The weight of the story

A friend asked me to speak at the Kavithé Collective‘s Storytelling Night event last month, reflecting on what I’d learned in the few years I’ve been working in storytelling. Prior to the event, we talked at length about ethics in journalism, white ‘parachute’ journalists, and the disregard shown to brown bodies in pain. My ‘talk’ for the event is what came of that conversation, and took on questions I’ve asked myself while working over the last few years, and the last one in particular. This is not a guide or list of demands on how photo/journalists should do their jobs, and is solely my experiences and reflections.

The paragraphs marked with an * were not in the original talk, and there’s a small P.S too.


 

I want to share some experiences and thoughts I’ve had during last four years spent documenting and reporting on human rights issues, and the things it has taught me about people and the way it has changed how I see and do storytelling.

There are people I’ve met, and stories I’ve heard, that move me mostly because of the fact that I haven’t heard them before. If it’s about an issue that’s been affecting many, many people living in this country, I’d be upset that I haven’t heard of it sooner.

For example, the reality that lurks behind our picturesque and supposedly ‘world-class’ tea industry. I was working on communications for a civil society organisation and accompanying researchers undertaking discussions with groups of Malaiyaha (up-country) Tamils who live and work in Sri Lanka’s tea estates. It was the first time I was exposed to discussions on the issues they face, at that depth.

Rows of children walking in the cold air along the winding mountain path, to a school six kilometres away, because there was no bus or school bus on that route to take them daily. Pregnant women having to travel upto 40 kilometres from the line rooms to the hospital in the main town to give birth, because the estate hospital was not in use. Deepening cracks down the walls and floor of a small house, from years of landslides.

And it floored me because it was so far outside of public discourse and consciousness, not counting activist networks who are deeply invested in the matter. Now, I can’t tell people to care about issues just because I do. It is emotional labour we can’t demand of people, because those of us in these spaces know it takes a lot out of you. I can’t tell people to get on the street for every issue, because not everyone can for physical and other reasons. What I can ask, I suppose, is that people make themselves aware, at the very least. That is one of the reasons that keeps me doing this I suppose, whether it is talking to people to recount their true experiences, or digging up information that counters the dominant narrative we see in the media, or what we learned from our history books in school. To let people know that things aren’t always what we see, and what we’ve been taught to know.

Most people’s reactions to hearing these was that they had no idea this was still happening, or in some cases, happening at all. Some were disinterested, and unwilling to look beyond the fact that tea brings us export and tourism money to interrogate the treatment and portrayal of the people without whom it would not be possible.

There’s a reason for that, why most people are either incensed or apathetic when you raised the day to day struggles of the people who are the first step of the process, and that is partly because their stories have been artfully and intentionally hidden from mainstream view for decades. Their long hours and manual labour are written off as ‘expert practices’, reduced to smiling, colourfully-dressed specimens in tourist brochures, bringing in money to the country – they are useful to us, so fair pay and meaningful equality are discussions we aren’t willing to broach, when we’ve viewed this as the norm for so long.

There is a sense of resistance from people to accepting these uncomfortable narratives. It would mean accepting the dissonance between the images the readily consume, and the brutal realities that exist. The smiling workers, and the way they are exploited. The shiny new buildings on the skyline, and the number of people whose houses were demolished so that this new Colombo could be built. The stunning, ‘untouched’ landscapes of the North, and its residents who are yet to see justice for decades of violence against them.

It made me think about the way we represent people, and people groups, in our narratives, be they our Instagrams or our long-form photo essays.

Are we doing right by the people we photograph when we represent them in a hurried or exoticised manner?

Think about the way people’s experiences and struggles are portrayed by the media. There are tears and broken limbs, there are plaintive looks and dark tones. We always assume that we need to see people at their absolute worst in order to feel some tinge of empathy for them, they’re not worth caring for unless we can view in graphic detail the extent of their suffering.

Photographers keep taking these photographs because people essentially keep demanding visuals of this nature. There are hardly ever condemnations of these photos, instead they get passed off as either emotive, or the status quo.

The camera, and that relationship of reporter and subject, shifts the dynamic between two people, even if you are from the same country, and have the same skin colour, or speak the same language. I guess from a long history of reporters coming in to document either violence or poverty here, it sets the tone – one person wields the power, and the other is just a subject.

Where does the agency of the person in the photo fit into this?

What say does the woman working on the tea estate have when we take her photo without her consent, and use it to frame our own idealistic view of our situation? When we focus on her bright smile and colourful saree, and say nothing of the struggles her community faces daily? When we talk about how brightly-painted her home is, despite the near 100-year old structure practically falling apart, with no space for her whole family that lives in it.

