Beyond Photography – Rustom Bharucha

In the trillions of photographs circulating in the electronic media like an ever-mutating multitude of viruses, most Indian newspapers seem to be practicing a kind of visual tapas (austerity) in their erasure of images representing the pandemic. It would be hard, for instance, to imagine a photograph of dead bodies floating in the Ganga on the front cover of leading newspapers. It could be argued that such an image has been deliberately withheld by conscientious Indian editors on ethical grounds following journalistic protocols on the limits of representation. Dead bodies in the Ganga could be considered too sensitive, far too disturbing, for public viewing.


In contrast, a more realist position would be that the whitewashing of such an image needs to be linked to the widespread, yet tacit, censorship (and self-censorship) at work in the increasingly normalized work-culture of fear that dominates the Indian media today. Editors tend to play safe and all images that are likely to be considered anti-national, or worse, anti-Hindu, are erased. Significantly, it is possible to write about dead bodies in the Ganga, drawing on descriptions by writers like Suryakant Tripathy “Nirala,” who had observed similar bodies during earlier pandemics like the Spanish Influenza of 1918-1919. However, it is not possible to see such dead bodies visualized in the reportage of Indian newspapers, among other atrocities of the pandemic.


Using the Spanish Influenza pandemic as a point of reference, it is useful to point out the lamentable dearth of images that exists of this global catastrophe, whose virulence was a lot more lethal than what we are experiencing today. Arguably, in the closing months of World War I, by which time the virus had already begun to spread, this dearth of photographs can be attributed to war censorship. However, by the end of the war, when the pandemic had intensified in the last months of 1918, an overwhelming ennui and exhaustion resulted in an acute failure to record the pandemic. This is particularly evident in the Indian context. Historian David Arnold has pointed out to me in correspondence that, “There are no visuals of the [Spanish Flu] epidemic [in India] that I know of any kind whatsoever. It’s always U.S. images that are used for India, which is iconographic nonsense.”


Significantly, there is more visual reportage to be found of dead bodies during the plague epidemic of Bombay from 1896 onwards, when images of cremation pyres were featured in newspapers, although not in the large number that exists today in the global media. Likewise, there are many more images today of hospitals in India with decaying infrastructures and patients sharing beds, waiting for an adequate supply of oxygen or basic health care. In contrast, as Arnold emphasizes, “Between 1896-98, when the image of the hospital was shown, it was one of intended calm and magisterial order in the face of the overwhelming panic and chaos outside. Now panic and chaos have come to epitomize the hospital.”


In the “second wave” of the pandemic in India, cremation grounds and hospitals dominate the visual narrative. This is in contrast to the exodus of millions of laborers in the first phase of the lockdown whose long march back to their village homes has been graphically visualized. Through both phases of the pandemic, one needs to question the ownership of many of these images by the largest media agencies of the world, notably Getty Images, Reuters, BBC, and CNN. While most of the photographers of the pandemic represented in these agencies are of South Asian origin, and all the photographs have been shot in India in situ, in the harshest and most localized of circumstances, the reality is that these photographs are part of a global archive, which remains highly patented for all its rampant circulation on social networks worldwide.


This is a different capital-intensive and corporate scenario from the earlier control of images relating to war, famine, or disease by national governments. A knee-jerk nativist response to the current phenomenon would be that such a blatant focus on the misery of India merely reiterates the “Third World” reality of India with a vengeance. Once again, the onslaught of these images calls attention to the extreme and possibly exotic representation of the spectacle of death and suffering.


In contrast, a more measured critical response would be that while global capitalism devours images, it also facilitates their distribution at a phenomenal level, circumventing all possible attempts to censor the sheer visceral horror and suffering of millions of people during the pandemic. We can – indeed, we must – question how the pandemic can become a spectacle in this hard-sell onslaught of photographs, made possible by the most sophisticated of technologies, including drones. However, we cannot deny that these images, many of them too searing in their impact to be witnessed in a dispassionate mode, represent events that actually happened. In this sense, they have an ethical value in so far as they show us what the Indian state would prefer us not to see in its concerted attempt to manufacture amnesia in a state of undeclared emergency.


Shifting ethical considerations into a more emotional and personal register, I would acknowledge that the photographs of the pandemic which struck me most deeply were those that were not made by the most accomplished professionals in the field. Rather, I was more drawn to the images by relatively unknown photographers who chose to focus not on the epic scale of the tragedy but on very ordinary – one could say, banal – images of family members crying and holding on to each other, following the death of a loved one. As I found myself surfing hundreds of images on my laptop in an almost voyeur-like state, occasionally numbed into silent witnessing, it was these direct exposures to people crying and clinging to each other, without the surreal protection of plastic safety suits, that made me cry.


This compels me to think of the ethics of crying during a pandemic. At a time when the rituals of mourning have been shattered, when families have waited long hours to retrieve the ashes of a loved one from overcrowded crematoria, it is possible that many individuals returned home from the cremation ground without the ashes of a parent, sibling, partner, or friend. I would look upon this failure to retrieve ashes as an involuntary desecration of ritual. Denied the possibility of a concentrated period of mourning, with all the obligatory condolences, prayers, offerings, and funerary feasts, the only thing that millions of people in India today can fall back on is relentless, unrequited grief. As a culture, we take pride in the collective modalities of coming together as families and communities during a death or calamity. Today, in the severe constraints imposed on our possibilities to congregate, people are separated, desperately alone. All they have to fall back on is grief in inchoate, highly personalized, untranslatable registers.


