Mumbai-based fashion photographer Raj Shetye released a photo-series a few weeks ago, titled The Wrong Turn, depicting a woman adorned in glamorous clothing and jewelry unsuccessfully fending off assault from multiple men on the back of the bus. To say that the photos touched a nerve would be an enormous understatement; the scene is unnervingly reminiscent of the Nirbhaya incident – a horrific rape and murder of a young Indian woman on a bus in New Delhi. Below is my response to The Wrong Turn:
Frankly, I am extremely confused and deeply offended, even after reading explanations in your own words. I just don’t get your vision or thought process, Mr. Shetye, so let me ask you a few things.
- First of all, why?
- Secondly, why didn’t anyone try to stop you? How were you able to find collaborators who thought this project was a good idea?
- Between the high fashion aesthetic and the prominently placed clothing and jewelry, the series is clearly a glamorized shoot that, like most fashion spreads, aims to seduce women into shelling out their disposable income for shiny things. Which, even if you just don’t care about how incredibly appalling this imagery is for victims of sexual assault and basically all women, how could you actually think this would help sell clothing?
- I mean sure, everyone is susceptible to marketing. Young girls are constantly bombarded with the message that they should want to be the Photoshop-perfect girls in the ads, but in what distorted dystopian universe would anyone want to be the girl in the ad about to be sexually assaulted? Who in their right minds would think, “Hmm, wow, that girl sure looks great, even though her very life is in danger, I should really buy that statement necklace”?
- Of course, you claim that the aim of the series is not commercial; you’re actually trying to shed light on an issue that you care about very much. That’s admirable, I suppose. But how do these images of violence against women condemn rape and assault at all? How does it stand with the victims? In which ways does the positioning of the young woman as an impeccably-dressed victim send a meaningful political message?
- Did you pause to consider what message your photos communicated? And if it was even ethical? Why did the violence have to look so fashionable and – I shudder to think – sexy? In the case of this portrayal, is the fault still on the woman and her flashy clothing? Or on the fact that she made a “wrong turn”?
- And in fact, you’re happy about the outcome of the series, because of the attention it’s received and the discussions that it sparked. But do you realize that the discussion actually isn’t on anything substantive – like how the anti-rape laws passed by the Indian government and other measures that are attempting to protect women can be implemented more effectively? Mostly, I think, the discussion is just confusion and uproar about your photos, which glosses over the brutality of the situation it’s depicting.
- And if it’s true, as you claim, that your photo shoot wasn’t actually based on the Nirbhaya incident last year, but is an idea you’ve had long before then, why did you still depict exactly the same situation? A young woman was raped and murdered in a scenario much like the one you are photographing; there’s no way you could have been ignorant of that fact, so why still publish the photoshoot?
I’m no artist or visionary fashion photographer, but there are artists and fashion photographers all around us who know the difference between intent and impact; who are acutely aware of the responsibility of images in the public space. I am certain that there are ways to be less literal in the representation of the issue, or to raise awareness in some other less hurtful way. But please, enlighten me if there’s something I’m just not understanding.