As a photojournalist, one of the most challenging beats to work on is the crime beat. It is a beat of extremes. I end up doing work that emotionally drains me out to something that is very mundane.
Ask any committed news photographer —What does it mean to hold the lens on to the face of the grieving or the dying? The answer will most often be hard to come by. Perhaps, it is best not to ask, as you are actually asking a witness to relive those moments— moments where one experiences deep emotional strain while making split-second ethical decisions, moments where the lines between the right and the wrong often get blurred, moments that continue to bother you even if people stop asking about it.
They say that when it comes to ethics, there is never a clear line of separation between the right and the wrong. What exists is moral dilemma and tension. These dilemmas are often resolved on a case to case basis.
While I ponder over the emotional roller coaster ride involved in covering crime beats, I pause for a moment to think about the life of photographers working in the conflict zones. They face death in all its manifestations on a daily basis. I’ve never worked in conflict zones. Most of my work has been in and around Bangalore city.
For me, the hardest part of crime beat is every time I answer a phone call, which says that there has been another suicide in the city.
“Another Suicide?” is always my usual reaction.
This has become a routine over the years.
Bangalore, which prides itself as the silicon city of India, is also the suicide capital of the country. As per the last annual report of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), Bangalore has the highest suicide rate in the country at 38.1 per 1 lakh. The number sounds more alarming when one discovers that the national average is 10.9 per 1 lakh. An individual commits suicide under extreme duress. Experts say that it can be prevented through intervention. But how can we find every case and intervene before it is too late? Even if counselling can prevent suicide, how will you convince an individual to reach out to the numerous helplines? From addressing the root causes in the system that drive a person to commit suicide, to even convincing a person to seek help – a lot needs to be done to prevent suicides from taking place. Even media practitioners need to play a role in it.
When the phone call ends, I find myself riding across the city on my scooter, a decade old Honda Activa, my companion in my tough times. The brief that I usually receive during suicides is minimal as facts aren’t clear during the nascent stages of a developing story. All through the journey unanswered questions play in my mind. Who is it? Is it a minor? Or is it a couple? Is it a love story that went wrong? Or is it a family under debt? Gosh! an entire family? What will I see? The bodies? Crowds? People wailing?Or perhaps, people glaring at me and my lens?
At times, owing to the traffic congestion on Bangalore roads, I arrive late to the crime scene. Then I end up tracking old passport size photographs of the deceased and recopying it from the police and other sources. It is a highly mechanical, I must admit.
But when I am on time, the work is contrastingly different. Too many people —police, relatives, neighbours, the curious, the voyeurs, the journalists— gather around the crime scene. I find myself amidst fellow visual journalists, creating a layer of lenses that encircle the relatives of the deceased. Every move, and every tear drop shed by them is keenly followed by our watchful eyes. There is shock, disbelief and even denial. Their loved one was alive and fine when they last saw him or her. How could the person be dead? It can’t be true! The moment is melancholic. When they finally are allowed to see the bodies, hysterical scenes break out. Simultaneously shutter sounds and flash lights also start working furiously.
Members of the public might wonder why I am doing this. What are all the journalists doing this for? For TRPs? Sensationalism? To sell a story? I don’t know about the rest, but I can only speak for myself.
In my perspective, the main goal in the coverage of crime and punishment is deterrence. Even the judiciary sees deterrence as one of its goals in awarding punishment. In civil society, the functioning of the media is expected to include social responsibility. As a visual communicator, I embrace this idea of social responsibility as part of my personal code of ethics.
When I cover suicides, I want my images to act as deterrent for future suicides. How can I attempt that? I may not be able to find the root causes of suicides in news singles. At best I can persuade ones contemplating to rethink and reach out to anyone who can intervene. People who commit suicide leave behind suicide notes written for their loved ones. So they do think of the people they leave behind. But, do they visualise what impact their drastic step could have on their loved ones? Maybe, they do.
Images have the power to influence people with ideas. In advertising campaigns, the models in publicity images are supposed to represent an intended target audience. When this audience views the advertisement, they are supposed to visualise themselves as the model. The model endorsing the product is the audience, but a lot happier after having owned the product. The model symbolises envy. The target audience is supposed to feel emptiness in life and believe that this emptiness can be fulfilled only by owning what is advertised. The success of this campaign ends with the target audience finally buying the product.
I try to emulate the above idea in images while covering suicides. I want people contemplating suicides to see the images of loved ones of the people who have committed suicides. I want them to imagine the story as the report of their own death, and the sorrow in it as the grief of their loved ones. The thought of putting the loved ones in grief and devastating their lives could be a deterrent. This is my belief. And I work with this goal whenever I cover suicide incidents.
Making the images is one aspect of the work. Getting them to see the daylight in publications is another aspect. The space constraints in publications, where stories and images battle with advertisements, the probability of having these images published is unpredictable. So dejection does set in whenever they don’t get published. It surely is a wasted effort. Time is not the only thing put into making these images. There is an investment of emotions and hope in it. But, that’s a reality which the photographers shooting for publications have to live with.