In this preponderance of grief, it becomes particularly odious to be reminded of the Solicitor General of India’s derisive words, “Let’s try and not be a cry baby,” in response to the Delhi government’s plea for increased oxygen allocation. With her consummate ability to pierce through the political deceptions of any crisis, Arundhati Roy in her analysis “We are Witnessing a Crime Against Humanity” (The Guardian, 28.Apr.2021), uses these insidious words “Let’s try and not be a cry baby,” as a leitmotif that splices her chillingly accurate report on India’s Covid catastrophe. This is not just a rhetorical device, but a reminder of the stonewalling façade of the government, which refuses to show any remorse for its gross mismanagement of the pandemic, still less any acknowledgement.


Returning to the ethics of crying in response to the grief of unknown families, I would say that this is not a question of Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), as Susan Sontag has formulated in a partial rewrite of her classic On Photography (1977). In the later book, she is less critical of the appropriative and aggressive dimensions of photography and more open to its empathetic possibilities and long-term resonances beyond the camera’s first encounter of a scene of suffering. When I see an Indian family crying who have lost someone during the pandemic, they are not “others” for me. And I am not “regarding” them. I am crying as much for myself and whatever surrounds me in the ruins of what I am compelled to call “my country” with an immediacy of feeling that cuts through me, rather like a “wound.” Perhaps this is somewhat analogous, though not identical, to how Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida (1980) has theorized the “punctum,” which exists not just as a “detail” but as an undying memory which continues to sting, hurt, and wound.

Beyond a purely photographic context, we need to claim grief in languages of our own, defying the anonymity of today’s sanitization of messages on WhatsApp and SMS. This is the point made with considerable subtlety by Arkesh Ajay and Aahana Dhar in a recent essay published in Caravan (6.Jun.2021) where they state that, “No one should live a life where they already have the language for grief when it arrives.” Ajay and Dhar are responding to a matter-of-fact message received on a Smartphone in which a friend states cryptically, “[My mother] left me at 6 p.m. last evening.” It is not just the state that is responsible for an unacknowledged moratorium on excessive, uncontrolled grief; we too are complicit in this narrative as we attempt to get on with our lives, not fully opening ourselves to the implications of grief in relation to “remembering” the pandemic in all its vulnerability and brutality.


What can images do beyond the acknowledgement of grief? This is where I am compelled to open what could be the hardest and least explored of investigations in dealing with the ethics of photography: the potentiality of images not merely to record but to indict those who are responsible for any catastrophe. If, as Arundhati Roy emphatically designates this catastrophe as a “crime against humanity,” what are the means of addressing this crime at a legal level? This is not an easy question because the protocols of the law, while admitting photographs as part of the larger search for evidence and forensic truth, still continue to have a largely ambivalent relationship to the media. As yet, photographs alone are not likely to be accepted as the grounds on which judgements can be made.


Perhaps we need to explore new modes of providing evidence of atrocity that could combine photographs with written histories of blatant neglect and dereliction of public duty by agencies of the state. I am thinking here in particular of the non-availability of oxygen for a large number of individuals in India who choked to death in their last moments, while their loved ones looked on, helplessly. Oxygen, I would argue, is not a vaccine. It is a life-sustaining resource whose availability in the 21st century should be readily assumed within the confines of a hospital, all the more so during a state of emergency. To see a parent, brother or sister, partner or friend, or unknown civilian, choke to death because oxygen is not available is, to my mind, unforgivable and unacceptable. It is a crime against humanity made all the more painful by the cruel fact that these individuals might have lived if oxygen had been available.


How do we find new structures of truth-telling through photographs, supplemented by contextualized narratives, that can actually engage with the possibilities of justice? Do these structures have to be mobilized only within the extra-legal dimensions of truth commissions, outside the strictures of official state law, as forcefully argued by lawyers Abhinav Verma and Radhika Roy (Scroll, May 13, 2021)? While the catharsis of sharing personal stories of atrocity and injustice has the potential to heal, does it always result in justice or reparation for the persons sharing their pain? It is in the struggle to activate these questions into new legal procedures that the ethics of photography can be freed from its preoccupations with representation and distribution into new articulations of igniting the larger search for justice.




For some iconic photographs of the pandemic, see the following websites:




I would like to thank David Arnold, Pablo Bartholomew, Mohan Rao, Anand Sahay, Sondeep Shankar, Oishik Sircar and Christina Zueck for their insights on photography in relation to the pandemic.



Copyright © 2021, PhotoSouthAsia. All Rights Reserved.

Rustom Bharucha was invited to write this essay for PhotoSouthAsia by our Guest Editor, Gayatri Sinha. We encourage you to begin with Sinha's introduction, The Aesthetics of Toxicity, and to also read Sinha's other invited essayists:

Amrita Chakravarty: Covid-19 Between the Visible and Invisible

Ravi Agarwal: Biological to Biopolitical

Photograph © Farah Gherda

Author's Bio

Rustom Bharucha is a writer and dramaturg based in Kolkata. Author of several books including Theatre and the World, The Politics of Cultural Practice, Terror and Performance, The Question of Faith, In the Name of the Secular, Rajasthan: An Oral History, and Another Asia. He has just completed a new monograph on the pandemic titled The Second Wave.

His nine-episode video lecture on Theatre and the Coronavirus can be accessed online.

Date Published

20 November