BY Kamayani Sharma in Opinion | 25 AUG 21
Featured in
Issue 221

How Citizen Journalists Documented India's COVID-19 Crisis

Kamayani Sharma on the tragedies and ethical dilemmas facing photographers and journalists on the subcontinent

BY Kamayani Sharma in Opinion | 25 AUG 21

‘Thank god for masks,’ said Ishan Tankha, a photojournalist whose images of New Delhi’s COVID-19 pyres, oxygen camps and hospital wards went viral this past year. It’s the acknowledgement of an ethical dilemma that photographers grappled with as they documented the death and destruction of India’s second wave in real time: how to capture death with dignity. As the pandemic deluged India, an ill-prepared and unresponsive government abandoned its citizens, while the nation’s long-deteriorating, privatized healthcare systems crashed. Masks afford a perverse privacy to their wearers, some of whom were in their final moments by the time Tankha reached them. ‘It’s not the dying itself that’s hard to shoot, but the moment just before, when everyone around the patient realizes that nothing more can be done,’ he explained when we spoke this summer, acknowledging how violative it feels to direct a camera

at those both dying and in mourning.

New Delhi, 2021. Photograph: Ishan Tankha

But masks don't cover eyes. For reporter Suprakash Majumdar, it's the returned gaze that discomfits. He describes to me how he watched a bereaved woman faint on the road beside her dead daughter, unable to approach her for fear of infection. As the ambulance service arrived to take the corpse, his camera lens caught the eye of the woman's young grandson. 'When they look back at you, that's awkward.' The word 'awkward' recurred a few times in our conversation, an inadequate description of the tense social encounter between those experiencing a nightmare and those trying to record it.

Bhat Burhan's photos feature PPE-clad workers at crematoriums and burial grounds. Burhan, who moved from his home into a hotel in order to isolate while working, planned his movements through the city in advance, developing an index of information on sites where he could shoot to minimise the risk of infection. He also kept a thermometer and oximeter handy. 'I've been tested 31 times,' he laughed. 

Majumdar is a Dalit journalist confronting the obliviousness of upper-caste newsrooms. He understands he must ‘compel’ savarna editors to publish stories that are otherwise untold. Dalit crematorium labourers are made invisible by India’s mainstream media, their status as frontline workers ignored. Majumdar shadowed a worker in New Delhi’s largest crematorium, Nigambodh Ghat. In contrast to the intensity of the numerous images of burning pyres, Majumdar foregrounded his subject against the funerary flames, unmasked face and labouring body communicating the prosaic aspects of mass death.

When shooting a pandemic, distance is essential and consent difficult to ask for. Majumdar eschews long shots in favour of wide angles and close-ups. For Burhan, it’s about incorporating as much detail in the frame as possible. Tankha adjusts his frame according to the activity happening on site. He refrains from getting too close to his subjects: ‘I don’t want to zoom in on people’s faces in their most vulnerable moments; it doesn’t feel right.’

Regarding consent, Tankha explained: ‘You discover the names of victims because their loved ones

are calling out to them. I’ll never forget those names.’ Burhan was using a drone to shoot at a crematorium when someone told him to stop. He erased the footage. ‘We have to respect people’s wishes. People are gasping for their last breath, so you have to make a choice. We don’t hide or sneak around and if they ask us to stop, we do.’

New Delhi, 2021. Photograph: Ishan Tankha

The apocalyptic context of these photographs has reactivated still-unresolved moral debates around image-making in times of calamity. Tankha grimly compared the experience of shooting the pandemic to wildlife photography: ‘It’s like being on a safari of tragedy, looking out of the car window and seeing the scale of human trauma on the roads.’ He wonders whether there is any point in continuing, given that each day is almost exactly like the others. There are no easy answers. But there is a profound importance to these photographs, not just for the world, but for Indians, to remind them of what this government has cost them. The images of the Indian COVID-19 catastrophe are evidence of ongoing state violence. Braving not only the risk of infection but the regime’s ire, these photographers ensured that the truth of the crisis was committed to public memory.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 221 with the headline ‘Don't Hide’.

Thumbnail and head image: Ghazipur crematorium, New Delhi, 2021. Photograph: Ishan Tankha

Kamayani Sharma is a writer, researcher and New Delhi correspondent for ART India. She runs South Asia’s first independent visual-culture podcast, Artalaap.