Steve McCurry is a photography powerhouse and icon for many around the world, and it’s easy to understand why. His volume of photographs called ‘India’, a compilation of images made between 1978 and 2014, holds between its pages a kind of old-world, rustic charm and while it gained tremendous praise and sold multiple copies it also drew a lot of criticism, some of it much deserved. It’s not to say that McCurry isn’t an incredibly talented photographer, but his imperialist vision of India, of a bygone era has gotten a bit tedious. Snakes, steaming trains and moustachioed men are a part of India, sure, but when you have an anthology of images over a period of time, with just that representation it becomes an erasure of the country’s contemporary reality. When you are from this developing nation that is the muse of the series, it’s hard not to get annoyed by his stereotypical, cliched, Slumdog Millionaire-depiction of the country that easily caters to a Western audience of what India looks like, or should look like.
It’s easy to photograph a place as diverse in its cultures, traditions, practices, people and histories as India in such a manner to gain popularity when all the place is/has been known for is this exoticism and romanticising of its (troubled) past. We find ourselves handed ‘poverty porn’ yet again in Alessio Mamo’s takeover of World Press Photo Foundation’s (WPF) Instagram account, where he, an Italian freelance photographer, shared images from his series titled ‘Dreaming Food’.
Poverty is not an aesthetic – poor people are not props. Breaking the series down in Mamo’s own words, it’s a conceptual project that he undertook about India’s hunger crisis, shooting in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar which he cites as two of the poorest states in the country, after reading statistics of food wastage in the West. “I brought with me a table and some fake food, and I told people to dream about some food that they would like to find on their table,” Mamo wrote on the WPF account.
After shaking my head and muttering under my breath, I read through the understandable and relatable outrage that this series has led to on social media – anger towards Mamo himself as well as WPF. What we’re presented with in high resolution are photographs in ‘rural settings’ (thatched roofs, poor living quarters, heaps of garbage, and of course, some wandering cattle) of malnourished, some half-clothed, people from low-income families (as it is projected) seated at a table with fancy, fake food.
Highlighting food wastage of the West by using the ‘sad, unfortunate, starving poor people of third world countries’ is unethical, exploitative, crude, eye-catching for all the wrong reasons, and just simply, plain wrong. This is exactly what people, including photojournalists, are calling out Mamo and WPF for since the post went live.
This is as much photojournalism as Vogue India’s August 2008 photo-shoot was high fashion. It reminds me of the age-old debate on ethics in photography/photojournalism and human intervention in the situations of conflict and distress that you are trying to capture. To be effective is to gain sensitivity and an understanding of local cultures, traditions and situations, without which what you’re trying to photograph, display, showcase, whatever you call it, with all good intentions can be lost. Mamo’s series shows a very narrow understanding of his subject.
I can bring myself to understand Mamo’s thought – a reality check about food, hunger, poverty and waste, but as an artistic concept and execution, it’s a half-baked shoot. It creates an absurd, staged and shallow presentation instead of shedding light on a sensitive and ongoing issue that does plague many people around the world. Its execution went so terribly wrong and created more of a mockery of anything possibly well-intended.
Forget the message and thought – if we look at it as ‘just art’ it’s still just... not good. As Debmalya Ray Choudhuri wrote, “I could talk on that too every element at a time: the fake food in the foreground which is not the daily food of the country or society, misguiding texts to sway perception on the images, the use of flash to separate people into layers in the images which takes them out of their place, as if like dummies and puppets at the hands of a ‘concerned’ photographer, and the vain effort to seek ‘universality’ in a ‘theme’ and on and on, the use of covered faces hiding identities meaning there is only a single authorship and dehumanizing ‘subjects’ a bit further.”
This cannot be considered as photojournalism or even conceptual art when it exploits people that may actually be in need. While the food may be fake (scoff) in the shoot, the people are not. These aren’t models embodying some characters, and ‘Dreaming Food’ is not something that should be validated by remaining on the WPF Instagram account that has 942k followers, admirers and impressionable viewers – more so when there is so much more enthralling content being created by numerous artists, photographers and photojournalists that deserve the platform and recognition.
Mamo defended some of the critiques on his own post, and as Scroll.in reported, he “clarified that the photos were not shot with the involvement of World Press Photo but with a local humanitarian organisation. To a flood of questions on whether the people in his photos had been fed at some point during the shoot, he said, ‘...All the people from the villages where we went had their food obviously. Actually, after we explained to them the idea they wanted to be photographed and be part of the project.’
In another response, he said, ‘My intention was exactly to represent in a stereotyped way these Indian landscape in order to reinforce the concept. This was the idea behind, maybe I did it wrong, or maybe just you don’t like or you think it’s unethical, but the concept was to problematize food waste in front of the hunger in this area of the world.’” WPF released a statement, (well, if you can call it that) following the backlash, in which they basically denied accountability, putting the responsibility on the photographers doing the Instagram takeover to monitor and publish their own content as per WPF guidelines that they are provided.
This is not to say that there aren’t people from outside India (or any other developing and developed nation) who regardless of ethnicity and race are genuinely working with the local community to improve circumstances and further development. Mamo’s series in a way negates their work, and the work of many on-ground local groups, NGOs, advocates and activists that work tirelessly to alleviate people from such situations.
Honestly, this isn’t the first time we’re having to deal with a colonial, white gaze/lens of a third-world and developing nation and it won’t be the last. The White Saviour Complex truly is tiring to have to deal with, while many still question why we even have a problem (see comment section here) with ‘white and/or rich people’ wanting to help ‘us’ in the first place. We don’t need a Saviour Barbie – white people’s need and/or desire to ‘fix’ the problems of the ‘poor and helpless’ people of colour without consideration of their history, functioning and needs is how we got colonised in the first place, right?
WPF has kept the series up on Instagram in the midst of the ongoing debate – you aren’t a Kardashian/Jenner honey, the ‘thrive in controversy’ tactic isn’t going to get you social media followers – despite ‘Dreaming Food’ being pretty damn tone-deaf. Well, at least leaving it up continues the conversation, it doesn’t let any of us forget by disappearing into the abyss that is the internet. It really doesn’t matter that the people agreed to be photographed, this is not a matter of consent. It’s a lazy and unethical approach to telling a visual story. There’s fame and popularity to be gained from personal achievements and talent, and then there is sensationalism and notoriety through cherrypicking and erasure. With this, Mamo seems to have gained the latter.
To crassly paraphrase Teju Cole’s words, we need more Raghubir Singh and less ‘Hymn for the Weekend’.
“Art is always difficult, but it is especially difficult when it comes to telling other people’s stories. And it is ferociously difficult when those others are tangled up in your history and you are tangled up in theirs. What honors those we look at, those whose stories we try to tell, is work that acknowledges their complex sense of their own reality. Good photography, regardless of its style, is always emotionally generous in this way. For this reason, it outlives the moment that occasions it. Weaker photography delivers a quick message — sweetness, pathos, humor — but fails to do more. But more is what we are.” – Teju Cole (read his piece here).
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