After the Mumbai rape,what is our action plan as individuals,employers,organisations?
Throughout my career I have been asked,How does it feel to be a woman photographer? Initially,I would jokingly reply Its the only way I know how to be a photographer. But as more women started to express an interest in pursuing photography,I started to give more responsible and encouraging answers like,I am looked upon with a certain amount of curiosity,but being a woman allows me access,people dont feel threatened by my presence. I believed it. I still believe it,but I now wonder if all these comments needed to be punctuated with more words of caution. I wonder if I need to tell them about how I once woke up in my hotel room and found the bellboy standing over my bed. I wonder if I need to recount that while crouching on the ground during a festival,I didnt realise I had been surrounded by a group of drunken boys and had to crawl through their legs before the leering,lewd gesticulating and touching turned into something uglier. I wonder if I need to talk about the things I never talk about,like fear,because I have been lucky enough to come out safely.
I think it is time not to be ashamed to talk about fear. Fear is what ensures I look back as I walk,its what makes me look for exits when I enter potentially difficult spaces,it is what keeps me alert and often,alive. I call it other things like discomfort or commonsense,because its weak to be afraid it might expose me for what I am,a woman.
Let me use an example. A writer had done a story in Gujarat and I was being sent to shoot it. I was told to stay where he stayed. After I booked the Rs 300 room,I took a moment to consider that the phone had been answered by a young man who had asked me to hold on while he gave the phone to his father,who ran the home-stay. It occurred to me that I should not stay alone where there is a young man in the house,so I called to cancel it. I pretended not to notice the tone in my office when I said I was going to stay in a more expensive hotel instead,but decided that I would go to see the home-stay when I got to the location,to quell my own curiosity. I did go. The father asked me for my ID,but as I didnt have a press card,I handed over my business card. Years later,I still receive uncomfortable phone calls on my mobile from his son who once said,Dont tell my father I called you. I cant,I dont have his number any more.
Why am I sharing this story? For the past few days,we have expressed our outrage and disgust,we have shouted for justice,as we rightly should. But so much of what I have been reading feels like posturing. Repeatedly re-enacting the incident to increase shock or distaste is like preaching to the choir. Yes,we know a despicable act was committed,but what can we do now? What is our action plan,as individuals,as employers,as organisations? We need an effective short-term strategy that will help safeguard our citizens. We need to look inward,and start closer to home.
As press,we are expected to take calculated risks. That is the job,but what do our employers do to protect us? When we join,do they give us any safety guidelines while travelling around the city or the country on an assignment? Do interns receive consistent mentorship on safety in the field? Do the people controlling the purse strings know what it means to be on the ground,or what it means to be gender sensitive?
These questions are in no way about this particular,heinous incident,but ones that I feel need to be addressed based on experiences that I,and many of my peers,have had. They are questions that have been highlighted by this tragedy,and are for media organisations across the board. But we dont have to stop at the media. Why dont we make it an institutional obligation for all employers to ensure that,every few months,all their staff has to attend safety seminars?
I couldnt sleep the night I heard about this incident. For 13 years I have psychologically converted my camera into my protective shield one that I felt would keep me from harm as it showed that I have the means to retaliate. My shield has been shattered. I do feel scared. I think we all should. But this fear should not paralyse us,nor stop us from doing our work but channel it so we can do our work better.
Over the past few days,several journalists and photographers have been talking about creating a voluntary mentoring programme for interns,or young people who work in the media and want guidance. Until then,if there are photographers who feel they need to talk,you can look me up. I am easy to find.
The writer is photo editor,National Geographic Traveller India