By Anushree Fadnavis
I started taking photos of women in the ladies’ compartments of Mumbai local trains as a way to observe a space around me made for women – exclusively for women. I had read John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, in which he says that women always see themselves from a man’s point of view. Through these photos I wanted to offer a window – a sneak peek – into the moments when women live their lives without having to do that. These photos of women on Mumbai local trains appear in my Train Diaries series on Instagram, and in exhibitions such as “A Million Mutinies Later – India at 70” in the UK. The responses to these photos of women – including images of girls leaning out of the train as it chugs along at night, women returning from a long day of work, trans women sparkling in carefully-chosen outfits – have been largely appreciative and encouraging. Not every photo I share on Instagram is of women on trains, but they are usually of people in public spaces. A couple of days ago I shared a different kind of photo, captioned, “A picture for my lover <3”. It was a picture of me in my bathroom, in which you can see my legs and my underwear at my ankles.
I had taken the photo years ago on my phone and sent it to my boyfriend, but it had stayed with me in my head. And I thought it was an interesting way to start a series on sexuality, relationships, and consent, particularly using a medium through which a large part of our intimate relationships is conducted. So much of our interaction today is virtual, and I felt this picture communicated that.
Before posting the photo, I did anticipate that not all responses would be positive, and although there were many who said they got what I was doing, there was certainly a lot of strong negative feedback (largely from commenters with masculine names in their handles). I expected some people to react with disgust, and some of those responses made me laugh, like one person who commented, “Your communication is your communication none of our communication.” Someone else said “I had been following your pics frm last 1 year but never expected like this. You have sucha gr8 collection but this one is instaonepic! #notinpublic#personalthings#notanarrowmind #requesttodeleteuglypicture#notainstapic#”
Many responses indicated that it looked like a private photo that should not have been shared in public. One commenter asked if it was some kind of manipulation I was trying to pull off. Some people even messaged me privately to ask if my account had been hacked. But the responses that truly surprised me the most, were enthusiastic ones from a few people who seemed to love the picture.
I don’t know if reactions would have been the same had a guy posted a similar photo – maybe yes, maybe no. But I do feel that men have an issue with women posting pictures about themselves. It’s like after they saw all of my other work, they thought, “I know this person and I didn’t expect this of her.” Some of the comments show that some people think I crossed some kind of line, posting something so personal. It’s not like I put a picture of my vagina there. I’m not at all saying that doing that is wrong or bad or not beautiful. But the suggestion of nudity, and maybe the intimacy of that photo – giving people access to my personal space – seems to have freaked some people out.
When it’s not an actor or model in question, everyone wants to be able to see a woman as the girl next door. But when you’re a woman who opens that door yourself, and invites people in to what your life is really like, particularly when it comes to one’s body and one’s sexuality, that makes people very uncomfortable. We can talk about sexuality in movies and books and so on, and that’s fine, but when we make it personal and about our actual selves, that’s hard for people to digest.
Had that photo been more racy, people might not have blinked. If it had been an actor, or a model, or a pornstar who had taken that photo with sexy lingerie, or even a photo of a woman taken by a guy, it would have been cool. But in this photo I was trying to portray everyday, mundane stuff – the kind of photo we women might casually send our lovers on any given day. My lover might have been asking what I was doing in that moment, and I might have sent him this picture in response. I wonder if the ordinariness of this photo is what stumped some of the commenters.
In my work, even when a photo has some expression of sexuality in it, like a woman dressed with care or a trans woman posing seductively, I have never tried to deliberately portray them in a sexual way – it’s just a reflection of how the people in the photo are. Many of the trans women I have spoken to on trains have told me how they face unwanted comments and touching from men. The idea of women being subjected to things they don’t want seems to receive less outrage than women expressing what they do want, particularly when it comes to one’s own sexuality. And people are not able to match their expectations of you and how they want to see you with who you really are. I think that’s why people are not able to match this photo with the Anushree they think they know because they’ve been following my work.
That photo shows a conversation, a dialogue between two people, about sexuality, desire, and consent. Now that’s something I wish we would all talk about way more often.
(As told to Deepika S)
Anushree Fadnavis is a photojournalist currently based in Delhi.
See her photoessay, Nights Full of Women, on Agents of Ishq.