In 2019, a young Bollywood actress — Sara Ali Khan — made her magazine cover debut with Filmfare in a shoot that took place in the picturesque Masai Mara National Reserve. In the photo spread inside, the actor is seen donning a yellow dress and in the background, as props, are the natives of this reserve, the Masai tribesmen. Dressed in their traditional attire, the Shuka, and beaded jewelry, the tribesmen flank the actress in the images.
This enraged many who called out the actor and the magazine for blatant racism and tone deafness. The backlash died down after a few days and the actor and the magazine carried on as per business as usual, despite no acknowledgement or apology from any of them. Unfortunately, this seems to be a recurring trend in South Asia. In 2018, a Pakistani clothing brand made headlines when they also used Masai tribesmen as props or decorations for their models during a shoot.
Closer to home, influencers and brands like Babbu The Painter and Shoppers Stop have been called out for using marginalized, darker-skinned Indians as background props for fair-skinned models to pose in front of.
You’d think people would learn by now? Nope. Last week, a social media influencer, with nearly one million followers, posted photos of herself with marginalized people once again relegated to the backdrop. This comes just a month after influencers were called out for mocking their domestic workers in the name of content.
In these photos, the influencer is seen wearing a ₹10,000 sari while the people behind her are dressed in torn or weathered clothes. People took to the internet to question if the men and women used as props for her content were compensated. There has been no response from the influencer.
However, those in her defense claim that the images were made with the consent of the marginalized who were featured. But consent — especially in photography — can be tricky.
“Have you seen any ‘documentary photographer’ walk into a mall and take photos of rich people?” Amirtharaj Stephen, my earliest photo mentor, asked me many years ago.
There is a clear class and caste divide that exists in India. It shows in the clothes we wear, the language we speak, the food we eat, the attention we command and many other ways. This divide constantly reinforces the self-proclaimed superiority of the “upper” castes and classes, which comes at the cost of everyday humiliation and subordination of oppressed folks in the country.
Even in instances where consent is asked for, there is a power dynamic at play.
The concept of agency and consent exist only in the echo chambers of the privileged who don’t extend these same courtesies to the people they use to decorate their shoots. Even in instances where consent is asked for, there is a power dynamic at play and saying “no” to someone who is socially regarded to be “better” or “higher” than you is not always viable. In the rare instances where people have denied participation — like in the iconic Afghan girl image — they have been compelled to cooperate. In such a reality, compensation for those exploited seems like a far-fetched idea.
But while people argue for dignity and fair treatment of the marginalized, many from the photography community have different questions. Can there be no images with people in the background? Can there be no photographs of people from different walks of life in the same frame? Here photographer Joey Lawrence’s 2019 work for Kerala Tourism serves as a good example.
Each image is a group shot highlighting a different aspect of Kerala’s environment and its people — the locals take precedence while tourists are blurred into the backdrops. Accompanying the tourists in the backdrop are local musicians, fishermen and others going about their lives, each member accorded the dignity they deserve.
It is often argued that photography doesn’t discriminate. It captures what the lens shows, irrespective of who is occupying the frame. But the problem with photography — much like technology — is never with the device or the software. It is with the people using them. A camera is ultimately only a tool that shows others how we look at the world. If the result of that is rightly criticized, it’s not the camera that needs to change, but the people behind it.