These two emotionally moving photos alert the audience to the desperate conditions of working children who are being robbed of both their childhood and dignity. Or do they?
Holland asserts that images are mostly attractive, easy, “unemphatic” in its omnipresence and only occasionally shocking and remarkable (2004, p.1). The photos central to this paper however are neither easy nor unemphatic, but are clearly screaming for the attention of the audience and society, fulfilling in the intention of documentary photography, the genre to which the untitled Image 1 belongs to. The photo is simultaneously silent in the absence of a title, and loud in depicting the horror of child labour. The photo is shocking and remarkable as meaning making artefact and as a work of genius in light, tone and composition by the hugely talented, award winning photographer, 33 year old Bangladeshi GMB Akash. The photo is simultaneously gritty hands and smooth handle, out of focus body and pin sharp hands. The blurred gaze is straight and steady. The photo is a masterpiece of contrasts and contradictions. The photo is human life, the life of a child, the hands of a labourer. This is 8 year old Abjiheet, working 10 hours a day in a rickshaw parts making factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, earning 8 USD per month (Zoriah Photojournalist, 2009).
Haraway in Rose discusses street photography, the genre to which Image 2 belongs “There is a kind of macho power being celebrated in that account of street photography, in its reiteration of toughness” (2001, p12). Photography however, is not merely an account of the way things really look like, as argued by some practitioners (Rose, 2001). Doing visual analysis demands a critical lens on images steeped in cultural significance, depicting social practice and power relations alike. Image 2 defies not only the macho toughness evident in the majority of street photography, but also the meaning making of the innocent audience. Even though street photography shares with documentary photography the desire to picture life as it apparently is, little is what it appears at first glance in this photo. The image is simultaneously gritty urban and smooth body, out of focus photo and steady gaze. Instead of depicting a “poor, oppressed or marginalized individual”, such as the child labourer in Image 1, the photo is a candid account of the richness of life (Rose 2001, p.13). This is Babai, a young boy from Calcutta India, not dirty as child labourer, but clean as spiritual being, drenched in colour pigments in celebration of Holi, the Hindu festival of colours. Babai was photographed by 10 year old Kochi from Calcutta, India, a child who uses the camera to escape the tragic surroundings of the red light district in which she was born and raised. A girl described as shy and sweet defies the audience expectations of what it takes to be a street photographer in a challenging, often dangerous environment. Kochi is shaping her own childhood and a quality of life; she is active agent living in the present. Kochi is one of a few children who were given cameras as participants in the documentary film Born into Brothels, a tribute to the resiliency of childhood and the restorative power of art (Kids with Cameras 2004).
Whilst GMB Akash “pictures the relatively powerless to the relatively powerful” (Rose 2001, p.14), and alert the world to the plight of child labourers and potentially other underlying social, political and economical inequities, the power belongs to Kochi. What appears to be dynamic with “jagged fragments” (Rose, 2001) through the lens of her camera becomes fluid curves through the gaze of her eye. Holland (2004) stresses that it is not always easy to make sense of a picture in the absence of text since text direct the viewer towards an array of possible meanings. Whilst this rings true for Babai, the same cannot be said for the photo by GMB Akash. The image is brutal and powerful in its meaning, undeniably provoking the attention of an audience. The absence of text only serves to enhance the meaning making process. In her video-ethnographic research, Sparrman (2006) who studied conversations held between 16-18 year old secondary school pupils, after they watched the emotionally charged and distressing film Lilya 4-ever, highlighted intersections between language, image, identity and social. Holland (2004) refers to the mapping of social, political and emotional worlds. Both the images in this paper are highly effective as researchable material, gaining attention through visual dialogue, verbal discourse and critical reflection. The result is activism through the genre of documentary photography and social action through street journalism. Kids with Cameras gave rise to similar projects in Haiti, Jerusalem and Cairo. “Pictures of children contribute to a set of narratives about childhood which are threaded through different cultural forms, drawing on every possible source to construct stories that become part of cultural competence” (Holland 2004, p.3). Neither photos present a static “set of practices”; both “produce and exchange meanings” (Hall in Rose 2001, p.6).