What Are the Moral Responsibilities of a Photographer?

Raghubir Singh helped people to see India in a new way. But he also helped to romanticize its poverty

Photograph by Raghubir Singh, courtesy Royal Ontario Museum
Photograph by Raghubir Singh, courtesy Royal Ontario Museum

In an age before Instagram, photographer Raghubir Singh set out to create a new way of seeing India. Earlier photographers of the country had often focused on the exotic in their work—Singh’s photos, however, offer an atlas of everyday Indian life from the 1960s to the ’90s. His images include a band of women in rain-battered saris clustering together as the monsoon sweeps over Bihar and the charcoal silhouette of a holy man bathing in a world of ice and ethereal blue waters at the source of the Ganges. Some eighty-five of his pictures make up Modernism on the Ganges, a vibrant retrospective that was recently on display at the Royal Ontario Museum.

Singh was considered a pioneer in colour street photography. In 1983, he was awarded the Padma Shri, one of India’s highest civilian honours, and his work has been widely exhibited in venues including the Smithsonian Institution, the Tate Modern, and the Museum of Modern Art. He is worthy of comparison with such Western luminaries as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank. However, unlike Cartier-Bresson and the other humanist photographers that Singh admired, he worked exclusively in colour: Singh believed the Western penchant for black-and-white photography revealed a darker preoccupation with angst and alienation. Singh argued that, in India, the use of colour was part of a long aesthetic tradition dating back to the Mughals and had a spiritual dimension rooted in the idea of darsan, or sacred perception.

Singh’s photographs offer an important visual record of an India on the cusp of modernity and the fading of an era in which the greatest currency was person-to-person exchange. His work provokes questions, still urgent as ever, about India’s conflicted modernity as the twenty-first century matures and about looking at the practice of photography as an ethics of how to see the world.

Born into an aristocratic family in Jaipur, Rajasthan, in 1942, the first stirrings of the photographer within Singh came when he received a camera from his brother on his fourteenth birthday. He instantly developed a passion for the medium of photography, and he later wrote that “my heartbeat ran an umbilical cord to my camera.” Around the same time, he discovered Cartier-Bresson’s lyrical photos of Jaipur on his parents’ bookshelf. Singh believed that Cartier-Bresson was the first photographer “to look at Indians as individuals,” and in doing so, Singh wrote, Cartier-Bresson’s work contained “a palpable humanism.” This is a feature that Singh himself later sought to replicate.

After dropping out of college and failing to get a job in the tea business, Singh immersed himself in the streets of Calcutta and started to sell his work to magazines. His first big break came in 1967 when Life bought his photograph of riots in Jaipur. A month later, the New York Times Magazine ran a photograph of his on the new communist government in Kerala. Regular assignments for Time, Life, and National Geographic all followed, allowing him to cobble together an income and receive a free supply of colour film.

In his spare time, Singh pursued his own artistic projects, eventually producing more than ten books of photographs. Singh was at his best in the 1970s, when he turned his nostalgic eye to his beloved Rajasthan, capturing the vitality that he saw in life there—from women rocking recklessly on a swing as village life flows around them to the wild crush of revellers in ecstasy during Holi, the festival of spring. The pictures are an elegy for the old ways, when mud huts stored grain and peacocks strutted at bus stops, and bring spontaneous outbursts of joy and play and colour into focus.

In the 1980s, Singh brought what he called his “democratic eye” to bear on India’s holiest city, Varanasi, to capture the lives of its denizens, from the betel leaf seller to the wrestler, and its joie de vivre. His photos show men playing chess on a raft as the Ganges swells in the monsoon as well as boys plummeting off half-sunken temple spires into the flooding river. Striking as these images might seem to someone who has never visited the city, however, they failed to move me or alter my understanding of Varanasi’s streets and landscapes, which was garnered from many months living on the banks of the holy river. Singh gathered scenes that I have stumbled upon countless times in my peregrinations through the city. As interesting as his shots of chess players and wrestlers might be as a window into another culture for strangers, they left me unenlightened in the same way that a simple shot of a woman walking a dog in Toronto’s High Park might simultaneously be a source of indifference for a local and fascination for a villager in New Guinea unaccustomed to everyday life in Western cities. I could not help feeling that Singh missed something in his work: these are photographs taken by an outsider for outsiders, offering little insight for anyone with an intimate knowledge of the place.

Compare Singh’s photos of Varanasi to Michael Ackerman’s black-and-white photographs of the same place. The latter, though he is not from India, stirs and startles, even after repeated views. Ackerman’s genius lies in his ability to retrain the way our eyes process the city. His photographs contain the feel of pilgrims transfigured in the morning light and the howl of dogs snapping at something they cannot reach: they are equal parts sublime and nightmare. If the test of an artist is to renew our acquaintance with people or places that are familiar and make them appear in a new light, I can’t help but think that Singh doesn’t quite succeed here. His pictures—and not just those of Varanasi—often seem to confirm what Susan Sontag described as the tendency of photography to depict an empty interestingness of humanity. To paraphrase Sontag on Cartier-Bresson, it sometimes seems that when Singh photographs India, he shows that there are people in India and that they are Indian, but he fails to offer any insight—or even any path to any insight—as to what this might mean.

Moreover, there is also a danger that Singh takes an overly romanticized view of the poverty he chronicled. Take the photograph “Village Well” from 1977 in Rajasthan. Women in flaming saris, cattle, and camels gather by a well, the idealized heart of rural life. In fact, the area had been ravaged by a drought, the crops had died, and the well was so parched that the villagers had no other source of water for themselves, their fields, and their animals. In the introduction to his book Rajasthan: India’s Enchanted Land, Singh recounts that upon entering the scene, he heard a peasant say “I have eaten only a bit of gruel today.”

