“We have no right to walk into another’s suffering” – Raghu Rai on Bhopal, the demise of the ‘Truth’, and the future of the photojournalistic aesthetic in campaigning.

‘Are you joking?’

Raghu Rai’s initial response when asked by Greenpeace to go back to the city of Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh, India, and photograph the lives of those affected by the disastrous Union Carbide factory gas leak 18 years’ on is not entirely surprising. Social activism, despite the parallel challenge of Web 2.0 platforms, remains heavily dependent on the main stream corporate media as a communication tool. Where was the story? Had it not been covered numerous times before? Was this not like returning to Chernobyl to survey the human fallout? And just as importantly, had these people’s lives not been intruded upon and photographed enough already?

Big name photographers like Rai are brought in by International Non-Government Organisations (INGOs) like Greenpeace to ensure widespread publicity for their campaign through the publishing of the images in prominent high circulation media. There will often be an accompanying exhibition and book– again, providing a media hook and further dissemination of images. In some cases the high profile photographer’s involvement itself is the lead story, particularly when they are better known for their work in, say, fashion or advertising (like the work celebrity photographer Rankin did for Oxfam UK last year). That does not mean the photographer is commissioned as a gimmick – they are there to produce quality images – but the big name tag is a guaranteed interest multiplier to the media and public.

Greenpeace’s response to Rai’s question was that people were actually still dying from gas related health problems, their drinking water was still contaminated, and compensation was still being withheld. They suggested he go see for himself.

So he did.

The result was this set of photos

Getting Rai on-board must have been seen as a big plus by Greenpeace. He is not only the most acclaimed photographer from India, but photographed Bhopal in 1984 when the disaster happened. He would bring local context, continuity, as well as a wealth of photographic experience.

The aim of the Greenpeace project, in partnership with the International Campaign for Justice for Bhopal, was to remind relevant decision makers of the continued suffering experienced by those who breathed in the gas on the morning of 3 December 1984, and their commitments and responsibility to address their needs. The photos commissioned from Rai were to be used in the common formats of a photo book and international touring exhibition leading up to the 20th anniversary of the disaster. In addition they appear in slide shows on the Greenpeace website. They were to highlight the lives of some of the individuals and families who still suffered, representing them through a classic ‘witnessing’ approach – the presenting of evidence through black and white images using a documentary style aesthetic. The images are unsurprisingly not as shocking as those Rai took in 1984, instead focussing on prolonged suffering and injustice, and the community’s response. They are designed to evoke our sympathy and indignation around specific individuals and a specific event. In addition Greenpeace and the International Campaign for Justice for Bhopal produce five cinema ads.

Rai’s photos and the Greenpeace campaign are now over five years old. Looking back at the communications approach used it is interesting to see how much impact technology has had on story telling. Even though similar initiatives exist today – for example James Nachtway’s work on drug resistant TB – the trend is moving away from such linear models of representation. Social activism is increasingly experimenting with multi-media and participatory projects, combining professional and amateur products, and linking rights claimants with supporters across the globe. This is beginning to go beyond simple story telling towards a rather more complex conversation. Here the ‘authenticity’ captured by the professional photo-documenter is not only challenged by the digital democratisation of image production and dissemination, but is opened up so that the viewer can became a much more active participant in the process of social change. Now photos of injustice sit along side photos of activism – action and response across multiple geographic areas and communities – filmed, captured and linked via multiple interconnected nodes on-line. Where ‘witnessing’ is not just about the violation itself but also of the act of mobilizing for change or resistance – where visually representing the exercising of the right to free association and protest is in itself a strategic tool in a campaign.

I was offered an introduction to Raghu Rai nearly one year ago by a contact in India working on the violence in the North Eastern state of Manipur. Rai had been doing some work there looking at the impact of the insurgency, in particular around the use of the Armed Forces and Special Powers Act by the India army on the local population. However, it was not until March that we finally came together in his apartment situated in a relatively secluded district of south Delhi. When I arrived several young people were busying themselves at computers in the main room. I was ushered into Raghu’s office where he sat behind a big wooden desk covered in test prints of his photos. A large window provided an excellent view across a landscape still predominantly green with trees and parks. As we talked, we were occasionally interrupted by one of his staff bringing more prints for Rai to peruse, mainly from his new book on Delhi which was soon to be published.

My main interest in meeting with Rai was to find out more about his work on the Bhopal gas tragedy, both at the time and 18 years’ on with Greenpeace. I wanted to know how as a photographer he approached such an assignment, what it was like to work with a large INGO, and how he saw the use of images in movements for social justice? However, although I have met with several professional photographers over the course of this project I was not prepared for how my discussion with Rai would pan out and the questions it would pose.

