I’m crouched down on the edge of a North Kolkata slum, camera in hand, focusing the lens and making tiny adjustments to capture one of those little compositions of light and shape that just jumps out at you: water dripping on broken ceramic shards, rusting spokes of a bicycle tire edging in on the frame, splashes of faded red advertising paint on a cracked concrete wall.
What calloused hands held those pottery shards when they were whole, I wonder? What conversations, words, silences, passed between friends and neighbors over a cup of 3 rupee cha. Daily routine, it seems, is very important in Bengali culture. That tea is an affordable luxury, and the routines of old men sitting on cracked brick stoops and watching life go by is a moment of stability, rest, friendship and familiarity in the bustling city life.
The stories in the shards, the brick and the bike spokes are passing through my mind as I aim the camera. Then, just before I snap the photo, I hear the screech of tires behind me and a voice yelling in heavily accented English. “You must stop! What you are doing is very bad! You are taking pictures of bad things! You must take pictures only of good things!”
The speaker is an angry-looking Sikh, bearded and turbaned, eyes flashing and finger wagging furiously in the air from the safety of his car.
“What’s the problem brother?” I manage in Bangla, transitioning from confused to confrontational as I take stock of the situation.
The man yells and finger wags for a few moments more, until the surge of cars and auto-rickshaws and motorcycles blocked behind him builds up to a critical mass of loud horns and peer pressure and he finally moves on.
Its not the first time I’ve run across resistance to cameras or stories here. There’s definitely a sensitivity in India to how they are portrayed abroad. India is, perhaps understandably, tired of the world seeing primarily the bad things: the poverty of the slums, the inefficiencies, the injustice, and the ugliness. But in my mind, I wasn’t capturing a moment of something embarrassing, but something fascinating and full of story. Yet all this man saw in a snap judgment was a white man with a camera in a slum, exploiting and exposing something that embarrassed him and his country.
I’ve had my convictions on the how and why of storytelling challenged a great deal in the last month. India, and perhaps the justice community in Sonagachi in particular, has a way of doing that.
“We try to never take pictures of the women in a situation that we ourselves wouldn’t want to be photographed in,” said one expat, who has experience working with the women of Sonagachi for years. And that can go furthers with the different rules that people set for themselves and others: No pictures with the women’s faces, change all the names, don’t take pictures or video at all, only tell stories with hope, broadcasting suffering is re-exploitation…. Most of it makes a lot of sense and is grounded in relationship-driven sensitivity to all that these women have gone through. Some of it seems extremely limiting in harnessing the the power of stories to fight for the dignity of these women. Can it be both?
Phil Kaye, in his Ted Talk “Why do we Tell Stories?” says:
“We like to think that we can plot our lives out, but there’s this big, deep unknowing out there, this deep chance. And I think maybe subconsciously that makes us feel vulnerable. It’s scary. And in the face of that great vulnerability, that’s where that impulse to tell stories comes from…. Story lets us carve our initials into the wet cement of this moment.”
To write is, in one sense, to attempt to put a clear, linear narrative to a world that is far from clear and far from linear. To make sense of that “deep unknowing,” as Kaye put it.
As a writer in the non-profit sector, writing for me often functions as my means of making sense of a senseless world and bolstering up my attempts at understanding foreign cultures or complex or difficult situations with bulwarks of nouns and verbs. But I’ve also worked with the conviction that storytelling is more than just an alleviation of personal uncertainty, more than just some kind of creative outlet therapy for a big, scary world. Words can be powerful. Words can compel and move and change with their stories, their perspectives, the architecture of their construction and the music of their sound. To tell the story of a person forgotten or marginalized by the world in their poverty or oppression is to acknowledge their existence as individual created in the image of God. To declare that they and their story are worth being witnessed. To carve their initials into the wet pavement of the moment for a world that forgets and wants to look away.
But sometimes forgotten people want to be forgotten. Sometimes invisible people want to stay invisible and the voiceless don’t want to be heard. Maybe its shame, maybe just a desire for privacy. Telling someone else’s story is a deal with someone else’s vulnerability. It’s a privilege to tell those stories, and people have a right not to have have their story told as much as they do to have their story told.
How do I expose a largely oblivious western audience to the injustices I see here in the Gach, while preserving the dignity and privacy of the individuals being exploited? How do I use words as a weapon to fight the oppressor, while simultaneously loving and respecting the oppressed? How do I balance showing true hope with showing the equally true gritty and hard realities of this world?
These are questions I expect to have to continue working through, not to suddenly develop all-sufficient answers for. Stories have power. That’s not disputed, or the issue. The dilemma is how to wisely handle the enormous responsibility that comes with the power of stories.
Stories belong to people, and stories, like people, must be handled with care.
As my role here in India takes shape, I’m focusing in on working with the Team blog rather than my own personal blog (though I’ll still be writing here). In any case, check out the Love God Love Neighbor Blog and you’ll be able to read some really great blog posts from all my teammates.