UPDATE: The photographer has been "outed" as having photoshopped one of his pictures, lifting a person from a well-known photo essay on Indian prostitutes from the 1970s and pasting that person into one of his pictures, around 2014. At this point, I am thinking about what that means. I will probably write more on it later, but it's not likely to affect my positions on Ethics or Media, although it inevitably will color how I feel about Souvid Datta and his work.
The work I'm going to talk about appears here. It's not easy work to look at, but it has a sort of weird beauty to it, and I think it's quite well done. There's a nice balance of text and pictures, working together to paint a more or less complete picture.
That said, I am not from Kolkata, I have never even visited India, and much of what I am looking at certainly escapes me.
What is clear is that the situation is terrible, that Datta is vigorously opposed to it and seeks to change it, and that he has gained somewhat remarkable access to show us what is there. While everyone "knows" that there's a terrible global problem with child trafficking, usually for the purposes of sex, it's quite another thing to have specific locations, names, people, faces confronting us. It's not just vaguely distant problems any more.
The pictures are weirdly lovely. There's what has to be a conscious Steve McCurry look to them, but it's sure as hell not McCurry's India. We see a man holding the cleaver he uses to kill people. We see prostitutes of all ages, bonding together, sharing joy, anger, and anguish with one another because there is nobody else to share it with. We see the community, we sense the uneasy (terrible? bad? but more complicated than that) relationship between the girls (the slaves) and their environment. On the one hand, they are slaves. On the other, this is home, this is their life.
In one photograph, a transvestite is described as auditioning. What that means, I do not pretend to know, but it suggests a degree of agency.
I don't pretend to understand the depths of it all, but I do know that it's nothing like the American conception of slavery. It's not just vicious overseers, and always the possibility of escape to the north. In reality, there may be no escape, there may not be a situation for these women which is both conceivable and better. In reality, their captors are not faceless thugs with infinite authority (although we do not see their faces, the women obviously do). The relationship is something I cannot understand, but it's not merely jailor/prisoner.
The women are slaves, captives, but they are ensnared by more than simple force of arms. The preamble text Datta provides suggests/confirms my own guess that all of society conspires to keep them in bondage.
Escape is evidently possible, Datta's primary subject is apparently out of the system. Still, the women depicted come in all ages, which suggests that not everyone escapes
This is literally what photography does. If Datta followed the de-fanging guidelines of the global press, and the global aid organizations, and so on, we wouldn't see this. We'd be left with more vague "oh my, how awful" and then we could move on.
It is notable to me that the recent critic of Datta's work, Benjamin Chesterton, is a white guy. Representing a company composed of four white guys. A company with the actual mission of teaching people to produce media content that meets the various guidelines imposed by other white, western, people. Reading the UNICEF guidelines, I am struck by how embedded the various western ideas are in it. Baked into the whole mess is the assumption that there are, somewhere, responsible adults around who care and can provide guidance. Baked in is the idea that there's a strict line between Children and Adults. Etcetera.
The reality shown in Datta's pictures seems to, in no way, map on to UNICEF's guidelines. Nothing except the broadest "try not to get anyone killed" ideas seem to translate.
Chesterton has cited the work of groups (presumably more white people, or if genuinely multi-ethnic then led and funded by white people) who are working away on these problems. Datta's point is that these well-meaning foreigners are not making a dent in Sonagachi. As one would expect, to be quite blunt. Organizations founded and funded to solve a problem almost invariably drift toward perpetuating the problem rather than solving it.
We have in our hand, in fact, a nice sample of how the drift occurs. One of the kinds of things organizations like UNICEF do is write guidelines like UNICEF's. By setting up a reasonable sounding standards, informed by the affluent and basically safe west, we end up with standards that produce journalism without teeth. Vague, distant, journalism, that keeps the funding flowing, but doesn't say unpleasant things like UNICEF isn't doing a goddamned thing to help child prostitutes in Sonagachi and doesn't demand action in specific places, to change specific things. Keep it vague and distant, and let the affluent white people in their London offices decide how to allocate the funds, thank you for your donation.
This is not to suggest that UNICEF et al are evil schemers. Certainly not. Every single person involved in drafting those standards for media was a good-hearted soul, trying to do their best for the kids. But the result was shitty, gutless, journalism. Chesterton's firm will, for a fee, teach you how to produce that kind of work. No wonder Chesterton has beef with Datta.
These people are all doing their committee-driven best to help the kids. One result is shitty, toothless journalism. Another result is a nice little add-on industry so that people like Chesterton can make a living teaching people how to make shitty, toothless, journalism. These are just side effects, but who's complaining? It's good for everyone! Well, it's not so great for the now conveniently faceless, nameless, kids in Kolkata. But you can't have everything.
Datta is the bull in the china shop, demanding specific action and revealing that the westerners and their standards are, well, at best not particularly useful. Of course the western establishment dislikes him. Being careful, I will not ascribe this to Datta as a specific intent, but it's certainly a reading of his work.
I have to admire Chesterton's hubris, though. A white British guy who wants to dictate to an Indian guy how he ought to deal with an Indian problem in India. There was a whole thing about that, you know. But some of the British just won't let go.