On February 11, Priyanka Shah, a student at Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Bengaluru, posted a Facebook album called Perspectives. The photographs were taken for an assignment, and what the 19-year-old never expected was for them to be picked up by media outlets for portraying scrutiny on women’s bodies.
According to the description of her photo album, the series sets out to show “how brutal peoples judgements could be, how just one look could speak a thousand words. Specially with women, and how their outfits mattered so much in the society.”
Priyanka set out to do so by capturing her friend in various public settings and the looks she received from passers-by.
While there is no denying that women often face street sexual harassment - sometimes in the form of ‘stares’ and ‘looks’ from strangers while they go about their daily lives - this particular series has come under criticism for seemingly targeting a particular socio-economic class for doing the staring.
There is an apparent socio-cultural difference between the people looking and subject who’s being looked at (Priyanka’s friend). This problematic because it feeds into the stereotype that crimes against women are done only by men from lower socio-economic groups.
While no one should be shamed or harassed for the clothes they choose to wear, the fact is that any clothing - or any act - that is unusual for a setting does elicit shocked and/or curious reactions.
In that context, Priyanka’s friend’s attire could be something which is used to provoke the reactions captured for the project.
The criticism is amplified since some media outlets have picked up Priyanka’s photo series to highlight how women are leched at and made to feel uncomfortable.
However, Priyanka clarifies to TNM that she did not choose the places she did – a flower market, a public park and a few streets – because they were working class neighbourhoods.
“I chose those places because they are around the area I live and because we keep venturing there. For instance, we go to the flower market to shoot for other projects, to paint and buy flowers. The inspiration for the project came from our everyday experiences, and wasn’t an attempt to elicit reactions that would cater to my project,” she says.
Priyanka adds that she has just started learning about photography and she is aware of the criticism her photo series is receiving. She also insists that targeting a certain class or caste of people was not her intent.
She adds that she chose places where she could find a mixed crowd, not limited to only men or people of a certain age group.
“The photos I selected were ones where people came back where we were, often multiple times, and passed comments. Many times, people took selfies deliberately with my friend in the frame. Others came back with more people, laughed at us and started saying things,” Priyanka narrates.
One such incident happened at the flower market, spurring the girls to leave the area. “The looks alone are not the problem. I understand that if you wear a kimono and walk down the street here, people will stare. But the commenting and harassment, that’s not justified,” Priyanka argues.
“Perhaps I can use the criticism and take this forward by using various kinds of attire and then seeing if the reaction would be any different,” Priyanka says.
(All photos by Priyanka Shah, used here with permission.)