Sexual violence is one of India’s most contentious and sensitive issues. It has been the subject of numerous humanitarian projects, online discussion groups and petitions. Now, though, it seems to have become a subject for style.
Last week, Mumbai-based photographer Raj Shetye published a series of images that used a gang rape tableau for a fashion shoot. The photo series, titled “The Wrong Turn,” features a gaggle of men on a bus grabbing at the legs, arms and torso of a woman dressed in slinky evening wear and jewels. The photos, unfortunately, speak for themselves.
Twitter critics say the shoot directly mirrors the horrific rape and subsequent death of 23-year-old intern Nirbhaya (a pseudonym, meaning “fearless”), which took place on a Delhi bus in 2012. The six men responsible were arrested and charged with sexual assault and murder—one died in police custody, four received the death sentence and one juvenile was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment—and the case became the subject of enormous international outcry. The furious response to the Nirbhaya incident is echoed in the online reaction to Shetye’s images. There are obvious similarities: a young woman surrounded by multiple men, the bus environment, the aggressive grips.
For his part, Shetye claims his photos aren’t a response to Nirbhaya’s case, but rather “a depiction of the situation of women in our country.” Perhaps he meant these sleek shots as some kind of trenchant social commentary. Perhaps it was just extremely poor judgment by the photographer and the many people involved in this production. It’s unclear.
Regardless, it’s hard to see them as anything other than a romanticization of something horrific. Neither this shoot nor Shetye’s answers were careful—and they certainly don’t do justice to the issue of sexual assault in India.