Humanitarians and mainstream media have been criticized for photographing the poor as passive observers or pathetic spectacles of suffering (Torchin, 2013; Chouliaraki, 2006). These representations encourage distant spectators to feel as if they are responsible for saving victims from their exploitative circumstances (Sliwinski, 2011; Sontag, 2003; Boltanski, 1999). War, disaster, and poverty photography is geared toward distant spectators. The images chosen are those that appeal to (usually Western) audiences, rather than those that express what is happening on the ground. Victims are portrayed as threatening, passive, or desperate. Portrayals of slums in Mumbai, as of tragedies in other parts of India, have fallen prey to these tendencies.
Inadequate access to water and sanitation are defining of slums (UN Habitat, 2003). Battles between slum residents and law enforcement center on the various objects used to extract and transport water: booster pumps and plastic jugs being chief among them (Graham et.al., 2013). Latour (2004) and many others have argued for the centrality of objects in the formation of publics and politics. Appadurai (2013) notes that “things could usefully be regarded as having… intentionalities, projects and motives independent of their human handlers” (p. 257). These insights have much to offer development discourses, which often overlook the importance of objects in shaping majority-world contexts.
Drawing inspiration from this insight, the photographs in this essay focus on the objects that animate fights over water and sanitation in Mumbai’s slums. They depart from stereotypical photography of the poor centered on humans as subjects to foreground the quotidian, inanimate objects around which these struggles take place. This approach aims to tell the story of slums from a new perspective, beyond portrayals of abject helplessness and desperate victimhood. The goal is to re-center representation of the slums’ lack of basic amenities around what are usually considered the accoutrements of resource acquisition: pots, pumps, and toilet blocs. The hope is to inspire fresh insights and perspectives for development theorists and practitioners while challenging how “beneficiaries” are often portrayed.
The images that follow were all captured during fieldwork for my dissertation, which focuses on activists’ struggles to secure water and sanitation in Mumbai’s slums. The explanations beneath each image combine information gleaned from many interviews with activists, humanitarians, and government officials with insights from my ethnographic observation.
 My PhD research is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).
Acknowledgements: The images that follow were all captured during fieldwork for my dissertation, which focuses on activists’ struggles to secure water and sanitation in Mumbai’s slums. The explanations beneath each image combine information gleaned from many interviews with activists, humanitarians and government official with insights from my ethnographic observation. My PhD research is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). I am grateful for the numerous activists, particularly those affiliated with the Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan (GBGBA) and Slum Community Action Foundation (SCAF), that helped me understand their work.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.