12 December, 2008


Can a victim say “no” to a camera which promises to expose injustice,
while knowing full well that the photograph may only provide a vicarious reproduction of their lived experience out to a sympathetic but ineffectual audience?

Can a photograph change the world? For many gazing at the photographs hanging at the latest exhibit at the Art Council at Babar Mahal, “Prison and the rights of detainees,” an awareness raising campaign on the conditions of Nepali prisons held a day before the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it appeared that it could.
A picture is worth a thousand words, goes the old saying. The human rights world of Nepal, it seems, has embraced this theory with a great deal of enthusiasm, funding exhibits featuring everything from the effects of war to the families of the disappeared.
The photographs, taken by Kiran Pandey, and featuring overcrowded jail rooms, unhappy inmates, and broken down facilities, make a good plea for reform.
Nepali prisons are horrifically overcrowded, with extremely low toilet and sanitation facilities. In one prison I visited in Nepalgunj a few years ago, men took turns to sleep because there was not enough floor space. Many slept under the open sky in the cold Terai winter months. The official capacity of Nepali jails (as of 2008) is 5000 -- currently there are 8810 inmates.
While the photographer has done a meticulous job, he's not exhaustive. A female photographer may also have caught a specific detail that plagues female inmates -- while the government allocates a set of clothing which includes a sari, petticoat and blouse for female inmates, it doesn't include that most essential of garments for women i.e. feminine underwear.
“This exhibit would have been better held at a public place like the Basantapur Durbar Square,” a viewer commented, and it was hard not to see his logic. The hall was crowded with UN employees and photographers -- clearly, a choir of the converted. The exhibit will be taken out and shown in five districts, which will expand its impact beyond the awareness-saturated valley crowd.
The impact of photographers like Sebastian Salgado, who've documented social issues (in his case, workers and migrants) has been global. His powerful photographs of people at work and at move have shaped the way we view the world. Riding on this trend, photography has seen a popular resurgence in the social movements of Nepal. The “People's War” photo book and exhibit made a profound impact on the turning of the civil conflict by showing visually the impact of conflict on all parties. Kishore Kayasttha recently did an exhibit on the families of the disappeared, which appeared online and showed how the disappearances still impact entire families.
Photography, however, is not just a panacea in itself. And often the viewer has to ask herself (or himself) if the glossy photographs on the wall really work to fulfill their function (in this case, social awareness) if they're not tied to other, more concrete policy and programming. Going back to Susan Sontag, who wrote a powerful book titled “On Photography,” in which she looks at the way technologies of reproduction can be used to capture the subjects, the viewer must ask himself if the inmates, in this case, were again “captured” and imprisoned in a format that denude them of their rights.
The majority of jail inmates in Nepal still await trial -- their rights are clearly being violated not just because they are denied basic needs, but also because they are being denied a fair trial. As with all victims of human rights violations who've faced not just one layer of violations, but several layers -- including the injustice of human rights providers who take up their time and energy promising justice but fail to deliver on these promises -- even the presence of a camera can add an additional layer of helplessness. Can a victim say “no” to a camera which promises to expose injustice, while knowing full well that the photograph may only provide a vicarious reproduction of their lived experience out to a sympathetic but ineffectual audience?
Jails, even the well-funded and well-managed kind, cause problems to communities all over the world. Many social advocates see incarceration as an unhappy solution to what may be other underlying symptoms, causes and manifestations of social inequality. In Nepal, the problem of overcrowded jails may not be solved by more jails, but through programs in community and restorative justice programs which would deal with the least violent offenders.
The heavy emphasis on the formal justice system, which has seen donors pouring money into an old-fashioned and longwinded court system, must shift to programs in restorative justice programs which solve minor offenses within the community quickly and fairly. Justice delayed is justice denied -- and for many prisoners their long wait for a fair trail is itself a violation of their human rights, inbuilt, paradoxically, into the system of justice.
The Nepali justice system clearly needs reform -- including better penal systems with adequate facilities and systems for those who must be incarcerated. But for many others who are jailed without adequate proof or for minor offenses, programmes which encourage them to provide community service may be the best alternative.
OHCHR has done a commendable job by taking the first step to expose the horrific conditions of Nepali jails. Now let us see it take this advocacy to the next level -- including funding for better sanitation and dormitory facilities, quicker and fairer trials, and more importantly -- the development of systems that provide an alternative to the formal justice system.
Posted on: 2008-12-12 19:33:25 (Server Time)

1 comment:

NayanTara said...

Sushma, very apt. Thanks for writing this.