Most journalists will say they asked the person’s consent to photograph them, and they said yes. But what is this consent for actually, are you explaining to the person that the photo will be shared on all platforms, that it will be shared by some of your thousands to millions of followers? That it can be saved and shared on things like WhatsApp?

There is a superiority in place when we don’t tell people these things, assuming that they could never understand privacy implications the way ‘enlightened tech-savvy folk’ can. But this is not true.

There are people who say okay to being photographed when you say ‘journalist’, because their first thought is newspaper. When you say website, many back away, especially women. The web is a place where one’s face and story can get manipulated and spread like wildfire – this is a reality they know and understand.

This is a country with a history of conflict, where many people remain under the scrutiny of security and intelligence personnel, sometimes for no legitimate reason. People who have been subject to this in the past, and those who are aware this is something they could be subject too, will often refuse to be photographed, and rightly so. There is an alternative angle we use to photograph people in this situation, either of their feet as they speak to us, against the ground. Or of their hands crossed in their lap. I once met a man who’d served with the LTTE – he politely declined even the alternate options, and asked that we don’t even record his voice, despite our plans to eventually discard such recordings. He was afraid – army trucks drive by his house at odd hours, just keeping watch on him. He did not want to put his face to his story, all that considered.

Maybe we just aren’t giving people the opportunity to give their full and informed consent, and we aren’t thinking of ways in which we can tell stories that don’t involve compromising their precarious safety.

We’ve become used to seeing photos of the suffering just to feel something. I used to think this was just a result of foreign photojournalists covering all the stories about our country in international newspapers, but they are as bad as our local media. Celebrated wire photographers, whose images adorn the headline of many a prestigious publication when it decides to writes about Sri Lanka, are equally responsible. They create photos that the world wants to see (in frames admittedly largely dictated by the West), that will move papers off shelves, and see that links get clicked.

I vividly recall an incident from the Mullivaikkal memorial, 2019. This is where the Tamil community across the Northern province gather in Mullaitivu on May 18th to commemorate civilians who lost their lives during the final stages of the war. The sun is scorching from overhead, and you are aware that the sand you are standing on, that is burning your feet, has its own multitude of stories to tell. It has seen so much. People have placed photographs of loved ones and flowers in their memory into the sand.

There was a platform that was set up for the media – two levels of people with cameras on tripods, poised for what they believed was the perfect shot. I was awkwardly hanging around a spot in line with this crowd, I was forming the ‘media line’ that had its lenses and senses trained on the mourners.

At 10.30, lamps were lit. I remember tucking my phones away to help a woman in the front row, facing me. Her wick would not catch the match’s flame, because the breeze was so strong. Myself and another man cupped our hands around the kerosene-wrapped cloth so that she could light the lamp.

Then, the lament begins.

The women begin to cry, the sounds of their grief that rise into the air. In that moment, the photographers are inches away from their faces with their zoom lenses. Just on my left shoulder was a well-known photographer whose reportage I admire, admired (?) for years. He was not only inches from the woman’s face, but he was holding down the shutter button to capture as many frames of the mourning on burst mode. What does it sound like when you hold down that button to capture at speed? Like a round of bullets being shot out of a gun – softer, but also violent. At that moment, I remember wanting to knock the camera out of his hand.

I remember taking photos of the women’s sarees against the ground. Or of their faces slightly out of focus behind the lamps. Or far away enough that you couldn’t recognise anyone, really. Remembering that while this commemoration and this grief needs to be known, that this is a group of people that the military keeps a close watch on.

What do we think when we see these photos? Look at the emotions, a powerful shot, so gripping. What does it mean for a person to have their grief frozen in time like that, for the world’s viewing pleasure?

This feeling, that the camera loves pain more than it respect the people experiencing it, came to a peak after Easter. There’s a photo I’m sure many have seen. A woman in a white blouse and skirt, taken at the mass funeral for those who died in Katuwapitiya. She has broken down with grief and exhaustion and as they leave for the cemetery, two other women, friends, relatives, are supporting her between them, as she can barely walk.

Her face is across many, many publications. Some have fixed the lighting to make her tears more visible. To satisfy readers and viewers seeking these images to affirm that they care. Did she see any of these photos, I wonder? Videos of the funeral from afar will show you that none of the families or mourners were asked if they could be photographed. They were preyed on, with zoom lenses that mean you never have to put yourself through the agony of talking to your grieving subject face to face.

*There are times when I look at pictures and wonder where the photographer had to be to have taken it, trying in a sense to put myself in the photographer’s shoes. On seeing this photo, I was almost instantly assailed with disgust because, on doing that reflection, I realised how close and how irreverent one would have to be to have positioned themselves as such, to take that photo. Sure enough, a video emerged on Twitter that had caught the photographers in the very act of capturing that woman’s moment of heartbreak; it was deeply, deeply upsetting, that so much violence and such little respect was afforded to the mourners.

