The chai-wallah has gone down in internet history: a blue-eyed, square jawed teenager at a tea stall in Islamabad, caught by a photographer unawares as he poured tea. It’s a remarkable photograph, artfully enhanced but captures an intense gaze and an unconscious grace. Social media exploded; the teenager—Arshad Khan—has already been roped in for various modeling contracts. Good for him, he’ll make a bit of money and if he plays his cards right, might have discovered an alternative, more lucrative career for himself. However, here’s the flip side: like many beautiful ‘locals’ who are photographed worldwide, Arshad Khan had no idea what was going on. In an interview he can be seen saying how he didn’t know someone was taking his picture, or what for, and how unexpected this fame was. I don’t think I want to act in films, he says in response to a question, nobody in my family has ever done it nor will they. We need to consider very carefully the dynamics of consent.
Much of the counter-argument to this chai-wallah fad centers around class: how an upper-middle class person with a camera can photograph a boy at a tea-stall with no repercussions. Some people think it exploitative, that because the subject comes from a different socio-economic background, it makes him less able to resist the objectification thrust upon him by someone with more social and economic power. Lack of consent is important because it calls into play the larger question of consent as a whole, and whether it really exists or not. Technically when you photograph someone you are supposed to ask if it’s all right with them, and whether they would mind if you used their image for public dissemination. A fee might be involved, it could be gratis too. But this is informed consent, and the subject willingly allows this transaction to take place. Consent is important because it equalises the terms of the transaction, it makes both parties aware of intent and responsibility. Consent creates the informed choice. If I consent to having my photograph taken by a weekend glossy’s photographer, for example, then I am tacitly allowing them to publish it in their magazine too. Because I am aware of this, I can decide when I want my photo taken and when I don’t. Photographing people is not the problem: the crux of the matter is the choice. What happens when you are not offered one?
Taking something without asking is theft. It also makes the entire business of travel photography problematic. When Steve McCurry was taking that iconic Afghan woman’s photograph for National Geographic, she obviously had no idea that she was going to land on the cover of an international magazine and become a legend. This is where it becomes sticky: she presumably consented to having herself photographed, but had nothing to do with what happened to her image afterwards. Is this exploitation? To what extent is an artist responsible for her subjects? Am I obliged to share royalties on an image with the subject of that image, for example? Or do I owe them nothing beyond whatever initial transaction made, because my unique creative talent turned an ordinary person into art? When you add into the mix the complications of class, money and colour then you have a real cauldron of questions on your hands.
The relationship between creator and the created is a difficult one. The question of responsibility is equally complex. Is da Vinci responsible for making the lady who posed for the Mona Lisa famous? Yes. Like Shakespeare wrote in Sonnet 18 of his lady love, “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,/So long lives this, and this gives life to thee”; her “eternal summer shall not fade” because he has immortalised her in his poem. It’s all right for an anonymous person, fiction grants one the convenient distance of invention. But a picture is not so mysterious, or a film, or a documentary. Who knows how many people hounded the original Mona Lisa after she was painted? The non-fiction of the travel writer and the photographer is much more straightforward and conversely complicated. The chai-wallah, the Kalash girl, the rag picking child, the rickshaw-wallah are all real people living real lives, now reduced to the picturesque by someone with the privilege of seeing them from the outside. If there is any profit to be made from this reduction, to whom does it belong? To what extent should this definition be allowed? How does one differentiate between a kind of benevolent advantage-taking and a celebration of diversity, just art? Many questions, many that are unanswerable. But it’s important to think about it, because we cannot ignore the structures of money and class we live with. It’s not as simple as saying “this is art”, or “it’s just a photograph” or even “it’s only clothing”. We can only move towards being a more thoughtful society if we do just that: think.