When the Badaun images went viral, some were quick to point out that news media was violating Section 228-A of the IPC. However, the potency of the visual did jolt public opinion and trigger some amount of outrage. We are not likely to forget the image of the girls hanged from the mango tree in a hurry. But what does this say about our response to news about sexual violence? And is confronting these images the only way to start a public discussion?
If news reports (without images) were already telling us that the Badaun girls were abducted, raped and lynched; was the enormity of the violence not evident from the description itself? Did we need to see the visuals too?
There are several iconic images that have been shocking and controversial. Photos of the Holocaust, Kim Phuc running naked in the napalm strikes in Vietnam, the Abu Ghraib torture by US soldiers in Iraq. Most show victims in degrading situations being subjected to violence. Yet, not many would say these photos should never have been published. The hinterlands of UP seem no less than a war zone for women, especially poor Dalit women. But in India, publishing photos of rape victims/survivors is outlawed.
Viewing these images is also problematic because these are corpses of women who have been subjected to sexual violence. The women are dead, they are silent, and their bodies violated in what seems to be a collective punishment or threat to their families and community. This kind of display is the worst form of objectification. It also turns the onlookers into voyeurs.
Would the media feel entitled to circulating the sensational picture this way if the girls were not poor or Dalit? Does this detachment not reveal a deep bias?
Shock rhetoric may be effective in starting discussions around much neglected subjects such as caste and gender violence. But the need for a public display of brutality to jolt authorities or viewers for an adequate response remains highly suspect.
The wide circulation of a sensitive image depicting sexual violence can also lead to trivialisation and make the viewer think, “these things happen only to such poor women”. The reality is that the culture of violence is widespread.
It also fuels the idea that the only victims of sexual violence who deserve attention are the ones who gain “credibility” when they are mutilated or killed.
The news media uses such images to “sell” its stories and garners instant pity or outrage. But does this really translate into concerted action leading to justice? Or is there a risk that this will simply incite crowds into asking for the lynching of the accused?
The image depicts a cruel reality with full force. Perpetrators of sexual violence often want to make a public display of their victims’ corpses to strike terror in the community they are trying to intimidate. It’s humiliation, revenge or even the marking of their “victory”. This is degrading for those who have suffered the loss. In viewing the spectacle, aren’t we, to some extent, participating in this humiliation?
The families of the victims reportedly used the dead bodies to protest for hours, refusing to get them down from the tree and even laid them on the local highway. The rape and killing of these teenagers would otherwise not have been registered as “truth” in public knowledge since the police were hostile. Is the circulation of such images the only way out then, for those who feel they’ve been abandoned by the state and local authorities?