Two shots by Souvid Datta have shaken modern-day photojournalism to its foundations - and rightly so.
A young and celebrated photojournalist, Datta has been stripped of several awards and grants and a reputation after it was revealed that he plagiarised from the work of acclaimed photographer Mary Ellen Mark to enhance an image he shot for a photo project on the sex workers of Sonagachi, a red-light district in Kolkata. But more damning is the other photo Datta shot, one he didn't plagiarise: of a 16-year-old trafficked, sex worker engaged in intercourse with a client, unmistakably a frozen frame of child rape.
A frozen frame of child rape was used by photoagency Magnum and magazine Lensculture to promote a photography competition. PC: Petapixel.com
Datta and his fraternity's ethics in shooting and promoting the image have evoked biting criticism, nothing more. But more dangerously, what motivates the singular narrative of the sex worker - the way of seeing - and why it was so readily accepted and lauded is lost in the din.
If anything, in all its violence, the image is photographic proof of how we have come to romanticise a generic frame of the sex worker's life rather than capturing her everyday witness: the lifecycle of a fellow human whose body is most prone to abuse and disease, the denial of healthcare perpetuating a stigma and the utter lack of support groups and counsel.
India is home to more than 10 million sex workers, and a staggering 30 per cent trafficked into the trade are minors. And Datta is not alone in his vantage of showing how clients "treat" a child sex worker.
About the manner in which he shot the girl, Datta had this to say in a Facebook post*:
"But in the end, regardless of my views on those issues what I fundamentally realised was that this was Beauty's story to tell above all, not mine. And for Beauty, a woman who had suffered years of being robbed autonomy and self-expression as a child, this was without doubt a brave move to take control of her own narrative, to express her own vision of her story. She asked me to photograph this interaction - fully aware of my intention to publish this story widely in an attempt to create constructive awareness. This proved to be a collaboration that in her eyes best showed what she deemed a crucially important aspect of her daily reality and story."
It is beyond Datta, like so many other narrators pandering to a popular, normalised narrative of the sex worker that a child being raped - photographed in a tinted frame, with the sharp use of colour and subtle filters, and her blank eyes facing the camera - draws shock, not empathy.
No matter how ghastly the image, the child sex worker is reduced to being a subject, a vacuous stereotype. This muse treatment of sex workers isn't new to photography or writing that focuses on them - it is a subconscious idea we accept and peddle. Repeatedly.
From detailing faces dabbed with talcum powder to the deliberate highlighting of their "interaction" with clients to sex workers posing with smoke swirling in the background, little has changed between Mary Ellen's Falkland Road series and Datta's project on Sonagachi, and in our notions of what makes a "powerful" photograph, let alone the representations of sex workers on celluloid.
What such photographs and stories about sex workers miss are individuals who live with or face an immediate risk of contracting Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) including AIDS, their exploitation by the police, their substance abuse, their visit to doctors or even the schools their children go to.
Given, all nature of photography does not have to be investigative or advocate human rights. But when a photo project aided by grants claims to document sexual violence within the chambers of a brothel, where is the vision to document the nuances of the reality - an ecosystem and industry that thrives on rape?
When notable agencies reward such vision and encourage others to follow suit, they do so because they are wont to telling a single story, restricted by the frame of their minds and not their lens.
The peril of building such a narrative is best explained in the words of Nigerian feminist author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie:
"The single story creates stereotype and the problem with stereotype is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete, they make one story become the only story... The consequence of the single story is that it robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult and it emphasises that we are different rather than how we are similar."
To believe Datta's case is isolated is to absolve ourselves of the practice of propagating this stereotype - not very different from the squalor tourism a part of the world has come to associate India with.
If the intent is to make a difference to sex workers, several among them trafficked and denied their agency, it cannot end without an authentic narrative of every aspect of their challenges.
With both his photographs, Datta, like many among us, plagiarised a context he knew sat well with us voyeurs.
In the end, it's not his lens, it is our culture.
(*The post has been deleted following the controversy.)
Also read: Shameful, photojournalist Souvid Datta plagiarised an iconic image of a 70's Mumbai brothel