“The laundry basket?”
“No, next to it.”
“I don’t see anything next to it.”
“It’s my last shred of dignity. It’s very small.”
― John Green, (The Fault in Our Stars)
I have an aversion to seeing certain pictures on social media. At first, I used to think I could very well be part of a very small faction who thinks along these lines, but speaking to other people, I realized that quite a number of them have a distaste for such media portrayal – the portrayal of our societies abused humans, the victims of violence, homeless persons on the street, the mentally ill, the substance abusers and the misfits.
It’s easy to see why some people cringe in mortification when they see their images flash across TV screens and doing the rounds on social media. People pity them, feel for them, try to help them, even pray for them. But in that frozen moment in time, all they can see is a version of themselves they never wanted to be – unwashed bodies, deranged minds, their faces hidden by knotted dirty hair, yet wholly visible for all to see. Exposed to the world, in all their indignity, helplessness and shame.
Along with the right to have food, clothing, housing, education and safety, a human beings greatest need is the right to have basic human dignity and self-respect. Regrettably, we forget, that despite their misfortunes, these people are HUMAN and like us, are born with the right to freedom and the right to accept your help and still say NO to your very intrusive shutterbug.
Outwardly the circumstances in our lives may be different (for the moment) and for this reason, we find ourselves juxtaposed inversely in the circle of life. But inside, aren’t we all the same? The prince and the pauper – both created in the image and likeness of God?
I ask you and I ask myself – was that photo really necessary? Let’s be honest. Has this thought never crossed our minds when we have seen degrading, humiliating and sometimes downright shocking photos and videos of our fellow human beings?
What gives us, the fortunate, the right to depict them, the unfortunate, in this light and subject them to this subtle exploitation? Is it because we show them sympathy, provide them with food, shelter and the opportunity to make a better life for themselves?
Do we expect their gratitude to a benevolent society, to override their basic rights to human dignity?
The people we choose to help are not mute lifeless subjects, but thinking individuals with their own hopes and dreams. This particular phase in their lives is not their complete life. It may very well be a temporary phase that is caused by trying circumstances. Yes, for some of them, the repercussions could last a lifetime, but that still does not mean that they have lost their self-respect and dignity.
One can arguably claim that a picture can tell a thousand words. It can speak to the world at large about the suffering and pain your subject has gone through and will encourage the public to help them. That is all good. But if the subject in your picture cringes in shame and indignity while looking at it, then your purpose of helping that person becomes self-defeating at its most basic level.
Visual images, including videos, incite strong emotions in the spectator. For eg., all good people feel pity and compassion when they see the photograph or video of a homeless person lying on the road in a pitiable condition or of someone who is mentally disturbed or depressed. So we shoot from all angles, making sure that persons face is visible, then, we make all efforts to find that person’s name and publish that as well. What starts out as a genuine effort to disseminate information, ultimately gives rise to a stripping off, of the basic human dignity and rights of a person.
No one can undermine the fact that most people are instinctively compassionate in the face of suffering. Call it a deep rooted human instinct that keeps the inherent evil in our souls at bay. All around us, we see many kindhearted human beings who give their precious time to uplifting the downtrodden and sick. Many a time, we ourselves are a part and parcel of institutions, associations, NGO’s and ad-hoc groups that are formed to help specific causes.
But, we fail to uphold basic human rights, when we fail to adhere to an invisible code of ethics, while publishing photographs and information of the mentally ill, the disabled, the substance users or of persons who are victims of sudden calamities. We only focus on the end result, which could be to raise awareness or to garner funds to help that cause.
Sometimes a person may permit us to publish a particular photograph without being aware of its far reaching consequences – a reluctant acquiescence that is directly proportional to an expected service from us. But we need to understand that a condemning picture on the news today, may adversely affect that subject or his family later on in life. Every negative action has a damaging ripple effect, there’s no getting around it.
Most human right advocates speak of the ‘Golden Rule.’ Whenever you see a person suffering on the street and in a deplorable condition, and wish to take a photograph, stop and think. If you (or a member of your family) were in the same situation as that person, would you be okay with this photo being published in various media circles? If the answer is no, you probably should not take that photograph.
More recently, professional photographers who focus on street and war photography have come under the scanner of human rights activists, who feel, rightfully so, that there should be an ethical code while portraying suffering victims, especially children.
If you wish to raise awareness about the plight of a person and ask the society at large to contribute, then it is still possible to take a photograph by blurring that persons face; photos taken with the right angle and lighting can convey an effective message without compromising the privacy rights of your subject. Adhere to a strict code of confidentiality and refrain from mentioning names and/or family details. Instead, give your own contact name and address and give out information only to those who are genuine contributors to the cause.
There are so many ways one can help a person without shaming that person or making him or her feel small. I remember a family who had lost the sole breadwinner in a sudden road accident. A local hometown association – with all good intentions, no doubt – decided to donate a substantial amount of money to help the family. Instead of quietly helping the family, the organizers invited them (the wife and children) up on the stage in a specially organized function and handed over the cheque in front of an audience. Amidst the flashbulbs and publicized snapshots, the humiliation of that family was visible for all to see. In a matter of days, it was not just the left hand that knew what the right hand had done, it was practically the whole community. Somewhere in the whole helping process, the organizers disregarded the fact that they had violated the dignity of human beings who were down on their luck.
Then there is the insensitive way in which we splash the photos of accident victims on social media, without a moment’s thought to the families of those victims. I fail to understand what (if any) is the whole purpose of this exercise. All it does is provide shock value to a peripheral audience. The same goes for funeral photos of dead people lying in their coffins, many times with close up shots of the face in repose. Sure, this person may have been well known when alive, all the more reason he/she might prefer to have a picture of himself/herself in happier times.
The distinctive identity of a human being lingers on even after death, especially in the memories of their loved ones.
It is this unique identity that, without question, deserves respect from the living.
December 10th is Human Rights Day all over the world. Let’s not forget to be human.