India’s Spectacle of Pain: Visual Image and the COVID crisis

Photo: REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

By Paulomi Sharma

The idea for writing this piece was triggered by two sensational images captured by Danish Siddiqui in the wake of the COVID crisis in India, that was undeniably one of the best examples of top-notch photojournalism in recent times. The aerial images of open cremation grounds and that of two patients sharing a single oxygen cylinder in a hospital, that Siddiqui framed as the representation of India’s helpless defeat to the lethal virus and the general incompetence of the authorities to right the wrongs done in the past respectively, shall remain etched in public imagination for a long time to come. Come to think of it, the rhetorical tone of this pandemic has been more visual than creative, with images of suffering being disseminated across the world through digital communications and social media platforms. Pictures and videos gone viral have had drastic impacts on major national, political and medical decisions.

In an age of globalized media and constant international vigilance, what role do ‘images of despair’ play in mobilizing the narrative of a nation, or quite its opposite, in stifling it? To put it in another way, what does the spectacle of death and crisis mean and how are they apprehended in times of global crisis?

The photographs that have emerged since the past year depicting the stages of how the Indian nation collapsed into an abyss of human horror, within a few weeks of the honorable Prime Minister declaring India’s victory over the coronavirus, are a telling narrative in their own right. It is an uncanny irony, that in a time when we are voluntarily detaching ourselves from physical proximity, what unites us still as a global community of humans and instils optimism for a healed future are the photographs of suffering. We are conspicuously making comparisons between ‘us’ and ‘them’ in terms of whose condition is worse and believe it or not, deriving strength out of other peoples’ affliction. Joan and Arthur Kleinman call this phenomenon of predatory optimism as the “consumption of suffering in a period of “distorted capitalism”.”

Within less than two months, just as the world was gaining inspiration from quarantined Italian residents singing songs of faith through their balconies during the country’s most restrictive lockdown ever imposed, the migrant workers of India began their walk of ceaseless misery in the scorching April sun, travelling under draconian conditions without food and water for days.  April proved to be the cruelest month (Eliot, “The Wasteland”) for these people indeed, which reminded the bitter truth that incantating words of love prove futile in the pursuit of basic survival.

However, such large-scale cross-country displacement, which many reminisced to be similar to the Partition spectacle of human exchange, lured the international media into launching a powerful critique of the Indian government’s slackness in response to the mass-migration and enabling top-down international political pressure on the Center to tackle the global crisis far more productively.

While the political aspect of this issue remains outside the purview of this writing, it was striking to see how the images and video reportages evoked humanity in the people who were hitherto sitting indoors, glued to TV sets, cursing their isolation. Indian people came out in bulks, both on a personal level and as part of philanthropic and community service organizations to supply the ‘walking deads’ with basic amenities.

Alternatively, the plight of the migrant workers, a huge section of unregistered Indian laborers that mostly belong to the lowest and most oppressed castes, and who literally shape up the backbone of Indian economy, found a space of recognition in the larger narrative of the nation’s socio-economic-political history. There is no way I am implying celebration of pain here, but the only way I believe the invisible can make an appearance into the light, is by orchestrating its pain and that is exactly what good photojournalism did throughout the pandemic disaster.

Images and visuals certainly do something much more than mere persuasion; they engender and re-ignite the dying spark of revolution within the masses. While the pandemic period has been one of the most estranging in the modern history of humankind, it has also been a time of witnessing mass infuriation all around the world. We have seen marginalized groups taking the center stage in admonishing tyrannical systems of governance in one part of the world, reactions of which were found echoing in another part of the world.

In India’s specific context, images of radical protests, political rallies – in short, those visuals that expose the totalitarianism and anarchy of the state-powers, bear the potential of inducing reactionary emotions in the mob and run the risk of disappearing as ‘absent images’ (Joan and Arthur Kleinman)– came out in the public eye. Sensitive visual work such as that of Danish Siddiqui’s have transmitted a wave of renewed heuristics in the public sphere, by envisaging an ethically improved and sentient world on the other side of the pandemic. This pandemic has been the ultimate symbolic collaboration of human crisis and digital technology. And the camera has been its most potent ethical and cultural weapon in this endeavor.


Kleinman, Arthur and Joan Kleinman. 1997. “The Appeal of Experience; The Dismay of Images: Cultural Appropriations of Suffering in our Times”. Social Suffering. Ed. Arthur Kleinman, Veena Das and Margaret Lock. University of California Press. pp. 1-24.

Paulomi Sharma is a doctoral student in the Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature Department of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, USA.


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