Another incident, the day after the bombings. Close to St. Anthony’s church, men were stringing up white flags of mourning. Long streamers of thin flags across the light poles, and single large ones that swept on the breeze like waves. I was talking to a man with a bandaged foot. He looked exhausted. He had spent the whole of the 21st helping clear debris and pull bodies out of the ruined church. A nail, or broken glass, he wasn’t sure, had pierced his foot, but he had kept working. When he was close to fainting due to loss of his own blood, the search teams had sent him away to get cleaned up, but he had returned later that evening.

After talking to him about what he had seen – graphic details of the destruction and death that thankfully, no one has captured since – I asked him if I could take his photo. He declined, he was tired, and he said so many others had already come there asking the same. I thanked him for sharing and walked onwards. From a distance I could see two foreign journalists taking his photo with their DSLRs. They had not spoken to him, let alone asked for his consent, to know what he had experienced, and that he didn’t want to be photographed.

*There are times when my colleagues and I go out to listen to people, and we sometimes have a few prepared questions, or as we go along with the conversation the next question seems inevitable. On multiple occasions, I’ve felt when people reach that point beyond which they don’t really want to answer more questions, or the conversation so far has taken a lot out of them. I stop asking, and move to more casual topics, wrapping up. I feel like I’m doing a disservice to my colleagues and to what the profession is meant to be doing – diving deep for the stories, and exposing truth. But I can’t bring myself to move beyond when the person is obviously not comfortable, or too upset.

I think most journalists or photographers go in with the assumption that everyone wants to tell their stories, and everyone wants their story recorded – these are two different things. There are many people who will thank you for coming to speak to them, because they feel like they have been forgotten in their pain. At the same time, there are countless others who will have repeated their story multiple times, and are now weary. We have spoken to so many others, they say, how is talking to you going to be any different? Or others, who don’t want to be quoted or photographed at all.

I don’t have answers to this, because it’s something I’m struggling with too. How do we reconcile these responses with the need to tell these stories? If they aren’t talked about, they remain hidden, but in the process of recording them, what are we subjecting people to, what are we asking of people who are already living with the weight of their experiences?

-Ends-

A few days after the talk, I’d go on to read a book in which an oral historian recorded people’s memories of one of recent history’s most violent events. In a poignant interaction transcribed verbatim in the book, the speaker reminds the writer that she has only heard their story, whereas they have lived through the actual violence. The writer genuinely offers that listening can cause pain too. The speaker again reminds her of the thoughts that continue to haunt the minds of those who have witnessed and been subject to the violence. It was a powerful lesson to all of us who set out – with good intentions, in some cases – seeking to ‘tell stories’. Her words were indeed a reminder of what we are asking of people when we expect them to relive the violence of their pasts.

A few weeks after the talk, I was listening to a group of five women share their experiences of loss and the pain they have carried for nearly three decades now. As they spoke, they went silent or broke down at times, and the guilt washed over me like a wave, as it has on many similar occasions, but especially this time. They were thrilled that we’d visited them – thirty years on, they felt they had been forgotten – and were insistent that their names, photos, and the full details of their struggles be documented, for people to know.

I don’t have any more answers now that I did at the end of the talk, and but I’m still left with questions about how we can be better, more empathetic, more respectful and more human in our ‘stories’.

 


 

Some recent pieces on photography and journalism that I’ve found extremely thought-provoking.

“Photography writes with light, but not everything wants to be seen. Among the human rights is the right to remain obscure, unseen and dark.” – On Photography: When the Camera Was a Weapon of Imperialism. (And When It Still Is.)Teju Cole, The New York Times

“The lethal aspect of the predator journalist is the pretense, the implication to readers that they are in fact ‘objective’, bound by ethics, even when no such moral restraint inhibits their actions.  The remainder is a crass predation, a reduction of insight to access, and deeply reported stories to orchestrations of pressure and predation on hapless subjects.” – Stalking the Story, Rafia Zakaria

Those others’ lives in those far-away locations are less valued, their deaths less impactful, and thus less respect needs to be shown around their deaths. Moreover, publishing some images while suppressing others sends the message that the visible bodies are somehow less consequential than the bodies granted the privilege of privacy.” – Western media and depictions of death and injury to ‘others’, Neelika Jayawardane

“I believe we journalists are in the empathy-generation business, and if we do our jobs right, then we help people have a little more empathy and understanding for others. Our first obligation is to do no harm. It doesn’t matter what the potential impact may be, if someone is harmed by our work as researchers, we have failed.” – When the Story Comes Before the Survivor, Skye Wheeler, via Jacob Goldberg

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