By Upasna Dash
Instagram activism has been at an all time high recently. Every couple of days, a Scarlet letteresque controversy breaks on someone’s feed and goes on to capture social media narratives all over the world. I for one have always been a sideline spectator; not much for ‘drawing-room’ activism, my day job already exposes me to a lot of ‘moral’ firefighting. Except a few days ago, I walked a couple of steps away from the sideline into the vortex of enraged emoticons and emotionally charged Insta stories, because I was truly appalled. Now I know one does not expect ‘responsible journalism’ lessons from a PR person. It’s like asking Vladimir Putin to draft the UN peacekeeping agenda! But I’m writing this precisely why. I work with journalists on a daily basis and I refuse to let our community be painted in the same brush as Alessio Mamo.
Between New Yorker cartoons, Sasha Baron Cohen, Rahul Gandhi’s hug and an ‘exhausting’ influencer, there on my feed was a photo. A photo of two children from Uttar Pradesh, one of the “poorest states of India”, with their eyes covered standing in front of ‘perfectly’ laid table with fake food. The caption said that the photographer, Mamo, had “brought…a table and some fake food, and told people to dream about some food that they would like to find on their table.” The image itself was appalling, but what really shook me was the photographer and the forum’s reaction.
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These photographs are from Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh two of the poorest states of India. From the series "Dreaming Food", a conceptual project about hunger issue in India. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ [This project has been the subject of much online debate. Please read Alessio Mamo’s statement, released on 24 July 2018, giving more details and apologising for any offence: https://firstname.lastname@example.org/my-statement-on-dreaming-food-7169257d2c5c] ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ My name is Alessio Mamo (@alessio_mamo) an Italian freelance photographer based in Catania, Sicily. In 2008 I began my career in photojournalism focusing on contemporary social, political and economic issues. I extensively cover issues related to refugee displacement and migration starting in Sicily, and extending most recently to the Middle East. I was awarded 2nd prize in the People Singles category of #WPPh2018 and this week I’m taking over World Press Photo's Instagram account. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Despite economic growth, a majority of the Indian population still lives in extreme poverty and disease. Behind India’s new-found economic strength are 300 million poor people who live on less than $1 per day. Government figures may indicate a reduction in poverty. But the truth is, with increasing global food prices, poverty is spreading everywhere like a swarm of locusts. These pictures are taken in rural areas where conditions are worse than in the cities and where close to 70% of India’s population reside today. Statistics show that 2.1 million children under 5 years old die of malnutrition annually. The idea of this project was born after reading the statistics of how much food is thrown away in the West, especially during Christmas time. I brought with me a table and some fake food, and I told people to dream about some food that they would like to find on their table. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ #WPPh2018#asia #dreamingfood #india
In a country where unibrowed movie characters, cartoons, art, four lyrics, and two-second vines can cause an uproar, why did these photos cause so much trauma? Because, murder in a prison is still murder. This is not Slum Dog Millionaire 2.0. This is children being used to make a crude artistic point.
It’s as if Marie Antoinette woke up from her grave, took a really long transatlantic flight, and fought with middle-aged air hostesses, only to resurface in one of the most pathetic representations of ‘let them eat bread’.
My biggest issue with this episode is accountability. An adult with a powerful platform walked into the lives of innocent children, and made them participate in an activity whose holistic ramifications were unknown to them or their parents. This ‘award winning’ photographer then went on to capture this and give it a global audience. And stripped away their dignity, and more importantly, their rights to make an informed decision to participate in this activity.
I am all for artistic and creative liberty, (I rooted for Padmaavati’s nose!), but if Mamo really wanted to make a point, he could have done this with models or children whose guardians would be in a position to make an informed decision. Instead he chose to exercise his ‘creative’ liberty over a group of children and guardians who have absolutely no way of being in the same zipcode of his entitlement or education. And he got away with it.
Amidst all the ‘uproar’, and while the buck is still being conveniently tossed between Instagram and Mamo, the children are still far away from a ‘perfect table’. Let this not be another issue that disappears, much like your Instastory, but serve as a reminder that power and protection should never be proportional.
Upasna Dash is vice-curator at the New Delhi Global Shapers Hub (a World Economic Forum initiative), and founder and CEO of Jajabor Brand Consultancy.