“Photography, in this sense, is irreducible to the invention of a scopic device. The thrust-forward rhythm of the click of the camera’s shutter acts like a verdict—a very limited portion of information is captured, framed, and made appropriable by those who become its rights holders. The verdict–shutter is common to other imperial technologies and was in use prior to the invention of the camera.”: Ariella Aisha Azoulay in the ‘Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism’
Photography is an extractionary tool as it creates fleeting motifs out of the suffering of a subject for infinite posterity. The camera is a visual paint brush that captures the partial, discrete realities of the phenomena at hand. The migrant crisis in India has unleashed an avalanche of such visuals, forcing us to ‘view’ the usual we all knew subliminally. Migrant workers come, serve, take their pay and are expected to go home to their towns and villages, in a ‘circular’ way upholding economic ecosystems far away from their homes. Deep structural inequalities have been normalised over centuries, and voluntary ‘social distancing’ enforced through the devices of othering such as racism and casteism are closer to the home.
The migrant crisis in India is not a one-off event in the humanitarian ‘disasterscape’. The taxonomy of migrants is diverse; from the internal economic migrant to the forcibly displaced due to wars in the Levant to genocide in the Rakhine state in Myanmar, to the marginalised south Asian worker building the city states of the Khaleej. From the Rohingyas in the Cox Bazar Refugee Camps in Bangladesh to the Greek Lesbos Island, all are emblematic of the meta migration chaos at hand.
The populist Trumpian/Brexit politics is the zeitgeist of the times, and the outsider migrant is the favourite dead horse to be flogged when textbook style economic governance has failed. Xenophobic politics is an effective distraction for the masses when real public service delivery falls short in an economic recession/depression.
The Indian migrant crisis is only the latest addition to the global all-star list. A migrant is an outcome of historic, economic and political processes such as colonialism, wars and pandemics, of which he/she is a negative externality. His/her fate is predisposed/foreground with an economic and socio-cultural vulnerability to the whims outside the agency of the migrant’s life.
Are we reporting with the same outrage when a migrant worker is not paid salaries due to the lockdown, where many mouths are dependent on his income? How many of us have not paid our household support staff as they have been asked to suspend work due to housing societies not allowing ‘outsiders’ during the lockdown?
These are the ‘unseen’ photos which are conveniently erased from the potential histories of our times. The aesthetics of the imagery in the Indian episode of the migrant worker crisis are a case in point. Whether they are of migrants walking home, or crowds of Uttar Pradesh trying to enter trains attempting to get back home in Mumbai, or lying dead on the tracks in Aurangabad – these images have a visceral feel, as if prodding us to ‘please feel the outrage’. These are knee jerk reactions from our media and intelligentsia to the crisis which was simmering beneath, but boiled over due to the global pause.
The migration-centric think tank, Calcutta Research Group has released a collection of essays called the ‘Borders of an Epidemic’ on the migrant suffering in the light of the pandemic; a lived experience snapshot that centres the migrant narrative sans the media sensationalism. This is a rushed publication having a documentation agenda in mind rather than an analytical publication for policy interface.
There is a mini genre of transnational diaspora and migrant literature which is seeped in the pathos of the migrant/expat/immigrant experience. From Suketu Mehta to Zia Haidar Rehman to Mohsin Hamid to Jhumpa Lahiri – all speak of the so-called horrors of the immigrant experience.to an elitist, college-educated, mainly mainstream white Anglo-Saxon audience.
Columbia University Professor Gayatri Chakraborty Spivak in an interview to The Dawn called this kind of writing, boring and self-indulgent, which is true; one group of entitled folk is monetising their experiences for the guilt trip of another set of entitled tribes of consumers. Sweet.
Singapore with an active migrant cultural scene has a few migrant narratives such as Md. Sharif and Mohd Mukul Hossaine (both have worked in Singapore in the construction sector), published in English via translation support.
There is also a local newspaper in Bangla and English called Banglar Kantha, available in digital mode currently. This set up is however rare in other parts of the world where low income (however not low skilled) migrant workers have managed to break out to the mainstream community of voices. There is active civil society scaffolding behind these unique voice infrastructures.
How many monographs written by migrant workers have we read in India? The mainstream publishing circuit in India stinks of entitlement, whose keys are in the hands of the privileged few, with the correct resumes lined up with Oxbridge and Ivy League pedigree.
The trouble with media sensationalism is the obsession with the etherealness of the moment, coupled with news cycles aka TRPs. The fast food consumerist consumption of narratives makes considerate articulation difficult.
A semi-permanent migrant family in an informal settlement on the margins of city able to make a living becomes helpless overnight as a national lockdown is called, and borders and travel are frozen as they try to head back home. What thus manifested from a business-as-usual situation to a crisis cannot be captured in a photograph which is a limitation of the medium. We cannot comprehend the narrative arc of the marginalised from normal to panic mode through a photograph, but we can fathom the resultant despair.
The photo essays in the liberal media focused purely on highlighting the helplessness, and the deaths for whom our collective heads shall always hang in shame. However, as a writer, poet and image maker, I wonder, is the textual and visual idiom we use to represent the migrant enough?
The starting point shall be, at least for me, to work on creating the narrative scaffolding required for migrant voices and narratives to disrupt constipated hegemonic frames and lenses. Can we take self-recorded videos of migrants on Shramik Express trains or Whatsapp voice notes as enough evidence to occupy a place in an organic archive when people look back at the pandemic-induced lockdown?
The figure of the ‘Migrant’ has been reported from the outside in, and not included in the discourse on ideas as if they are the intellectual fodder to create careers. They are treated as the ‘object’ whose suffering is to be analytically analysed through elegant theory.
What are the ways one can unlearn the gaze of high-handed middle-class pity and replace it with radical empathy grounded in humility? The fact is that economic deprivation can make anyone a ‘migrant’ as we all seek to keep the stove burning for our families.
As study makers and readers, we must stop and reflect on how much part of the crisis we are amplifying and where we are attempting to remedy the crisis via the smallest material intervention. That’s the seed of thought that I wish to leave the readers in conclusion.
The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.