Raghu Rai is the most internationally recognised documentary photographer of India – both in that he is from and his work has focussed on, the country. If you have seen a photograph depicting the Union Carbide disaster it is more than likely one of his. Working for the Magnum photo agency his photographs from Bhopal have been widely used in magazines, books, Non-Government Organization’s (NGO) materials and newspapers. His images bear witness to the death and continuing health problems suffered by so many people in the city. However, despite this the majority of his other photos are not linked with social activism, and tend to fill beautiful ‘coffee table’ books depicting India’s cities, temples and citizens. Other work includes several studies of Indira Gandhi during her political rise and fall.

When the tank containing methyl isocyanate exploded at the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal Raghu Rai was working at India Today as picture editor, a position he held for ten years. A toxic cloud moved across the city killing many where they slept. By the third day 8,000 were dead. There was no working alarm system at the factory and no public evacuation implemented. It was the worst chemical disaster of modern times. Overall, 20,000 people have died as a result of breathing in the gas, whilst 300,000 still suffer related health problems. Much is still not known about what was in the gas, and this failure to disclose the exact contents hampered medical efforts to help those affected. To date no one has been held criminally liable for what happened, and Union Carbide (now owned by Dow Chemicals) has only paid $470 million compensation – amounting to an insulting $500 per person.

Rai initially covered the story, taking some iconic and haunting photos, and followed-up for a while before eventually moving on to other things. Campaigns for justice of this nature – corporate crimes and state negligence – are notoriously long attritional affairs, and the media tend to dip in and out only at what they consider ‘news worthy’ moments – be they anniversaries, break-throughs / set-backs, or new interest generated by the involvement of celebrity or activist stunts.

When asked to go back after such a long time Rai knew his task would be difficult, to show something new, to not be yet another of hundreds of photographers to have covered the story. To start with he decided to go to the Memorial Hospital set up exclusively for those affected by the gas. Those who inhaled the most gas either died immediately or soon after, but others who inhaled less survived, only to suffer terrible health problems in later years. Those born of gas survivors have health problems themselves. Rai managed to get a list of survivors receiving treatment at the hospital but found it difficult to persuade them to be photographed. Over the years many photographers have travelled to Bhopal – a Mecca for those picturing disaster – where suffering is easily accessed and captured, ‘in and out’, helping to build photographic portfolios to boost careers with little real benefit to the survivors. I asked Raghu how his photographs were any different? What did they achieve?

“Firstly, there was a commitment to exhibit the photos in Bhopal itself, so at least those whose photos I had taken could see the results. Secondly, as a result of the renewed Greenpeace campaign, of which the photos formed a major part, the government of India released the final half of the compensation money to the survivors. And thirdly, after the exhibition was shown in the US the whereabouts of Warren Andersen, ex-CEO of Union Carbide in India was exposed.”

Warren Andersen left India immediately after the gas leak. The US government has yet to extradite him to India to face trial. How much the photo exhibition has to do with him being found is questionable, as he appears this was down to the UK tabloid newspaper, The Mirror.

“Fourthly, the contaminated water supply that the citizens of Bhopal had been continually poisoned with over the last twenty years was eventually replaced.”

As a social activist it is often difficult to evaluate the specific contribution your campaign made to events in the real world. Idealised strategic plans are distorted when exposed to the noise of the unpredictable real world, and the outcomes complex and spread over time. Judging the individual contribution of specific elements such as photographs can be time consuming, and difficult to separate from other elements, such as text. In the case of Bhopal, purely text based information may have been enough for direct lobbying of the Indian government – presentation of facts and figures on how they had not fulfilled there obligations and commitments to the survivors. Were the photos for their consumption too? To make an emotive connection with policy and decision makers at the highest level? Were they for broader public consumption as a mechanism to shame the authorities through exposure? Or designed to mobilize the public in a mass political lobby?

The exhibition and book (and undoubtedly other Greenpeace campaign materials like the cinema ads) provided a draw to an audience to know more – an open door to learn visually about something they were unlikely to have personal access to. The exhibition – the photographs, but also other accompanying information – would have informed them on both a factual and emotive level. Beyond that? Without knowing the specifics it is difficult to judge – were there postcards available for the visitors to sign and send to the authorities? Was there a reliance on the media to spread the message more broadly about the contents of the exhibition and thus shame the government? And what of the book? An historical document or an integral campaign mechanism? As regular readers of The Rights Exposure Project will know, in my view photo exhibitions (and accompanying books) have to provide specific mechanisms for action to maximise their effectiveness if used for advocacy – channels directed at specific targets who can bring about or influence change. Without this they are ‘floating information’.

Another challenge in using exhibitions is that they have historically tended to gain authority through being displayed in what are often viewed as elitist venues (like art galleries) that restrict themselves to a minority audience of a certain educational and economic background. This criticism can also be levelled at the Web as a platform. The use of certain exhibition spaces or the Web is not problematic per se, but must be given considerable thought in regards to the audience you wish to access, and how the choice restricts access to others (though access is rapidly increasing). Alternative venues and innovative methods of display need to be considered in maximising contact with your target audience.

