When is the Time to Witness? When is the Time to Intervene?
A conversation with Poulomi Basu about documenting cultural violence against women in Nepal, and the responsibilities of image-makers, publishers and audiences in the West
In parts of Nepal, during menstruation, women are exiled from their homes, villages and all normal social contact. Every month. Every year. The practice is part of a ritual, called Chhaupadi. In her project A Ritual Of Exile, image-maker Poulomi Basu explores the stigmatization of women during their period, and the consequent social, emotional and physical effects on individuals and the community as a whole.
A Ritual Of Exile sheds light on a not widely-known cultural norm. An immersive investigation into the causes and consequences of what amounts to normalized violence against women, perpetrated under the guise of tradition, A Ritual Of Exile includes documentary stills, abstracted images, video portraits, audio, interviews and VR films from within the shacks to which women are banished each cycle.
Upon its initial release, A Ritual Of Exile was met with awards and widespread praise. But after the series was published in the New York Times, questions emerged over the veracity of a particular caption, and over the fact that Basu provided money to help transport one of her subjects to a hospital by stretcher.
“Distribution in two outlets was curtailed even though the truths of social injustice at the core of the work are uncontested,” wrote Stephen Mayes, Executive Director of the Tim Hetherington Trust, which shortlisted A Ritual Of Exile for its 2017 Visionary Award.
The curtailment “raised questions about the ethical responsibilities carried not only by photographers but also by publishers when representing the lives of others,” continued Mayes, who also balked at the notion that Basu’s work could potentially be so quickly doubted or — worse still — dismissed. The everyday violence against Nepali women is real, after all.
“A Ritual Of Exile straddles a line that includes familiar storytelling techniques yet reaches into areas that have been off-limits to conventional journalists, and as with anything new it comes with risks,” added Mayes.
Unhappy to see the project reduced to a mere good/bad evaluation, and in the aftermath of two publications pulling the story, Mayes spoke with Basu about the bigger picture, the pushback against convenient silence, and the recent controversies surrounding A Ritual Of Exile. Vantage republishes this conversation with permission. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Stephen Mayes (SM): How do the photographic customs of the West sit with the cultural heritage of your birthright as a Hindu woman raised in Calcutta? Do the cultures clash or complement?
Poulomi Basu (PB): For me, they only complement. Knowledge of one culture helps reveal another or, at the very least, can reveal interesting lines of enquiry. To look for the similarities or a divergence can help me understand the many layers of nuance that exist within certain specific cultural contexts.
Concepts such as “the East”, “the West”, “Occident” or “Orient” are reductive frameworks that lead us to binaries within which we are always gazing at the other, creating a “static notion of identity”, as Edward Said would put it. A static notion of identity robs people of their individuality and their own agency.
[In my work] I have explored the excluded narrative of girls and women in the subcontinent. Touching upon the effects of caste, class, untouchability, impurity, widowhood, motherhood, the dowry and how all of these are used as mechanisms of control and subjugation.
SM: Unlike many documentarians who inhabit the same culture that they serve you are speaking across cultures. What particular responsibilities fall to you as an interpreter between cultures?
PB: I do not believe that any person consciously sets out to be an interpreter between cultures. This is the role in which others cast you.
I am a Hindu woman and I am working on a project specifically dealing with my religion and culture. Concepts of untouchability and how this relates to gender and is manifested through both male and female perpetuation of patriarchal systems and modes of behavior.
We must look beyond traditions and practices to understand what they represent and what injustices are carried out under their guise. A Ritual Of Exile is informed by direct experiences from my own life as a witness to the negative effect of traditions in my own home and in other households.
Globalization, as manifest in this instance through the Internet, means it is the media and other instuitions that are speaking across cultures and, in some sense, fulfilling the role of the cultural interpreter. Often the individual practitioner is not in control of the means of distribution nor are they in control of the contextual information surrounding their work, when published in such outlets.
