The Aesthetics of Toxicity – Gayatri Sinha

Perhaps one of the most tantalizing aspects of the virus, has been its invocation of a certain blindness, its pervasive unseen presence, the complete occlusion of the sick loved ones behind hospital walls and their final rites, which allowed no closure for families. The analogy of blindness extended to attendant processes: alien figures in PPE suits, lack of a tangible health regime, and the complete inability to look into the future with a prognosis for the human race. How long would this last? Who would survive it?


The photograph entered this manic empty space with great courage and intent, seeking to fill the void. The New York Times images of lockdown from around the world, titled “The Great Empty,” created an apocalyptic vision of evacuated streets and shopping malls, in imitation of a Hollywood disaster film. Epidemic photography, as it came to be known after the third wave of the bubonic plague that spread from China to every continent in 1894, killing more than 12 million people, also pointed to the asymmetries of power. Medical photography like colonial photography, arguably invoked “the empires of the visual” by objectifying the colonized as the passive recipients of western medicine.[1] Now photography has more generative engines, on social media. Slowly entering and then cascading into the spaces of Facebook and Instagram, the view from one’s balcony, or of the family living room brought millions of lived-and-felt images of the epidemic experience into global consciousness. “The invisibility of the main actor has led to a flood of ‘indirect images’ that struggle to stand for the event.”[2] As in the catastrophe of the mid 1890s, and then 1918, it is the photograph that links outbreaks in different parts of the world to register the pandemic in the field of vision.


Through the 2020 phase, or what in India is known as Covid 1, writers bemoaned the absence of an iconic photo. Citing again the blindness invoked by the virus, they unsuccessfully sought the single photograph that made mass response actionable.[3] The explanation was that perhaps the event was too spread out, over months and years, rather than hours or days. Disaster photography is marked by the single frame, that has mass recall: Steve McCurry’s portrait of Sharbat Gula (1984) that epitomized the Afghan war, the Napalm girl of the Vietnam War, photographed by Nick Ut (1968), the buried child of the Bhopal gas tragedy, captured by both Pablo Bartholomew and Raghu Rai (1984), Arko Datta’s picture of Qutubuddin Ansari, begging for his life in the 2002 riots have come to represent instant recall, even years after the tragedy. However even as the world was settling into a more healthful regime, India gave it its iconic pandemic photographs. In a country that is deeply committed to enacting birth and death rituals, the images of burning pyres in a Delhi parking lot, or bodies floating in the Ganga in a violation of the rites of passage seemed to stir an atavistic horror, of a pre-civilizational state, perhaps presaging a complete abandonment of all forms of civility.


The writers invited to this edition reflect on some of the compelling aspects of epidemic photography: the ethical concerns of invading the spaces of the sick, but also questions on modalities of governance (Bharucha), the apocalyptic filmic vision of disease and contagion in Indian cinema (Chakravarty), and finally an artist’s response to the possible aesthetic regimes of contamination (Agarwal). Artists and photographers in the recent past in India have focused on ecological waste and toxicity to perform a generative function: a photograph of a site of degradation is both a document and a work of art. Here perhaps lies the seeds of possibility: if toxicity and neglect can allow for a materialization of intent, then activists, urban planners and artists can exploit this potential into creating functional harmonious sites of public engagement.





[1] Christos Lynteris and Ruth Prince, “Anthropology and Medical Photography: Ethnographic, Critical and Comparative Perspectives,” Visual Anthropology 29 (2) (April 2016): 2.


[2] J. Sonnevend, “A Virus as an Icon: The 2020 Pandemic in Images,” American Journal of Cultural Sociology vol. 8 (2020): 451-453.


[3] Ibid.



Copyright © 2021, PhotoSouthAsia. All Rights Reserved.

by Gayatri Sinha

Guest Editor

PhotoSouthAsia is honored to welcome Gayatri Sinha as Guest Editor. Here Sinha introduces her selected topic, which is addressed by her team of invited essayists:

Amrita Chakravarty: Covid-19 Between the Visible and Invisible

Ravi Agarwal: Biological to Biopolitical

Rustom Bharucha: Beyond Photography

Photograph © Saurabh Dua

Guest Editor

Gayatri Sinha is an editor, art critic, and curator based in New Delhi. She is the founder / director of criticalcollective.in, a knowledge portal on Indian visual culture. She has edited numerous books, including Voices of Change: 20 Indian Artists (Marg Publications, 2010), Art and Visual Culture in India 1857-2007 (Marg, 2009); and Indian Art: an Overview (Rupa Books, 2003), among others, and currently is editing a double volume on Indian photography.

Sinha has curated extensively at museums in India and abroad, including in Bangladesh, Belgium, Germany, the U.S., and at leading private galleries. She also wrote as art critic for the Indian Express and The Hindu, and has written monographs on the artists Krishen Khanna, Adimoolam and Himmat Shah. She served as visiting professor at JNU and the Bhau Daji Lad Museum, and has lectured across the world on Indian art, including at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Arken Museum, Copenhagen; Centre Pompidou, Paris; TrAIN / University of Arts, Tate Modern, and Tate Britain, London; and others. She is recipient of a Ford Foundation grant (1998-2001), and the Tate Asia Research grant (2017).

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Date Published

20 November

Features, Spotlight