Where exhibitions work better in my opinion is where the aim is to change public attitudes or behaviour close to home e.g. addressing discrimination of marginalised groups within the country the exhibition is taking place in.

The Bhopal exhibition toured widely, visiting Europe, America, India and South East Asia. Where the photos where exhibited, to what audience, and what they then did is crucial in examining their role. However, the last part of this equation – and the most crucial – is the one least known about. Few organizations evaluate how people react to images used in their campaigns, and few funders are interested in providing money to organizations to find out. In fact, research into how people are influenced by images for social activism appears surprisingly thin on the ground. This is partly due to it being practically difficult to do, though research in the field of commercial advertising proves it is possible. An increasingly close relationship between NGOs and advertising agencies on constructing communication strategies and visual products could be very beneficial in this regard, despite some rather short sighted reservations about former commercial staff moving into the social sphere. Having members of your target audience help shape your visual materials, and evaluating their response, is vital in make stronger connections, and generating better responses. This is not just ‘feeding them what they need’ but would also help NGOs, over time, educate people on the complexities of the issues they work on, and thus rely less heavily on stereo-typical images.

In fact, the influence of agencies may already be evident in the change of visual emphasis of NGO campaigns. The introduction of a conceptual approach – termed by Prof. Lilie Chouliaraki of LSE/POLIS as a ‘post humanitarian sensibility’, focussing on the role of ‘you’ as an individual activist – prominently seen in the recent Oxfam UK campaign ‘Be Human Kind’ – moves away from a photojournalistic ‘witnessing’ style towards a what I would term a ‘life-style value based’ approach. How much this comes from the NGOs and how much from the agencies no doubt varies, but the impact may usher in widespread change in the use of visuals in social activism. The traditional use of documentary photographic aesthetics are being supplemented by animation, graphics and constructed images that will no doubt have an impact on the relationship between NGOs and photographers in years to come. Whether we will know how people feel about this change will depend on NGOs investing more in finding out.

The majority of photographers who work for NGOs are not as well known or have the experience of Raghu Rai. Many make their money through commercial work, and do work with NGOs at lower rates or expenses only. Even big NGOs do not generally have big bucks to throw at visuals – though not necessarily because they do not have big bucks but due to allocation of budget based on internal priorities. When top photographers are brought on-board the NGO will want their monies worth. Access is not so much of an issue in these situations, and Rai told me the access he was granted for his work on Bhopal was good. He is a ‘local photographer’ – though what this means in a country as diverse in caste, class, culture and geographic area as India I am not sure. He certainly appears to have approached the people and issues with a great deal of respect and sensitivity, and makes a point of telling me when I ask about working on such issues;

“We have no right to walk into another’s suffering”.

But despite this I find it hard to pin down his methodology – how did he approach this work in comparison to photographing the Golden Temple? I wonder if this is in part due to a gap between the activist and the photographer – that even where their broader goals overlap, their emphasis is different – in that the pursuit of an image is not the same as the pursuit of change. For the photographer the ‘truth’ is in the photo – if they can capture this they have done their job. For the activist this is (or shouldn’t be) enough. Their concern is not just whether the images speaks to their audience, but in making sure it is viewed by them, and that they act as planned. Winning the argument is as necessary as presenting the facts. And once persuaded, that people do something – other wise we are back to ‘floating information.’

As our conversation continues it drifts into a realm that I find difficult to analyse – not only as an activist, but also as part of the photographic discourse on visual representation. You do not need to have read very widely on photography to encounter the challenge to the objectivity of the image and its ability to present the ‘truth’. Despite a photographs appearance – presenting what looks like an untouched representation of a split second of a specific scene – it is in fact influenced by multiple subjective factors and power relations. Yet talking to Raghu Rai I am struck by how many times he talks about ‘authenticity’ and capturing the ‘truth’.

‘The creative moment nudges you into capturing the truth – you do not have a view point, instinct is such a powerful thing, nature’s magical hand, connects with eternal truth.’

Rai states his aim is to, “capture life, realities in totality”, but I cannot be sure whether he considers his ‘eye’ totally objective? Is this statement of how he tries to read a situation and, as he put it, capture “the truth of the moment” – purely metaphorical?

His statements seem to be counter to the widely accepted critique of the ‘naturalist’ view of photography – that some how by its nature it is ‘value free’, an authentic objective representation of reality, not influenced by the subjective inputs other arts are. Rai’s explanation of how this ‘truth’ is accessed strangely reminds me of the Zen Buddhist state of mind brough about by the practice of zazen. Although I am wary of ascribing a spiritual aspect to this explanation of his photographic process, I am left with no better explanation than that of the experiential ‘intuition’ he is trying to describe – developed through constant practice, allowing thought to recede, and thus subjective influences to disappear. Even if you accept that this can influence the photographic process at the point of framing and pressing the shutter, it still does not address issue before and after.

