A note on the title. 
A young guy with a sandy brown mop of hair, t-shirt, khakis, and sneakers crouched about 10 feet from where I stood in Dilli Haat, an outdoor crafts market in New Delhi, and focused his telephoto lens. My eyes followed the direction he pointed his camera, where I saw it to be aimed at one of the artisans who had come to sell his wooden handicrafts. About 80, the artisan is wearing a crisp, white sherwani, amidst bright pink and yellow sheets of fabric suspended from a stone tower in a pattern evocative of one of the hundreds of wedding tents one sees around Delhi during winter wedding season. His weathered and well-wrinkled face was serene, and he adjusted his skullcap as a coolish breeze came through the fabric around him. He had no idea this young white man was taking a photo of him.
It was a poetic scene, to be sure. Not unlike the hundreds of National Geographic photos we’ve all seen. The young man with the camera clicked about 10 shots in a matter of seconds, ran his fingers through his now-ruffled hair, and walked away, camera still in hand, poised for the next shot.
This all transpired in about 30 seconds, if that. I was uneasy for the rest of the afternoon, because the scene surfaced many complicated emotions I’ve had throughout my few weeks here in India, specifically on the subject of taking photos. When I flipped through the photos on my phone I noticed that they were almost exclusively of inanimate objects, no Indian people in any shots. I’m not speaking of photos with friends, colleagues or family – I have no compunction about those. Here, I refer specifically to photos of people I don’t know, or hardly know: people walking down the street pushing vegetable carts teeming with the reddest carrots you’ve ever seen in your life, children playing badminton without a net, women in saris of every hue, and yes, even those women from nearby towns and villages whom I met just once and for a few moments, through a local NGO that they work with, or the small children who smile a thousand watts and throw a peace sign when a foreigner with a camera passes by them (these latter two being willing subjects).
India is captivating. It is teeming with character and color. It is teeming with people. As a person born, but not raised here, I experience that beautiful confusion that many of us children of American immigrants feel when they visit their countries of origin: places where they do not have to hyphenate their identities. Here I’m just Indian, despite my Western privilege and some very conspicuous American habits. But, irrespective of residence or citizenship, I’ve never been seen by others as, not felt myself, just “American.” “No, but where are you really from?” People often ask if I happen to answer ‘New York’ to the first question. And perhaps that is why I felt queasy and maybe even a little angry, when I saw that guy literally objectify an Indian person.
Now, what? What do I make of my unease? Do I stop taking photos of places I travel? Do I think others should as well? Not exactly. Am I asking questions to which there are singular and clear answers? Definitely not. Here, I think the tension between belonging and being foreign can offer something. I am not quite “from” here. Nor am I “from” the United States. I am not (for the most part) the documented, nor am I able to fully hold a Western gaze when looking at India. This liminal space offers me access to a certain intimacy and distance that might prove useful. Some reflections:
I. On objectification: This is not a new concept in relation to images or photography. Feminists around the world are vigilant against the objectification of women. But what the question of objectification offers us is in this context is a third perspective, not just the relationship between objectifier and objectified, not just the intent of the photo, not even the impact on the objectified, but the question of the ‘gaze.’ This third element affords us nuance in the midst of asking who is taking whose photo and for what, and pushes us to ask the question: how is the photographer SEEING through their lens? Do they want to show the exotic locales to which they’ve travelled to their learned friends? Do they want to document the horrifying poverty, which they previously couldn’t have imagined? Do they want to document the beauty of a particular scene for their own pleasure? Regardless of the responses to the questions of “why” when we raise the question of objectification we are forced to ask: HOW?
Evoking in me memories of Edward Said’s description of orientalism as consumption of the East by the West without contributing to it, I can’t know exactly how the young white guy was seeing the old Indian artisan in the sherwani at Dilli Haat. I can only speculate that he didn’t care enough about the desires of man himself to ask whether he might take a photo of him. Whether it’s my political sensibilities or my Indian-ness or something else altogether, I’m unable to see the man as merely a subject for a photo. In On Photography, Susan Sontag asserted, “Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood. To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge — and, therefore, like power.” The gaze in question confers power, and that is the essence of objectification.
II. The question of gaze is incomplete without a socio-historical analysis, which places photography amidst the ever-present questions of imperialism, colonialism and capitalism. It cannot be so easily forgotten that the “West” once sought to own every single part of India: the land, the resources, the labor and property of each person, from the farmworkers to the kings. Depending on how one perceives current capitalist models, this is something that has not changed – previously it was imperial conquest by nation-states, today it is the same conquest but by multinational corporations, based in Western countries. In this context, taking a photo is undoubtedly a political act.
III. On documentation: Memory is fragile: individual and political, both. The impulse to record is universal, as an aid to memory, as a means of passing information through generations, as a way to reflect and relive. This is an impulse I feel strongly, both on a personal level, having lost my last living grandparent this year and on a political one, working for the past decade in a movement for social justice that sometimes spins its wheels and sometimes forges great breakthroughs. All this, while the emergence of social media reliant on photographs is at the center of many of our worlds. There must be questions can we ask that would help us illuminate the difference between documentation and objectification – but for the purpose of this piece, I invite us to avoid jumping to these questions while eliding the former.
There is so much more to be said about India — it’s remarkable journey through colonialism; the rooted and powerful social movements resisting the internal scourge of the caste system; and the external one of neo-liberal development models that are ravaging the livelihoods of the poor. There is a feminist fire ablaze here on questions of dowry, female feticide and infanticide and violence against women and girls. The capital city just held elections that will undoubtedly shape the trajectory of the region for years to come.
The way that I see India has prevented me from feeling comfortable taking a picture of a person I don’t know, and I certainly couldn’t abide such a photo being taken without the person’s knowledge and consent. Perhaps that is because the way I see India is also about the way I feel seen when I am here. A part of who I am is visible here in a way that it is not in other places in the world. Perhaps I an hyper-vigilant when because I know how it feels to be reduced to a shade of your identity, to be tokenized, exoticized, and made other. Perhaps because the legacy of colonialism is so present contemporary struggles faced by Indians. There is so much more to be said about India, but I raise the question of photography as an entry point into some of these conversations, because the gaze is where our understanding begins. Because the way we see is as important as what we see.
 This phrase refuses the First and Third world categorical hierarchy and instead uses a demographic lens, and acknowledges the “Third World” as the part of the world where 2/3 of the global population resides. I could also have used Global South, but want to make the point about space, physical and psychic.