The Danger of a Single Story
Recently Reuter’s photographer Andrew Biraj’s photo story titled “30 Tragic and Beautiful photos of Teenage Prostitutes of Bangladesh” generated much debate in Dhaka’s blogosphere. Assumably Biraj’s unspoken claim is that these images has the potential to mobilize popular sentiment, create social space for collective action to end child prostitution. Some bloggers found Biraj’s visual account as too intrusive, as a breach of subject’s privacy. Isn’t it like a form of benevolent voyeurism? Bloggers at কুতকর্ের েদাকান found this critique sort of misguided by the western idea of privacy. When prostitutes are known to sell their privacy how could that be the prime concern? For কুতকর্ের েদাকান, the claimed moral appeal of these photographs is where the problem of such representation lies. These images work as a cultural signifier of doing good. And, there are others who criticized Biraj’s work for ‘aesthetizing exploitation.’
I found the debate thought provoking, but the photographs failed to capture my attention. I thought, haven’t I seen them before? Immediately, photographer Thomas Kelly’s book titled, Fallen Angels came to my mind. There are other examples too. Shehjad Noorani’s much cited photograph of a child prostitute in Old Dhaka is one of them. A prepubescent girl is shown bare-chested, wearing a smile, untidy adult hairstyle, many bangles on her arms, ear rings and a necklace. Behind her small, thin figure looms a man who appears to be her pimp. They all are standing in a dirty, narrow alleyway. About twenty years ago, New York Times published this photo with a caption that reads, “specialists report that children and adolescents around the world are increasingly sought out as prostitutes, in part because customers consider them more likely to be free of the virus that causes AIDS. A young girl stood in a red-light district in Dhaka, Bangladesh.”
I am no visual artists but the uncanny similarities in the visual narrative of Kelly, Biraj and Noorani are quite telling to me. Not just the visual narrative, but the style of caption writing is undeniably similar. Lets have a look at it,
Andrew Biraj writes, “Seventeen-year old prostitute Hashi embraces a Babu, her husband, inside her small room at Kandapara brothel in Tangail, a northeastern city of Bangladesh.”
Thomas Kelly writes, “Sushila, a woman of the Badi caste, entertains a client.”
Shehjad Noorani writes, “A young girl stood in a red-light district in Dhaka, Bangladesh.”
Now, would it be an overstatement, if I say there is a pattern, a type, a stereotype when it comes to representing the teen-age girls in prostitution from the non-West. Irrespective of historical differences between a Nepali, Bangladeshi or Indian teenage prostitute their lives could fit into the same narrative.
These photos are beautiful, tragic but, STEREOTYPICAL as well. As Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has said, “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
Andrew Biraj has a single story: a story of tragedy and exploitation. In this single story, Hashi is denied of feeling anything other than exploited. There is no possibility of recognizing the romance between Hashi and her Babu.
Love stories from the brothel can only be written in footnote.
Love Stories are Only Written in Footnote
It won’t be mistaken to say, advocacy photographs are aimed at eliciting emotional response, generating necessary empathy in order to make a change. Andrew Biraj’s photographs published in Buzzfeed is trying to do the same. Viewers’ (largely, from the West) comment posted in Buzzfeed and Reuters Blog affirms my claim –
Vivpix comments, “Andrew, this is just fantastic, well done. I hope your pictures bring some positive change to Tangail.”
B’yond Bissed comments, “I would love to do both. I have one child, but I would love to adopt children.”
Farah Seydah comments, “I cant look at their eyes, not even in photograph..i cant imagine how much pain they have suffered in their small life and how much is yet to suffer before death?”
As I scroll through the comment section, I wonder why did the set of 30 images failed to generate similar kind of sympathy-affect in Bangladesh as it did to the global audience? Without disputing Biraj’s story of beautiful tragedy, I thought it would be useful to understand photographer’s incessant compulsion to represent girls from Kandapara as nothing but suffering subjects needing to be rescued, protected. And, this rescue operation best be served in the hands of global bourgeoisie who are looking at this photographs with well meaning pity. Clearly, Biraj’s visual account authorizes certain actions of the well-meaning Westerners – helping, adopting, donating, changing the life of the teenage girls in prostitution.
Hay! Khuda! It is not surprising that story of Nazma’s motherhood or Maya’s playful encounter with her Babu remains at the margin of Biraj’s account. When documenting sex-workers lives in Bangladesh, Qurratul-Ain-Tahmina and Shishir Morols’ editorial eyes placed an anonymous sex-worker’s love story with her customer in footnote.
Note: In Narayanganj, we found a true love-story. This man used to frequent the Tanbazar Brothel ever since he was 17 or 18. Initially he would only drink alcohol or smoke marijuana. He got married to a girl of his choice around this time. The next year he had sex with a woman in Tanbazar. Soon he fell in love with one of them. The marriage had not worked almost from the beginning and love he formed with a sex-worker has lasted eleven long years. At the initial period the two had made promises of an ever-lasting relationship at a holy shrine.
Representation of joyous moments or acknowledging any other relationship but of exploitation is a risky business. It may not titillate similar kind of sympathy-affect necessary to visually construct teenage prostitute from Bangladesh as vulnerable subject seeking foreign-aid, or outside help in any other forms. However beautiful the images are, they still preaches for foreign aid, provides an opportunity to its global audience to put at rest its latent guilt brought on by the spectrum of western history from colonialism to corporate greed. In other words, Biraj’s visual account invites its viewer to fall into the savior trope and help perpetuating the paternalistic instinct of the earlier colonizers.
Indeed, love stories from the brothel must be written in footnote.
Can Images of Exploitation be Commodity as well?
In response to Andrew Biraj’s series “30 Beautiful and Tragic Images of Teenage Prostitute,” I cannot help but to ask him a series of questions: Why has he chosen to censor love stories from the brothel? Why does he feel compelled to satisfy his audiences’ savior complex? Why did he chose a narrative that reduces the experience of becoming a mother inside a brothel into one of sexual exploitation? What informs his decisions as an visual artists, and photographer?
In this list of questions, I want to throw in an apparently random but very basic question: Is there an image market that Biraj is producing/creating images for? Can images of exploitation be commodity as well?
These stereotypes are not produced out of no where. A demand and supply curve of such images could easily be engraved in the walls of the brothel. Image of a teenage prostitute in a half-dark room, with a caption describing the horrible terms of condition under which she works is urgent to generate the necessary sympathy for selling newspaper (in this case selling images to Buzzfeed and Reuters or producing images for major photo agencies like Reuters) or increasing the collection of charitable donation.
Sadly, in today’s disordered capitalism images of sufferings are commodity as well. It is time, we talk about the undying biases of commercial interest that influences photographers’ image making practices.
[While writing this fleeting response, I have conceptually drawn from Arthur Kleinman and John Kleinman, “The Appeal of Experience; The Dismay of Images: Cultural Appropriation of Sufferings in Our Times,” in Veena Das, Arthur Kleinman and Margaret Locke (eds.,) Social Suffering, (1997) California: University of California Press.]