Friday, June 1, 2012

And Take Your Pictures With You

I'm a 23 year old Sinhalese woman in Minnesota by way of Dubai by way of Sri Lanka. I am a Womanist, and part of my womanism is figuring out how to be in solidarity with my transnational sisters worldwide. I'm a daughter, a sister, a partner and a writer. I'm a brown girl who knows Shakespeare by heart and devours anything Toni Morrison. I believe in radical, revolutionary living and loving.  I blog at Irresistible Revolution.
 
'Third World' is a term that's easily tossed around. In common (white) parlance, it usually connotes otherness, darkness, exotic mystery, crushing poverty -it connotes less-than-us.

But despite its worn usage, I never hear those words, 'Third World', without a tug on my heart so deep I fear it could stop my breath. Maybe it's the crushing isolation of Third World identity amid white Midwestern culture. Maybe it's because, the more I read, the more I see connections between Palestine and South Africa, between Afghanistan and India, between Jamaica and Sri Lanka, between your history and mine. Or maybe it's because I haven't been home in years. But recently whenever I see pictures of 'that part of the world', I stare for long moments and come close to crying.

A collection of poignant photography has been circulating on Tumblr, mostly featuring refugee communities in Afghanistan. These photographs range from children playing with their family's lone sheep, to young girls fetching heavy pails of water, to a man carrying his 6 goats, his only means of sustenance, across flood waters waist deep. They all have one thing in common: except for the photographer's, there are no names.

The subjects of the photos are always 'Afghan girl' or 'Ethiopian immigrant' or 'Tamil Nadu villagers'. If it's a thematic series, then they become 'Afghan girl doing XYZ', 'Indian family with XYZ'. Multiple photographs, multiple people, multiple stories, but no names.

Was knowing their names not worth a few more minutes of the photographer's time? If we don't know their names, how do we know they consented to being photographed? Did the 6 year old 'Afghan girl' bent over by a huge pail of water really want her picture taken for some Western magazine?

Third World strife and the people who live it are so much more picturesque, aren't they, when our First World lenses can freeze them in a tragically romantic snapshot? How much easier it becomes, this consumption of their lives, when the troublesome issue of human individuality is erased. How delightful, to extend patronizing benevolence to those people,  who have no names, no dreams, no secret jokes, no favorite tunes, no sexual fantasies, no anger or complicated grief, but who simply are, delicately framed and posed for your collective First World liberal tears. Why bother to respect and acknowledge the powerful humanity of the Third World, when it's so much more pleasant to imagine yourself as the savior of undiffrentiated suffering Brown people (whose suffering has nothing to do with you or the lifestyle you enjoy of course!)?

When I talk about the Third World, white people are quick to dismiss, erase, or downright challenge my claim to the people I was born from. I'm incomprehensible to them: someone from the Third World who speaks back, who has a name and identity. The West has grown so accustomed to objectifying and consuming Third World lives, that ascribing them equal humanity is almost unheard of.

When I look at those pictures, I see images of my high-school classmates in the shape of an eye and the hue of a cheek. I imagine what their names are, names I grew up with: Zainab, Zahra, Kulsoom, Abeer, Farhana. If we took the time to learn their names, to ask their stories, to listen as they spoke, to be challenged, we could no longer dismiss or pity the Third World.
But why put in the arduous work of decolonizing our minds, when pity comes sweeter and without effort?

"And When You Leave, Take Your Pictures With You"

By Jo Carrillo
Our white sisters
radical friends
love to own pictures of us
sitting at a factory machine
wielding a machete
in our bright bandanas
holding brown yellow black red children
reading books from literacy campaigns
holding machine guns bayonets bombs knives
Our white sisters
radical friends
should think
again.

Our white sisters
radical friends
love to own pictures of us
walking to the fields in the hot sun
with straw hat on head if brown
bandana if black
in bright embroidered shirts
holding brown yellow black red children
reading books from literacy campaigns
smiling.
Our white sisters
should think again.
No one smiles
at the beginning of a day spent
digging for souvenir chunks of uranium
of cleaning up after
our white sisters
radical friends.
And when our white sisters
radical friends see us
in the flesh
not as a picture they own,
they are not quite sure
if
they like us as much.
We’re not as happy as we look
on
their
wall.
“And When You Leave, Take Your Pictures With You,” published in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, 2nd ed., 1983