The visual media, more than any other medium, thrives on hype. And where media images are produced by a particular class largely for its own kind, the 'other' is eroticized. Many communities of sex workers have been victims of this hype and exoticism. A voyeur's delight, these stigmatized people live under the constant threat of a visual onslaught, the effects of which are often underestimated.
In five years of interaction with sex workers found in innumerable 'red light districts' of north India - and most specifically with members of the Bedia community, whose women have been engaged in prostitution for generations - I was struck by their distinct fear of the camera and tape recorder.
The women and their families see all strangers who are clearly not their customers as media persons in disguise. Many of them are only reassured after a physical check of a visitor's person to make sure there are no hidden tapes or cameras. Even then, most remain unconvinced that their confidence will not be misused towards some dubious end.
This camera-shyness of the sex workers is directly proportional to the image-hungriness of the media. With ever-expanding time slots, there is a huge pressure on the media to deliver fresh images. The influx of HIV/AIDS-related funding, or even its possibility, has also generated a lot of fly-by-night 'research' interests. These researchers and filmmakers are not above adopting dubious methods to get that elusive footage - holding out promises of long-term benefits or offering immediate monetary incentives.
There have been instances where socially concerned filmmakers have taken advantage of the rapport that a few voluntary organizations have painfully built up with such communities, only to leave them aghast at the subsequent betrayal. In Rajasthan, for instance, a voluntary organization in Bharatpur, Rajasthan, was never able to regain the trust of a segment of the Bedia community after a notable filmmaker's promise that she was filming them only for private viewing turned out to be a blatant lie. The film was aired not once, but several times, on the national network - much to the chagrin of the hapless community. Rumors that a considerable sum of money had changed hands in the process only deepened their resentment.
That many such filmmakers never return to even keep the small promise of presenting a videocassette of the film appears hardly worth complaining about.
There are also instances in which self-proclaimed social workers have themselves become touts, mediating access to the community in exchange for an appropriate price. They 'fix up' interviews with sex workers. If such social workers appear notoriously akin to pimps, can those who transact with them easily shun the image of a 'client'? One notable social worker in Delhi makes no bones about the uses of his proximity to sex workers, and takes little interest in facilitating contacts of the kind unlikely to benefit him.
Many others see no need at all for the consent of those being captured by their camera. This category proves to be most irksome of all. Thus, the attempts of the crew of a reputed television channel to film a tiny 'red-light' district in a remote town of Madhya Pradesh, in which a number of Bedia women work, was experienced by the much-offended women inmates as akin to a 'police raid'.
Is the ostensibly socially concerned media comfortable with being equated with this symbol of State violence? The image of frightened women scurrying off or hiding from a camera is also disturbingly comparable to that of a hunted animal.
Reputed social workers among the Bedias, such as Ramsanehi of Abhyudaya Ashram in Morena and Champa Behan of Sagar (both in Madhya Pradesh), did not always resent the media. They know the power of visual imagery in popularizing a cause. But Ramsanehi nevertheless expresses his anger over the demands made on him by the crew of one of the oldest television networks of the world. "Do they think they have bought me?" he wonders. Their expectations that he should facilitate visual capturing of some of the problematic practices of the Bedia community, to remove which he has been working for decades, deeply offended Ramsanehi. The crew also approached the whole matter in an extremely high-handed manner.
Sex workers' communities resent such an intrusion into their lives because they see it as jeopardizing whatever little control they have over their lives. In a society where their occupation is extremely stigmatized, most women maintain multiple identities. They do not wish to be identified as sex workers everywhere and by everyone. Their unwitting appearance on television denies them this possibility. This, at least, is what they believe. Many women in Delhi's red light area send their children to boarding schools, away from the shadow of their troubled lives. "What if their friends and teachers recognize us," worries a sex worker from Delhi's G B Road.
There is also a deep-seated resentment at being treated as objects - and of being constantly posited as the exotic 'other'. Young men of the community in Morena lambasted an interviewer for asking them what they ate. "Please write that we eat monkeys," was the angry and frustrated response of a young Bedia man. "We have been rendered a curiosity (ajooba)," he says.
On another occasion, I was viewing the video film of a Bedia couple's marriage in their home in Bharatpur. While we watched the film, the husband continuously pointed out to me how much the film proved that they were 'like anyone else'.
The achievements of the image-hungry camera wielders are seen as nothing short of heroic by the middle-classes. Complacent in the illusory security of their homes, television is their window to the world. Simulated pleasures have the added advantage of leaving one's conscience clear. Little do they realize that force, violence and deceit often back such intrusions into the lives of those who can lay little claim to privacy. So far-gone is the alienation of these communities that they see any attempt to communicate with them as not only motivated by vested interests but also as spelling doom.
No one can deny that there are women who practice prostitution and there are even communities like the Bedias that have been thriving on this trade for many generations. Everything is not right with what goes on in such communities. But none of this gives anyone a license to intrude, objectify and plunder. Not even for the sake of images.
(Anuja Agrawal is a Reader with the Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics, New Delhi. Her book on the Bedias is soon to be published by Taylor and Francis, India.)