leaders in such a condition. Consider for a moment the fact that the media usually desists from airing pictures of the violence-hit bodies of beloved leaders – it is too costly for us to see the seemingly strong, protective figures of society vulnerable in such ways. Such a picture is dangerous because it reminds viewers of their own mortality and also the weakness of the political system. But exposing these very vulnerabilities on the ‘other’ side strengthens the idea of an unvanquishable ‘us’. The truth is murkier, both sides suffer the effects of violence.
Pictures of Lankesh’s body are evocative in entirely different ways for those who believe in the liberal values they shared with her and those who characterised her as anti-national. The former are likely devastated, the latter are given more confirmation of ‘right’ versus ‘wrong’.
The context with which such photographs are shared have immense power. They have the power to evoke righteous outrage at the killers, at the state for running things in a way that something like this could happen. But they also have the power of feeding into the currently prevalent narrative of ‘Left = Bad’.
It is too late for Lankesh to claim agency over her own narrative, but she is survived by loved ones who might have had something to say about the use of these pictures. But now that they’re out, there’s no turning back, people will stumble upon them for years to come, for however long the internet lasts. The least we can do is take these pictures to represent the effects of a sick state and society and if we must share them, share them with words that contextualise the violence visible on the body, and emphasise that this is not the sum of the person Lankesh was and the life she lived.
Nehmat Kaur is a culture writer based in New Delhi. She writes a weekly column for The Wire called Name-Place-Animal-Thing and tweets @nehmatks.