This current situation is a case in point. A Ritual of Exile deals with patriarchy, misogyny and untouchability, which is practiced within the hierarchy of the caste system. The project tackles aspects of the Brahmanical gaze, which is manifest throughout untouchability, gender and caste. Such concepts might be less readily understandable to those outside of the subcontinent. Even in the subcontinent, these issues are considered taboo.
The institutions of Western media have culturally appropriated the issues to put themselves in a dominant position so that they may cast judgement from a position of perceived cultural superiority. I believe this to be the case with some of the negative reactions within major institutions that decided to sidetrack A Ritual Of Exile. My perception and expertise, informed by both my professional practice and my life, is being denied by institutions that are unwittingly reinforcing the structures of patriarchy and prejudice.
SM: Have you been surprised by reactions to apparently obvious information? How do you test your performance? Where is the benchmark? Does the role as interpreter extend to communicating across genders?
PB: What has shocked and disappointed me in many of the responses to A Ritual Of Exile has been how easily editors have dismissed the importance of gender and gender-related issues.
A Ritual Of Exile documents hidden and normalized violence against women, in this instance forms of control exerted over women who are menstruating. And while these practices are less apparent in the West, they exist nonetheless. These practices keep the issue of menstruation shrouded in mystery.
Why in advertisements for sanitary pads, is blood predominantly portrayed as blue? The *logic* is that the bloody truth is somehow unpalatable and must be kept hidden.
Some of the responses to A Ritual Of Exile have revealed that the ignorance of menstruation and other related issues is global and not just consigned to a corner of western Nepal. And this is precisely the reason why I will not give up working on this and allow this to be silenced.
SM: Questions were raised about your decision to photograph a young mother and newborn in a smoky environment and two issues arise: how much should a documentarian manipulate the environment and what responsibility do you have for the women’s health?
PB: Her name is Saraswati and her story is an acute representation of the complex web of patriarchies and abuse, with Chhaupadi as the organizing principle. Saraswati was forced to observe Chhaupadi along with her newborn child because of bleeding at child birth. She was dislocated from the rest of her family and could not properly wash herself and exercise any form of menstrual hygiene.
So, by being required to live in unsanitary and inappropriate accommodation because of this tradition her health was placed at risk. Saraswati had other undiagnosed health issues: she was having trouble walking due to swollen legs and ankles — something possibly exacerbated by all the time she was spending sitting down in her room of exile.
The smoke in the room was not a significant factor in her collapse. Saraswati’s health-issues were principally to do with postpartum bleeding and poor maternal healthcare rather than respiratory problems caused by asphyxiation and her condition made worse by her extreme emotional distress following the recent floods that had taken the lives of several friends. The baby, despite the trying circumstances and the distress of the mother, was not sick or ill.
But it became abundantly clear that Saraswati needed to get to a doctor and we decided to intervene and provide the money for a stretcher so that she could get to hospital, which was far away. I wrote about this in more detail on the Magnum Foundation blog. A matter of public record, this post deals with the intricacies of Saraswati’s situation and, especially, why we arranged for Saraswati to be taken to hospital.
Documenting Saraswati whilst exposed to the otherwise normal smoke from the cooking fires that are ubiquitous throughout the region and the commissioning of the stretcher have both been criticized as inappropriate interference. But her life was clearly at risk and what else could we do?
Ethical dilemmas are the nature of the work I do. The difficult decisions that I constantly make in the field are informed by my own background and experiences. Whether perfect or not, they are taken with consideration and presence of mind. We are not just talking about Nepali culture here, we are addressing Hindu culture and the role of women. Growing up in such an environment, myself and many women I know have persistently experienced various forms of subtle injustice, passed off as a benign “respecting of your culture.” And that is not okay.
This work is an investigation and it is crucial to look beyond the surface and recognize what is hidden and appears to be “normal”; listening to the women, even in their silence. Such silence is testament to their resilience and their power to endure in unjust and adverse circumstance. But not complaining doesn’t mean they accept this; most do not have a choice.
It is wrong to accept these and other harmful practices as “cultural norms”. Just because they’re institutionalized does not justify the practices nor the patriarchy and misogyny that lies beneath. To accept that which is on the surface — at face value — as a cultural norm, is to endorse a male viewpoint, completely disregarding the women’s perspective.
