The Creation of a Dignified Image

Can photographing an unacceptable practice like manual scavenging help end it?

In these pages, we have seen some of the most horrific images of human indignity: manual scavenging. We have also argued a case for a ‘discourse of disgust’ that is essential if we are to see and understand what we do, or allow to happen, to other humans.

Why should these images of humans immersed in sewage and human waste be taken seriously enough for us to condemn the practice? Beyond the obvious point that nobody ought to be, by virtue of birth, condemned to a job like this, can we say something more?

The images of manual scavenging disturb us because they are contrary, like the images of war-time injured, the tortured or the murdered, to the commonly accepted image of the human form. Viewing these images, one acknowledges that the person in the image has been denied basic human dignity.

If the viewer is residing in a context completely different from that of the manual scavengers, we do not know, with any degree of certainty, the nature of their lives. But this absence of knowledge does not mean one cannot acknowledge their plight. The philosopher Stanley Cavell helps us see the distinction here very clearly:

A “failure to know” might just mean a piece of ignorance, an absence of something, a blank. A “failure to acknowledge” is the presence of something, a confusion, an indifference, a callousness, an exhaustion, a coldness.

Along the lines of media critics who have argued a case for ‘distant suffering’, we understand from Cavell that a knowledge of the ‘other’ is not central to an acknowledgement of the ‘other’s’ pain, happiness or suffering. To acknowledge is to admit the moral claim the ‘other’ has upon us, irrespective of the ‘other’s’ unknowability.

Also read: In the Face of Digital India, It’s Time for a Public Disgust Discourse

These images are of people unlike us because the hierarchy of caste, class or both has condemned them, without a choice, to this profession. Our lack of knowledge of them cannot, however, prevent us from saying: ‘they must be suffering terribly, and these practices should not exist’.

The photograph is not a social document alone, it is a place where we meet people unlike us. That is, we can see these horrific pictures as a site where we encounter the stranger, the foreigner, the outsider. In the square frame of the photo-as-place that we enter, we meet this other person, whom we acknowledge. This means we see the photo frame as a window through which we enter this other world that is otherwise far removed from our own.

What of the person in the photograph?

One way of thinking about and perceiving the face of the miserable scavenger is to see it as the face of a person denied personhood. When we view this image of the traumatised, covered-in-filth human, we need to see this: this is the face of somebody denied basic human rights.

The 2004 torture photographs from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay showed us what a human reduced by pain and fear becomes – something unrecognisable as a human. In a similar fashion, the images that appear regularly in these pages show us the faces of those excluded from the mark of the human.

The visual theorist Sharon Sliwinski argues that human beings have the ‘right to a dignified image’. Examining the photographs of Frederick Douglass, the African-American activist who was once a slave, Sliwinski says in her book The Right to an Image (2018): “what we fight for when fight for human rights is, in part, the right to a dignified image”.

Sliwinski, of course does not quite deal with the apparatuses, including the camera but also the factors of cultural production (photography studios, print media in which the photographs get printed, to name just two) that Douglass negotiated – although she does note that he tried very hard to have his best possible portrait appear on the cover of his book. But for all that, she is alert to the link between the dignified image, rights and the social field.

The photographs of these ‘wretched of the earth’ are part of the social imaginary now. This imaginary shows us how, for many, there is no right to the dignified image or any image at all. Hence the staged photographs by Sudhakar Olwe are crucial, for they bestow upon the people denied all rights, a personhood in the form of a dignified image.

Olwe’s work reminds one of Francesca Moore in her exhibition titled ‘Bhopal: Facing 30’, published by the Arts Council of England (2014). This is a collection of family photographs, taken in studios, of the Bhopal tragedy survivors and their families. The aim, writes Moore in her prefatory comments to the volume, was to “reference the traditional Indian studio portraits usually acquired by higher castes . . . [that] demonstrates wealth, accomplishment, and a sense of achievement”.

Also read: Should We? The Ethics of Publishing Graphic but Newsworthy Photos Is Not Straightforward

The Bhopal survivors, she believes could now, ‘register their own dignity, values and resilience through the medium of the family portrait’. She continues: ‘I photographed the families with the belief that they are as good as anyone else’ (13). While Olwe’s images often show us the scavenger’s tools of their ‘trade’, they tell us that these, here, are persons in their own right. When Olwe, like Moore, furnishes a dignified image of the scavenger, he does so as a minimal compensation for a dignity they otherwise lack, or more accurately, denied, by virtue of their caste and social position.

The work of photographers like Moore, Olwe, following in the line of Kevin Carter, Robert Capa and James Nachtwey, are key instruments in reinvigorating a social imaginary troubled by ‘compassion fatigue’ (Susan Moeller’s apposite term). Nachtwey declared about his own work: “I have been a witness, and these pictures are my testimony. The events  I have recorded must not be forgotten, and must not be repeated.”

Olwe’s is more or less the same unvoiced statement, one can say. Olwe’s work, like that of the rest listed here, is also central to the making of a social imaginary that could then call for action that would end unacceptable practices such as manual scavenging.

Pramod K. Nayar teaches at the University of Hyderabad.

#Grit is an initiative of The Wire dedicated to the coverage of manual scavenging and sanitation and their linkages with caste, gender, policy and apathy. The Manual Scavenging Project is the first in a series of deep dive editorial projects.