The thing that terrifies me the most

Reflections from Delhi

Annie McCarthy

Society and culture, Development | South Asia

16 March 2014

Annie McCarthy writes to us from her fieldwork in Delhi.

The thing that terrifies me the most me about the children who I work with, is how easy they are objectify. Save the Children or any other NGO would only have to add text to any one of my photos to launch a global campaign against child malnutrition, child labor or any other evil affixable to the child. My work as an anthropologist researching children’s storytelling in several low-income communities in Delhi, is not so exceptional to make these photos a rarity. I have no doubt that these kinds of images lie benignly in the iPhoto albums of all travelers to India. Statistics suggest that 40% of children in India are malnourished, which makes it pretty easy to snap-up a few images of them during an average day out and about. Even photographs of happy looking children can be manipulated, as in Save the Children India’s recent ‘Unemployed and Happy’ campaign against child labor. Child Labor, well specifically the absence of it, here is no longer couched as previously in the discourse of human or child rights but in terms of the ephemeral and elusive quality of happiness.

My grandparents remarked of my photos that none of the children were starving. It’s true, most were not starving, they were malnourished, stunted and as with human beings everywhere they were sometimes happy and sometimes sad. An unvoiced expectation that they might be starving betrays an understanding of visual representations of children in the  ‘third-world’/global south that predominates in Australia and beyond.

It’s not that photographs of adults in similar situations are not powerful, but rather that photographs of children are powerful in a different way; a way that scares me; a way that I can’t always control.

This does not apply just to photographs, even when creating a ‘picture’ of my field in words, meaning shifts beyond my words fitting into a far more easily recognized discourse of lack, sympathy, charity and intervention. Having set the scene in a squat one-room shanty in which nine people live, it is hard for the tales of one girl’s agency and initiative to be anything but a ‘struggle against the odds’, something precious or admirable ‘in spite of’ her circumstances. Tales of children performing plays amongst garbage elicit a certain kind of praise and admiration that shake the foundations of what ‘we’ know childhood is meant to be. Just as these childhoods fail to live up to a culturally-historically-specific-ideal-that-deludes-itself-with-universality, so they are seen through a lens of lack, sympathy and charity.

In trying to avoid de-valuing the lives of the poor I do want to stress the importance of ‘lack’. Not lack in the holistic way in which we seem to understand it in which entire lives or ways of living are lacking, but the ‘lack’ that happens when there is no more sugar in the government ration handout, when after lining up for water for several hours there is only a tiny dribble.

Today I photographed women waiting in line for a government ration, in the pressing of a button a scene of   ‘lack’ was captured for all time. These women only line up for rations once a month.

What scares me most in the work that I do is that I won’t be able to capture enough of ‘all the other moments’ in the lives of the children to fill out a picture whose meaning is not so easily hijacked. The boy in the white pants and shirt only rubbed his eyes for two seconds, and the narrow lane is only one of the places Jitender wanted to pose for photographs.

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