How and when we intervene is always a dilemma and something to be approached with great sensitivity. Cooking that causes the room to fill with smoke, is well documented in this cultural context. Long-term exposure to smoke within enclosed environments does, of course, has long-term health implication. Documenting this culture norm is important, as it is a serious issue faced by the women.
We may choose to have a quiet word with the family in question at a later date to advise them of the health implications of such actions; but in most contexts, intervening in the moment in a particularly moralistic or strident way will bring negative consequences for the person you are trying to help, consequences that will endure after I leave.
The resilience of these traditions is incredible. Efforts by Nepal’s Maoist groups during the country’s civil war and subsequent NGOs to pull down Chhaupadi huts failed to make any change. The huts were rebuilt and now the challenge is to stop a return of girls and women sleeping out in the open or hiding their exile all together. To end this practice, longer-term work must be sustained that addresses the belief systems that underpin this practice.
We constantly walk an ever-shifting ethical tightrope. With experience we learn to hold our nerve even if it is heartbreaking and distressing to witness a particular scenario. And, you also learn, how and when to make an intervention that is effective and has minimal negative impact. Predominantly though, the activism comes later in what we do with the work and how we campaign to raise awareness about the issues depicted.
SM: The reactions to this discussion have been hard, leading in some instances to curtailed distribution, demonstrating a low tolerance for understanding the realities of investigative work in the field. But dropping the story to sidestep controversy maybe also suggests a lack of concern for the issues represented?
PB: In each instance the project was received enthusiastically so the creative approach succeeded in making an impression on the viewers, and I’m confident that it stands as a successful communication. But by then dismissing the project based on incomplete understanding of these isolated and specific circumstances, the institutions/publishers reveal a different agenda that places the issues faced by the women of Nepal as subsidiary to their purpose. It reveals an unfortunate lack of commitment to gender rights and stories from the majority world. At the end of the day, their support for these issues seems tokenizing and self-serving.
I have learnt that some also have a low tolerance for immersion in another culture. In commenting on Saraswati’s situation there’s an overwhelming assumption that Nepalese people do not have the “agency” to make their own decisions and are simply the “dispossessed poor”, passive “victims of circumstance.”
By failing to acknowledge Saraswati’s ability to make certain decisions for herself critics trivialize the discrimination faced by the women. But this is a mechanism to establish a position of control and authority over the majority world, which allows for essential context to be jettisoned.
By diverting discussion from Saraswati’s decision to participate in the project and to suggest instead that representation of her circumstances is some sort of ethical failure is to create a smokescreen. It allows complex issues to be denied because they do not fit the simplistic binary of “rich” and “poor”, “right” or “wrong”. Such views strip individuals of the agency within their own lives and deny them fundamental rights of autonomy or purpose, reducing them to stereotypes.
SM: What do you learn from this confused tangle of journalism, personal judgment and ethical priorities?
PB: Photographers and documentarians should not seek to outsource their ethics to an organization or institution that might have another agenda. Ethics are a personal matter tied to the cultural context in which you are operating; ethics must be continually assessed and confronted as we investigate particular stories. Each situation asks the individual to look beyond the surface, evaluate information as it is presented to us, and be aware of the context in which this information is garnered.
Prescribed ethical codes are ultimately linked to those institutions that stand as gatekeepers to the industry. These codes become further mechanisms for institutional control of the photographic market. This is not to say that I am against such codes, but rather that ethics are not something for which we can abnegate responsibility, nor can we work to a check list against which we can measure and assess our experience.
SM: What does any of this mean to the women you photographed? Is their consent truly informed and what should I see when I look at their portraits: photographic subjects or participants in the telling of their own story?
PB: I always refer to the people in my stories as collaborators. The term is imperfect but it is important as I feel it better describes the relationship than the myth of a totally detached documentarian. I am immersed in the stories that I document and work closely to redress the binary of documentarian and “subject”. Within this methodology, it is important to maintain a form of observational detachment — I am after all investigating hidden forms of violence and those don’t magically reveal themselves just because I ask.
