In August, I was contacted by Operation Blessing International (OBI), a non-profit organization that coordinates humanitarian efforts around the world in disaster-stricken countries like Sudan, Kosovo, and Lebanon. And, apparently, India. Could India Currents, I was asked, help publicize OBI’s disaster relief work in the state of Bihar?
Hundreds of thousands were stranded because of monsoon flooding. Villagers were being attacked by vipers and cobras that had converged on high ground at an alarming rate. Many of the flood victims were so afraid of the snakes that they hardly ventured outdoors, choosing to relieve themselves on the ground just beyond their homes, ground wet with stagnant, leech-infested floodwater.
The picture painted by OBI’s Assistant Director, David Darg, was grim, one of a desperate population living in grossly unsanitary conditions. I was torn: Was this the image of India that we wanted to portray in our magazine? An image of poverty? Of misery?
My doubts were reinforced when I received photographs from OBI’s efforts in Bihar. Wide-eyed, naked babies in the arms of sari-clad mothers and grandmothers. Men and boys in tattered shorts wading through knee-deep floodwater. Representatives of OBI delivering relief kits, hygiene items, and emergency medical supplies. The final image was of Darg, handsome and smiling in a brown t-shirt, bending down to give a relief kit, stamped with the words “Operation Blessing India,” to a young Indian girl dressed in rags, her hair tied with a dirty orange ribbon.
I was dismayed. How could I publish a picture of a Caucasian American man—however well-intentioned, however much a world citizen and humanitarian—lowering himself to gift the poor brown families of India the relief they were not able to attain for themselves or with the assistance of local government?
I wrote to OBI with the request that they send me a new batch of photos, with Darg standing amongst the people he was working with as opposed to literally, visually above them. It was about the politics of the image, I said, not the quality of the work being done.
But even when I received new photos of Darg standing side-by-side with the villagers, I wasn’t satisfied. I couldn’t stop thinking about the ways that altruism can manifest itself as “al-tourism.” I did not for a second doubt the good work that OBI was doing, but missionary “good work” always comes with a politics of its own.
I didn’t run the story. Months later, it’s still on my mind. As I watch the news coverage of Southern California in flames, and as I recall the lack of government response to the devastation wracked by Hurricane Katrina and picture the thousands of evacuees cramped into the hot, filthy Louisiana Superdome, I know that humanitarian efforts—no matter where they come from, no matter how they “look”—do aid populations, bring peace, and enable the reconstruction of homes and lives. And that, notwithstanding a complicated politics, is also a blessing.
|Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan was Editor of India Currents from July 2007-June 2009.|