Conversing with the invisible


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I feel that photographs that show toxicity are powerful and impactful to convince me and many such audiences to acknowledge the same.

On the other hand, toxicity need not be visible to be understood but is necessary to create an immediate impact.For example, the image that I have clicked of a glass of clean water might look clean but it might not be potable. It may contain toxins that are invisible. How will I ever know whetherthe water that I drink from my tap every day is polluted or not if the pollution is not visible? I might act over it after a few days or a month once I realise that something is affecting my body, that too, from consuming that clean-looking water. Won’t it be too late for me to act? Or, how late is too late?

If toxicity is not visible, how can someone know that it is toxic? One has to go forensic for it. When something is invisible, what is lost is time. Time to act, hoping that it’s not too late to act. For example, the tap water being polluted invisibly gets much scarier. If I publish this photograph, I will have to write an informative article creating awareness along with scientific data that proves that the water is indeed toxic. It gets much scarier as people will then realise that toxicity is not always possibly visible.

I feel that there cannot be a set rule regarding the ethics around visibility in photographs. It also revolves around the photographers’ intention to inform and the audiences’ interpretation of the same. The invisibility of toxins in my photographs might call for further study and research around the topic while the visibility of the same will have a call to action on an immediate basis.

With the rise of news media and social media, especially in India, audiences demand content that is more graphical rather than a research-based study. An example of this topic could be the recently released film, “Don’t look up”, where we see people today immune and chilled out even to an imminent threat that might destroy the only planet we ever know where human life can sustain. Recently I also read a tweet where someone mentioned how this generation has witnessed a global pandemic and also a recent threat of an ongoing war that might lead to a world war, and that this entire time was passed through memes on social media, where the reality rarely seems to affect us.

People in Delhi, India have lived in a smoggy polluted city for almost their entire life. I was born and brought up in Mumbai, where I have witnessed an extremely polluted beach since my childhood. All these visuals were changed when human activities receded during the Covid pandemic. And humans could witness the visible change of cleaner air and a cleaner ocean than ever before. This made them think about how human activities impact the environment.  I think toxicity in Photography is important to be visible because if not, the general mass population would never understand how the ecology is affected by their actions. I also have a moral dilemma regarding the same, where even after witnessing such a drastic shift, will humans now, after the end of the pandemic, reduce their human activities that affect the environment? I think not.

Thinking about the ethics surrounding the visibility of these toxins, will it be ethical for me to show a cut open body of a bird that died by consuming plastic, such as the photograph of the albatross bird clicked by photographer Chris Jordan?

Imaging toxicity is not that simple as many of these pollutants are invisible and also the sites of contamination are either concealed, especially for those privileged.

I cannot talk about if the stories can be framed in any way besides being a narrative of the victim or the aggressor if the toxins are invisible. It will always depend on the intention of the photographer, as photographing toxicity that is invisible will also call for critical analysis by examining the same.

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