Those whose lives we document are participants in the process, they grant access and understand the reasons why their lives are being documented after we explain how the work will be used and how widely it will be seen. One woman, who was happy to be documented, asked for her name to be changed; whilst on another occasion I was approached by two women who, having heard what I was doing, also wanted to be included my documentary.
They would, perhaps, be surprised to hear that the ignorance and patriarchy that affect their lives exist in America and other parts of the “more developed” world.
In addition to the photographs there is a series of immersive films where the camera is left unattended and once positioned the women are much freer to behave with agency, as they otherwise would. The crew is hidden so their presence is not influencing the action in any conventional sense, unlike in traditional documentary work.
SM: Does any of this change if the resulting image is described as a portrait rather than documentary? Where do you place your work in the spectrum from fly-on-the-wall to collaborative portraiture and does that change the benchmark?
PB: My methodology is multidisciplinary, within which I inhabit the roles of human rights documentarian, journalist, artist and activist. It is often others who project limitations or boundaries to an individual practitioner or, indeed, have an extreme desire to impose constrictive labels.
I am unsure if the difference in work — portraiture or reportage — has any effect on an individual’s ethics or modes of behavior, for me they are the same regardless of circumstance. What matters is a transparency of stance, objective, and practice.
Much of my work is portraiture, which is an explicit collaboration between a photographer and an individual or group. In the wider, macro sense, the integrity of the story is unaffected by this approach. But the idea that you can make a portrait without interacting with the individual you are photographing is clearly laughable. In this way, the photography becomes a document of this collaboration; a document recording a moment that is arrived at in the space that exists between photographer and another individual.
SM: How can you move forwards in the role of journalist or interpreter when “Trust me” isn’t sufficient?
PB: The position of cultural interpreter is a role that is often bestowed by external forces. It is always a matter of perspective, with the validity of that perspective established over a long period of time based on an individual’s track record of work in a particular field or on a particular subject.
Moving forward, one thing I have learnt is the requirement for ever deeper contexulization and an ever greater need to “engage” a broad audience, rather than merely “informing” them, and the passivity this implies.
I cannot assume the level of an audience’s understanding of gender issues or around menstruation. As such, the photographs in this project were developed alongside a series of immersive experiences (VR films) and a wider interactive platform to provide in depth information and further opportunities for an audience to understand the multiplicity of a story in a way that reflects the interconnectedness of our daily lives.
Chomsky often speaks of intellectual self-defense and the need to understand the perspective of information sources. Influenced as I am by postmodernism and the idea of multiple perspectives, I think that it is in the collision of these perspectives that we may find what could be reductively called “the truth”.
So much more needs to be done on this subject, so I will continue as I have: with commitment to produce work that is reactive of circumstance but proactive in terms of how that work is used, so that I can reveal these hidden modes of violence, wherever I encounter them.
SM: What would you do differently (or not)?
PB: I would like to have accompanied Saraswati to the hospital, but for logistical reasons, was not possible. I do know, however, that she is currently in good health and has made a full recovery.
SM: When we turn to the media for information about the world, are we merely satisfying our pre-existing expectations of how the world should look? How can the audience distinguish between “the truth” (with all its chaotic contradictions that you mentioned before) and information that’s been distorted by the editorial process? What assumptions can we rely on and what assumptions should we abandon?
PB: With any media institution, reputations and integrity are built over a long period of time and based on your recording of previous reporting. I have reported on a wide gamut of issues in Asia as well as in Europe and America. Mostly, I am known for documenting the role of women in isolated communities and conflict zones and more generally for advocating for the rights of women. I am interested in those that are quietly challenging the prevailing orthodoxies of their society.
An audience familiar with my work comes to be aware of that track record. The same with an audience that comes to my work through the gateway of a particular media institution. There is an expectation and a bond of trust that has been built over a period of time. As I mentioned earlier, the media institutions share a profound responsibility to the subject of the story and to the readers; the practitioner must pass the trust of the subjects onwards to the publisher and their decisions about the framing of a particular article or feature is often a key element in determining the meaning of the work.
