Foreigners in their own land

Aug 10, 2014, 08:25 IST | Paromita Vohra

Can images change the way we look at the world? I believe so. Regular readers of this column know that I have a deep and abiding belief in art as a thing that makes us better people

Can images change the way we look at the world? I believe so. Regular readers of this column know that I have a deep and abiding belief in art as a thing that makes us better people. Not by lecturing us or by posturing as our savior, but with its sensory strength and emotional core art unfolds the truths hidden in our hearts.

Can it also do the reverse? Make us careless and callous? I think so. Art has the power to generate a spectrum of
human emotions.

Raj Shetye’s perplexing fashion photo shoot has received a lot of backlash on social media

But it’s a question the photographer Raj Shetye could ask himself, as he currently reels from the negative response to his utterly perplexing fashion photo shoot evidently inspired by the Nirbhaya rape case, which he moreover tagged hot, sexy, male and violent. Although Mr Shetye denies this inspiration, the setting of a Delhi bus (how well I know those pista kulfi-coloured interiors where I, like many Delhi girls learned to just put up with molestatation as part of the ticket price of getting home from college), make it a little hard to believe. Just as hard as it is to understand in what way he meant these images to draw attention to violence against women.

The question about whether Mr Shetye’s photos are a travesty is almost banal. As banal as the good looks of these images. I guess for me the question is how does Mr Shetye think about violence and the image? For instance would he feel that the troubling body image of women in advertising and fashion iconography is a kind of violence — both literally, for women often resort to starvation, invasive surgery and drug use to get those bodies, and metaphorically for then this idea of the body warps the minds of men and women who look at them? I am assuming he must believe that images have this power, else he would not use his work to draw attention to an issue.

For a minute we must put aside our easy outrage to the references in his image, and ask the deeper question — not as censors but as discussants — how one can address one idea of violence by playing out another idea of violence?
As proof of his sincerity, Mr Shetye has said that he has not identified the fashion labels whose clothes are used in the pictures, an indication that the photos do not have a commercial purpose. It is, in fact, this sincerity that is alarming, for it seems that simply not having a commercial purpose is supposed to imbue an image with nobility, no matter what its mode of representation. Label or not, we know from this imagery — the lighting, the colours, the model’s international expression of vacant annoyance — that these are clothes for rich people. Because we have seen such images many times — with the fashion labels identified. There is no difference between these images because in fact they are crafted to sell a fashionable label of another kind. It’s  called “issues”.

Why do such attempts often get it so spectacularly wrong? Perhaps because the more you climb the social ladder, the more people lower down seem only distant objects. How else would it be so easy to turn them and the stuff of their lives into backdrops? This distant engagement with others, without intimacy or real contact also means we rarely examine our own realities and perceptions. For Mr Shetye to see the reason his efforts misfired is hard, because to do it, he would have to question the very world his images spring from.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at
The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.

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