July 2, 2018
The ethics of a morning commute – a response

“…the aestheticizing tendency of photography is such that the medium which conveys distress ends by neutralizing it. Cameras miniaturize experience, transform history into spectacle. As much as they create sympathy, photographs cut sympathy, distance the emotions.” Susan Sontag, On Photography.

Recently on Instagram I saw a photo of a small boy begging at a car window in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The caption read “Morning commute”.  

In the photo the orange morning sun is hitting the boy’s face, and his hands are cupped around his eyes so that he can peer through the car window. He is looking straight at the camera. One comment says “OMG I love this SO much”, while another comment is a crying emoji.

The image was published by a well-known American photojournalistic who has long been based in the region, a woman who has written about the ethics of her profession and how by berating subjects for the ‘it’ story (often people in distress, in poverty, in crises), photographers are doing more harm than good. She has thought about the convoluted morals of pointing a camera in suffering faces; she knows, at least in theory, the power she wields when holding a camera.

I was surprised to see it from her; a professional who has showed awareness about photography’s ethical downfalls and who is aware of the multiple realities in Bangladesh, posting a beggar boy at the car window with a caption that makes it seem like the most normal morning in the world.

Did she think about why? Maybe she will tell you the light was nice, the way it hit his face sideways and created a nice shadow within the car. Maybe she thought it was really showing something she faced daily on her way to work.

But there is also the fact that she, the photographer, is inside the air-conditioned car, and he is outside in the heat. Why is the window rolled up? To keep out grabby hands like his? To curb the pollution that he breathes all day begging on the roads? To keep the air conditioning in? Instead of handing him an extra juice box or a few taka, she took his photo and got over 300 likes. But at what cost?

Today images are so prolific, they can show us nearly anything we dream to know. Taken as cold hard truth, they paint our perceptions of places far away, show us the streets and the way people live. They shape our understanding not only of extreme events, but also of the mundane, the daily. When someone says the name of a place, be it Nairobi, Paris or Dhaka, the imagination is not left to its devices - it has clues, photographic evidence to work from.

That image of the beggar boy at the window is in line with what people expect to see when they think of traffic-jammed South Asian streets filled with poverty. It pushes forward the single-minded vision of Bangladesh as a third world nation with beggar boys, with sad eyes and open hands, standing at your window on the way to work – a typical commute.

Begging happens, it’s true. But it’s not the whole truth. A person can have thousands of types of encounters on their way to work on the crazy streets in Dhaka. But in this image the photographer has made it seem like the paramount experience. What is only a chip of the iceberg easily become the whole perception.

Photos like this put us in danger of missing the multiplicity –the individualism and the nuances of everyday life in a city like Dhaka, or in any city that has been labelled ‘developing’ or ‘third world’. They keep the foreign viewer thinking the same thing, and they make the beggar boy a nameless icon of the streets.

In this vein I don’t believe this image can be shrugged off as a ‘filler’ Instagram post, or a cool thing to see, or a photo that tugs at emotional heartstrings. The photographer has taken the boy’s life and made it something to be liked or commented upon with crying emojis.

All this talk could be ethical idealism coming out of a frustrating morning with too many minutes spent on Instagram, or it could be the start of a larger conversation about creating more diverse narratives.

All I know for sure is that her image is not about good morning light.