Far from the glittery ivory towers where the evolved minds discuss peace and progress, from a land ravaged by war, a young girl was taken into refuge by a neighbouring country. She spent her following years in a refugee camp in Peshawar (Pakistan), suffering silently until she broke her silence for the first time. She spoke of her anger and the terror that the Russian invasion had brought. She spoke of the agony of losing her parents and the torment of living amongst strangers — and she said it all with a single ferocious glance. Sharbat Gula, photographed by journalist Steve McCurry, famously known as the ‘The Afghan Girl’ caught the world’s attention when she appeared on the cover of National Geographic magazine in 1984. Clad partially in a mar hopes of the young orphan in a strange land. Her incredibly beautiful, hypnotic green eyes synchronising with the green wall in the background as they stare unflinchingly into the lens, instantly engaging the world and urging it to listen closely. Numbers and statistics of atrocities of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan were announced, discussed, empathised with but never did they impact the audience’s response as much as the iconic portrait of Sharbat Gula, ‘The Afghan Girl’ did. That is what visuals do. The power of a visual rhetoric is such that it reinforces the narrative of the subject, expands one’s consciousness, constructs and mediates understanding and steers one’s ability to comprehend, reflect and emotionally connect with the subjects. A fleeting moment that more often than not, evades one’s mind, when captured in a frame gives reasons for one to comprehend and rethink.
On 2 September, the world woke up to a heart wrenching image of a three-year- old Syrian, Aylan Kurdi washed up on the shores of a beach in Turkey. The photo was widely circulated on social media and the mainstream media and it triggered cries of blame from all over the world, questioning the world nations and their leaders for their indifference towards the Syrian crisis. A history dotted with suffering — wars, famines, disasters has been underscored by powerful visual testimonials laying bare the atrocities brought on to the human race.
“Great works of art like writing or film-making can be written and reworked on, while images are the truthful visual narratives of history. Something which unlike other narratives is free of distortions and guarantees complete honesty,” iterates Raghu Rai, the man who documented the horrors of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy caused by the US chemical company, Union Carbide. Of the many powerful and thought-provoking images documented by Raghu Rai is the image of the ‘burial of an unknown child’. “A dead child with his sightless eyes wide open as if it was still alive was a tragic sight and an image like that creates a strange feeling inside you,” says Rai as he recalls his encounter with the tragic aftermath of the Bhopal disaster. The image represented one of the world’s most horrific industrial disasters and sparked off public opinions criticising the highhandedness of corporate bureaucracies and the horrors they had brought upon the city. It questioned the degrading human nature, who in want of individual prosperity, took away more than 20,000 innocent lives and left 1,50,000 maimed for life. NGOs rushed to provide aid to the victims and Union Carbide paid $470 million as compensations for the victims.