For Singh, there were a hundred such villages in Rajasthan, and his objective as a photographer was not to depict their wretchedness, which he believed was best left to others, or to reveal beauty in a state of abjection. He was concerned with “the lyric poetry inherent in the life of India.” “I find it futile to add to the volumes written on the poor in India,” he writes in his introduction to Rajasthan. “But it is important to point out that in spite of their poverty, the peasants of Rajasthan have spun out a wealth of folk culture. Their exuberance, their vitality, their ability to laugh, to sing and dance, interwoven into the rich fabric of their culture, makes them stand out.” Indeed, Singh found no contradiction “between sadness or poverty and color.”

While all artists invariably follow the unconscious dictates of their own taste and conscience, Singh’s approach still raises the question of whether it is morally right for a photograph to elide suffering in a context of acute deprivation. Should the photographer—especially one with a self-proclaimed “democratic eye”—have a responsibility to bear witness, even provoke moral outrage? Or does the camera act as “a kind of passport,” as Sontag once put it in relation to Diane Arbus, eliminating “moral boundaries and social inhibitions, freeing the photographer from any responsibility toward the people photographed”?

Yet, while there may be something questionable in Singh’s photographs that glorify of the poverty of village life at the expense of acknowledging (and provoking reflection on the causes of) the suffering of the villagers, he was not wrong in seeing poetry among the poor.

By the early 1990s, signs of the impending changes to the social and moral fibre of India introduced by economic liberalization encroached into Singh’s work: a television set raised onto a pedestal, a man prostrate on a roof in the shadow of a giant satellite dish thrust into the sky. The India that Singh loved was rapidly changing as the economy opened up to foreign goods and investment. Varanasi today is a bustling crossroads of pizza parlours, ancient monasteries, and boutique hotels; orange-robed monks wielding iPads brush past fair-haired Swedes, and the strains of Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito” mingle with temple bells. Here, the clash between tradition and a forward-looking modernity that Singh’s final photographs anticipate is coming to a head with a crash.

While many people in India are electric with hope at the prospect of material progress, some lament the loss of cherished ways of living that Singh tried to capture in the 1980s. In order to progress materially, must one discard valued aspects of one’s culture and tradition? Must globalization invariably sever a place from its past? These are questions that Singh’s last photographs, taken before his death in 1999, portend.

The changes precipitated in the wake of India’s economic liberalization have also, especially in the cities, cracked the old immutable order that placed one caste above the other and the rights of a man above that of a woman, giving many people a voice they never had in an age when upper-caste families, such as Singh’s, held much of the wealth. As I have found in my own work, the point of greatest contention is now the relationship between the sexes, as women increasingly assert their agency in the ways they work, dress, study, and speak. The hostility of many men toward increasingly independent women, and their often barely concealed contempt for women’s rights, is palpable.

Singh himself—like many male artists in India and elsewhere—has not emerged from this conflict unblemished. In December 2017, Jaishri Abichandani, his former assistant, came forward as part of the burgeoning #MeToo movement to accuse him of coercing her into sex in the mid-1990s. She staged a silent protest outside the Met Breuer, where Singh’s retrospective was then on display, hoping to provoke a debate about sexual violence and the arts.

The ROM’s choice to go ahead with its exhibit was not made without debate. Other museums and their visitors have addressed the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements in their own ways, such as with the performative protests staged in front of the works of Pablo Picasso at the MOMA and the panel on how to view Casanova in the #MeToo era held at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. The ROM’s solution was to stage another exhibit, two flights of stairs down from Modernism on the Ganges, called #MeToo & the Arts. It included a video of interviews with members of the local arts and activist communities addressing the thorny questions of how to separate art from the artist (though there is no pointed reference to Singh in those clips). The exhibit also had a timeline of the way the arts world has dealt with #MeToo and another timeline of Abichandani’s accusations against Singh.

One of the larger questions raised by the Singh exhibit is how cultural institutions should deal with the work of canonized dead male artists guilty or suspected of sexual violence and, more broadly, how they should deal with a culture of gender-based violence in the arts. Singh has become as much a part of the canon of modern Indian art as Paul Gauguin or Picasso are to Western painting; to refuse to exhibit the work of this dead non-white artist should be out of the question if the works of those white artists are left untouched.

However, if the ROM’s objective with the #MeToo addition was to truly incite conversation among the general public, surely it would have been far more powerful for the ROM to place its two exhibits beside each other. As it is, the visitors I spoke with at the Singh retrospective were unaware of the accusations against him or the parallel exhibit that the ROM was hosting downstairs (there was a sign at the entrance to the Singh exhibit saying, “#MeToo & the Arts Level One,” but it is easy to miss the connection between the two). The ROM’s response in showing the #MeToo exhibit is politically correct but lacked teeth; this tepid response is what is come to be expected of an institution trying to address complex issues of power and oppression while trying to skirt any controversy whatsoever.

When viewed in conjunction, Modernism on the Ganges and #MeToo & the Arts invite us to more deeply examine photography (the photographed and the photographer in his milieu) as a moral enterprise that questions the ethics of seeing and being in the world. In tandem, they raise an important question: Must great art also be a force for good?

Manini Sheker
Manini Sheker is a scholar and writer interested in religion, the arts, social justice, and the environment. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Independent and Aeon, among others.