I ask him how this affected his work on Bhopal?

“History is written and re-written but photo history cannot be re-written”.

He talks about the importance of historic documentation and how it can serve a community or cause in the future. This is important, and much photographic work on ‘disappearances’, especially in South America, has formed an important record for future generations.

It is true, that a photo cannot be taken retrospectively of a moment that has past. But they can be faked or re-constructed after the fact. And nowadays, with the application of computer manipulation of digital images all sorts of shenanigans can go on. But this does not address the process prior to the capturing of the image, the selection of where and who to photograph. The photos that exist are a selected view of history, with certain elements included and excluded from the frame of each photograph. Just as importantly, over time the interpretation of the image will change. It is part of a wider social reading. It may be presented differently, manipulated and altered. The meaning of the photo is no more static than the re-writing of events over decades in text – as John Berger said, we can never look at the photo alone but at the relationship between the photo and ourselves. The viewer is as important as the image. This is what Roland Barthes calls ‘connoted knowledge’ – how the image is read, and how it fits into existing knowledge.

Much of the criticism of humanitarian photography – produced by photojournalists and used by NGOs – has not so much focussed on the ‘truth’ of an image but how it represents people in it. The mobilization of public action on distant suffering by presenting a ‘spectacle’ to evoke pity. In the case of Bhopal Rai was well aware of the difficulties picturing such an issue presented, and speaks about preserving the dignity of the individuals he photographs. He also commented on the challenge of communicating tragedy to your audience.

“It is important not to overload the viewer with tragedy, don’t repeat, just share enough otherwise people will give up.”

This reminds me of the issue of so-called ‘compassion fatigue’, something I have seen little evidence to support in my work in human rights. For me, this is not a ‘fatigue’ of compassion. If anything, what you do see in my experience is ‘lack of change fatigue’, which occurs generally when people expend effort or money to change something and fail – particularly if they do not know why. Surely the focus should be on whether the work of development or human rights agencies actually has impact, rather than whether they picked the right photos? Not that how you represent people is not important. In regards to images I think the problem may be one of ‘one dimensional stereo-typed representation’. Much literature focuses on whether people are presented as ‘victims’ or ‘active agents for change’, and the power relationship between the photographer and subject. For me what is more important is that peoples’ lives are presented in all their complexity. It should not be a case of ‘Starving child vs. Smiling child’ as neither conveys the complexities of the issue. Editing out the complexities of an individuals life, whether by doing so you represent them as disempowered or with ‘super smiley agency’, is equally incomplete.

Problems presented without root causes and lasting solutions are depressing and put people off, not the problems themselves. We need an approach to visual representation of social injustice that invests in long term awareness raising of the complexities of the challenges many people face and our inter-relationship to them. This could entail a cascading communication strategy from the single image conveying short sharp information for immediate action, to complex multi-media story telling that increases the audiences understanding over time. This will also allow a change in which ‘single’ images are used as what the audience knows develops. Stereotypical images will no longer stand. But this seems a long way off. NGOs and the media will need to dedicate more resources and time to their use of visual media, and build integrated communication strategies that look at the long term education of their target audiences. Whether any are interested in doing this is open to question. A joining of minds between academics, activists and photographers to share ideas for producing practical solutions would be a good starting point. One body doing this is POLIS at LSE through the research project Humanitarian and Development Communication in a Global Media Age.

How much the audience knows comes down in part to what they are presented, and what they are presented is usually what NGOs believe will motivate them to give money or take action. Over simplified, stereo-typed images will, in the long term back-fire on NGOs, not because the presentation of tragedy causes fatigue, but because you cannot facilitate sustainable empathy through simplistic representations. By presenting the complexities of others lives these connections can be made stronger, and sustained giving and activism be nurtured. It strikes me that the more I can see about an individual’s everyday life, no matter how removed from my own, the more likely I will find something of empathic connection, and so the more likely I am to act with greater commitment.

But are the many extreme situations shown in social campaigns too distant from the audience’s lives? Is always trying to show individual agency yet another distortion? Bhopal is a good example. Do we identify with the images in Rai’s photos, see links to our own existence, or are they distant people to be pitied – those who tragedy happens to? Are they courageously fighting for justice or have some succumbed to despair and given up? Do we end up thinking, there before the grace of god go I or that I need to do something? Finding the balance is key if we are to use images effectively in social activism.

Raghu Rai was born in 1942 in what is now Pakistan. He started photography in 1965, joining the Magnum photo agency in 1977.

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