Our expectation as an audience is that the institutions from where we take our news, do this as a matter of course. My experience with A Ritual Of Exile teaches me that this handover from practitioner to publisher can be a point of extreme vulnerability, whether because there’s a direct conflict of interests or a basic lack of understanding about foreign cultures. It would seem that in many cases there is no process, so rather than engage in the complexity outside of the Western world, instead it is culturally appropriated and refashioned according to parochial ideas and precepts.
SM: With social media now the dominant form of distribution the group formerly known as “audience” has a new role: we receive images with much reduced editorial guidance so what responsibility falls to us, especially if we comment publicly, share with friends and otherwise contribute to the story?
PB: As my recent experience has shown, the actions of editors can sometimes be questionable so by no means do I think that it is a bad thing that the audience has the opportunity to be more involved in the media they consume. Our medium is nothing without the dynamic conversations I can have with both my collaborators and my audiences, however, just as important as it is for us to contextualize the subject matter, it is important for curators and editors to do the same.
I am excited by digital forms of distribution that allow us to fashion work that not only forges a new audience but allows for greater contextualization and narrative layers that allow the audience to be more involved in the story. I’m developing a digital platform for A Ritual Of Exile to do exactly this.
SM: Do different ethical decisions fall to the photographer and the audience (and indeed the people photographed) or do we all share a common core of beliefs? If there is a common core, how does it shape your approach?
PB: Essentially our beliefs are shaped by our own cultural origins but I would like to think that we all share a certain commonality of values. I strive not to create work with a specific audience in mind. I am guided by the story, its needs and those of the individuals within it. I want my work to have impact and to engage an audience and engender an informed discussion about untouchability and other such hidden modes of violence and control.
Only through this dialogue, can the practice of Chhaupadi be brought to an end. In the long-term it is about how the work dovetails the wider social movement and can support the wider needs and objectives of that movement and a broad coalition of partners, many of whom are deeply immersed in the issues and the affected communities.
SM: If there is no common core of beliefs does the process of visual storytelling become random, maybe reflecting the chaos of life and allowing different narratives to be created by the viewer? What is the consequence and does this shape your approach?
PB: Certainly we should be creating projects and narratives that do not shy away from complex and nuanced subjects. Our lives are full of divergent and competing narratives; and we make sense of the world through an engagement with such narratives — why should our work not reflect this multiplicity?
SM: Bottom line: as photographers and distributors what responsibility do we have to the people we photograph and to the audience we share with?
PB: The responsibility we have is to the story and to those whose lives we document to ensure that we present the realities we encounter with integrity and responsibility. We must progress with clarity and purpose. But the responsibility to understand and engage rests too with editors and publications and how they frame a story. Similarly, as an audience we must be willing to engage with information rather then play a passive role in this information exchange.
SM: Will readers in USA, Europe and India react differently to these questions and your responses?
PB: A subcontinental audience is much more likely to understand concepts such as untouchability and caste but that it is not necessarily a given. The subcontinent is comprised of an array of religions and cultures each with their own particular set of practices and structures. Consequently, socialization, through our upbringing, for instance, plays an important factor. Depending on this experience an individual may or may not be attuned to the discrimination enforced by caste and untouchability and how this affects gender dynamics.
My contention has always been that such powerful traditions and customs must be historicized, rationalized and questioned. I have looked past the dominant patriarchal narrative, to find the women’s perspective and reveal that which is hidden in plain sight. As Edward Said said “Our role is to widen the field of discussion, not to set limits in accord with the prevailing authority.”
Editor’s Note: In August 2017 the Nepalese government criminalized Chhaupadi. Basu’s work to raise awareness of the issue has been citied as a significant contribution to the movement to bring about this success, which is important but only the first step in the long journey to end discrimination. As discussed here by Poulomi, the underlying cultural inertia cannot be changed so easily and she reminds us of the need to maintain vigilance and pressure until this and other discriminatory practices are truly ended.