In 3 captivating photos from India : the profound impact of photography

The images not only capture a moment in history, but highlight their deeper significance - a quest for justice and the enduring struggle for freedom.

Do you remember seeing the 1945 photo, ‘mushroom cloud over Nagasaki’ ? Or the 1985 National Geographic Magazine cover featuring a refugee Afghan girl ? What about the heartbreaking photo featuring Alan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler who drowned? Even if we don’t feature the photos here, you can already visualize these! There are some photos that you can never forget – and then there are those that have the power to drive change. 

We explore three powerful photos from India :

Photography is a universal language with an ability to convey ideas, perspectives and it can transform a moment in time into a meaningful discourse. The images not only capture a moment in history, but highlight their deeper significance.  

In the early years of the 20th century, photography was a tool for those in power.  With the dawn of photojournalism, it also became a tool that could challenge power structures, speak out against social and political injustices, and harness public support. 

Let’s dive in. 

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Narayan Vinayak Virkar’s haunting photos of survivors of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, 1919

The Bombay-based photographer Narayan Vinayak Virkar arrived in Amritsar shortly after the massacre. He had been a portrait photographer for the Indian National Congress; today though, he is remembered for his photos of the massacre’s aftermath. The photos show survivors pointing towards the bullet holes (outlined with chalk) on the walls of the garden. 

Survivors Jallianwala Bagh Virkar
Photo by Narayan Virkar shows a survivor pointing to a bullet hole at the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, where thousands were unjustly massacred at the orders of a British official, General Dyer.
Photos : Nehru Memorial Museum & Library

These powerful images, are laden with irony. While Dyer had attempted to suppress civilian voices against the Britsh Raj, here were photos – featuring civilians  – that became a stronger voice against British atrocities. The presence of survivors in the photos make history real for a viewer today.

Virkar’s photo was also a response, to those that had been used by the British authorities backing Dyer, to justify the massacre. 

Unknown photographer  Showing where Miss Sherwood took shel ter  where boy is lying gelatin silver print from black and white negative 1919 British Library London
Scene of first assault on Miss Sherwood, Amritsar / British Library

In the days before the massacre, Amritsar had witnessed growing civil unrest and protests against the unfair, illegal detention of two political leaders. Government offices were attacked, and some British individuals too, were assaulted. The massacre was thus argued to be a necessary step in the direction of discipline. Using photos like the one above, the British hoped to spotlight provocation by the Indian people. 

Sunil Janah’s compelling images of the Famine of 1943

In 1940s, Sunil Janah was an aspiring journalist & hobby-photographer, engaged by the Communist Party of India to document the famine that devastated Bengal during 1943-44. It was his first assignment as a photojournalist & this body of work brought him international recognition. 

Janah’s photographs captured the complex emotions of famine-stricken, emaciated people queuing up for food. You will notice, that his photos, tightly framed, draw attention to the despair and suffering of the people.

Sunil Janah049 1944
Orphans waiting for food at a famine-relief center during the famine in Orissa, 1944 / Sunil Janah / Documenta14
Sunil Janah_bengal
Women queue up for rice during the Bengal Famine, Lake Market, Calcutta, 1943  /  Sunil Janah / via Documenta14

The impact of Janah’s photographs travelled outside of Calcutta into the world, evoking strong reactions against the British rule in India.

One cannot ignore the irony here : the British had been using art & photography to craft a narrative justifying colonialism. They documented the ‘primitive nature of India’s people’ who were in desperate in need of British education and policies. Through Janah’s photographs of famine stricken people, the world was able to witness the effect of British policies. The photos exposed the situation which the British-controlled mainstream media had tried to suppress; they questioned the regime, mobilizing people around the world. The photos, printed as postcards were also used for fundraising efforts.

But what makes Janah’s pictures powerful was their ability to communicate the suffering and distress. Nearly a decade later, these photos were re-used in a different context. 

 In her research paper, Prof. Ranu Roychoudhuri indicates how Janah’s famine photographs were republished by the Illustrated Weekly of India in 1954 to represent the post partition despair faced by the refugees

Ram Rahman’s photo of Safar Hashmi’s funeral procession (1989)

Safdar Hashmi death Ram Rahman
Safdar Hashmi’s Funeral Procession, January 3, 1989, Vitthalbhai Patel House, New Delhi, Photographed by Ram Rahman / Source: The Hindu Archives

Safdar Hashmi was a playwright, actor and activist. He led the Jan Natya Manch (JANAM), known for its socially and politically conscious street play performances that aimed to raise awareness about societal issues, inequality, and injustice. Hashmi was killed during a performance (centered on worker-rights) by goons affiliated to a political party. This brutal assault, and his death was an unforgettable moment in India’s social and cultural history. It symbolized the larger struggle for democracy, human rights, and the right to dissent. It questioned the role of artists in society. Hashmi’s commitment to using art and theatre as a means of challenging oppressive regimes made him a symbol of resistance against authoritarianism.

Hashmi’s death, and the photograph of his funeral by Ram Rahman sparks conversations about art, censorship and activism even today. These photos have been exhibited at museums and galleries around the world. But what makes this photograph powerful is perhaps the way in which it encapsulates a complex array of emotions, themes, and historical context. Do you feel “a sense of solidarity and resilience” looking at this photo?

These images continue to stir emotion for a contemporary viewer. This is because the photos go beyond the historical moment, portraying universal themes like despair, grief, solidarity, a quest for justice and the enduring struggle for freedom.

In this visually saturated (digital) world, do photographs still hold the potential to influence us or speak out against injustices? Do you know of a photograph like that? We’d love for you to share it with us.   

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