Three years ago, I was with my wife, who is Indian and from Mumbai, at a tea stall opposite Famous Studios in Mahalakshmi. Suddenly, she told me in a disgusted tone that a man across the road was trying to take a picture of her with his mobile phone camera. I looked around and didn't see anyone — perhaps he was gone by then.
I started asking female friends and, as a result, hearing about and noticing such incidents more frequently, and found that this was a common occurrence. The voyeurism disgusted me, but I was also fascinated — what happens to these pictures? Where do they end up?
I started searching for these kinds of pictures on the internet. Very soon, I found some of them on pornographic websites and, after some further googling, in the adult sections on online forums, where people would post one of these pictures and there would be long comment threads underneath them. These comments, all from men, dripped of extreme sexual frustration, either talking about the woman's assets in strong language or treating her like a sexual object.
Fabien Charuau, 38, a resident of Altamount Road, is a freelance photographer originally from Brittany, France, who made India his home 15 years ago. A mechanical engineer by training, he switched to photography after a chance meeting with fashion photographer Prabuddha Dasgupta in 2002. For the past decade, he has been a fashion and advertising photographer. His personal photography projects deal with candid photography and focus on the mofussil side of India. In October 2011, he participated in a show called 'Exchanging Glances' at Colaba art space Chatterjee & Lal. In this show, he displayed his project 'Send Some Candids', which comprised voyeuristic photographs of women taken by men across India on mobile phone cameras.
What struck me about these posts were the photographs themselves. There was no nudity in any of these pictures. Some of them were opportunistic shots of exposed cleavage, legs and buttocks; others focused on less obvious body parts such as armpits, necks and the small of the back. Still others were just simple shots of women on streets or at their homes, with no overt sexual element visible.
The subjects weren't just attractive young women — they were young and old, petite and obese. Some pictures were untouched and raw, while others had been crudely edited. In some pictures the faces had been cropped out or distorted to protect the woman's identity; in others, they had been digitally disfigured to make them resemble rape or acid burn victims.
The sexual aspect, I realised, lay not in the photographs themselves, but in the act of taking the photograph. For these men, the thrill lay in violating a woman's privacy and taking a candid picture of her. This seemed to excite them and almost give them the feeling of knowing the woman sexually. In some pictures, one can see the woman glaring at the camera in resentment and fear, knowing that she's been photographed and feeling utterly helpless about it.
I spent four months last year going through nearly 10,000 photographs on these forums. These pictures came from all over India — villages, small towns, cities and even metros like Mumbai and Delhi.
This sub-culture doesn't speak about all Indian men, but there definitely seems to be a significant portion of men across the country whose gaze towards women is very unbalanced. It makes women grow up wondering why their bodies attract so much attention. This leads to some of them rejecting their sexuality, which isn't healthy for any society because, ultimately, aren't we all sexual animals?
(As told to Suprateek Chatterjee)