I can recount several incidents, where I have been harassed and abused while on work. Once, I was travelling in Himachal Pradesh and it was around 9: 00 am. The winding roads were quiet deserted and at one point where there were no other passengers but me, the conductor requested me to sit in the last seat. When I refused, the driver told me that it was a private bus and school students would get in, at the next stop.
The roads were quiet deserted and I was getting worried and it seemed unsafe to get off the bus too. It was at this point that the conductor took a seat closer to mine and started making small talk. I was on alert already, as the driver kept adjusting the rear mirror and making signs at the conductor and they both were exchanging glances.
I stopped answering their questions and then they started making rude comments and lewd remarks about me. The conductor kept coming closer, asking me very personal questions like 'was I married?' ' why I didn't have children ' etc etc. I remained quiet and held my tripod tight in my right hand getting ready to strike.
As the bus moved, we ran into a baraat (wedding ceremony) on the road and I pretended to be interested in taking pictures and as the bus stopped for the baraat to pass, I took the opportunity to get out of the bus and ran with the baraat into the house. I stayed in the wedding house for a few hours and then waited for a crowded bus to head back to town. Had it not been for the baraat, this could have been a real nightmare for me.
On another occasion, we were lost in Mysore city and it was past midnight. We pulled the car near a police station to ask for help.
The policemen at the station were drinking in the portico and kept making lewd comments questioning my presence at that hour in the police station. I remember one of his comment vividly, “If I give you directions, what will you give me Madam, will you give me what I ask of you?”
This was coming from a policeman, who was supposed to help citizens who have lost their way. I was with my family in a car, and we drove away, for we did not want to invite any more trouble.
Every time I get on a bus to travel overnight for an assignment or otherwise, I come back surprised and relieved if I am NOT groped or touched. I NEVER sleep on a night bus because I travel alone and there have been very very few instances when I came back without any abuse.
Although incidents like the above dot my career graph with my successes alike, I feel that it is past the time when we make choices out of societal fear and pressure but out of our ability and passion. Every woman who does what she does is aware of the things that may go wrong in that profession. Taking calculated risks and taking enough precautions is something we learn over time.
Following one's heart gives us the best career option, but it is also imperative to stay safe, especially at such a time. For female photojournalists, I would suggest to have local contacts, move in groups, keep in touch with local NGOs and also keep family and friends informed. Try and never be alone, even if it means paying another local person or two to keep you company on work.
Many would not agree but I will not underestimate the safety that is brought about by the attire I wear. It is important to blend in the local crowd- I make sure I wear the simplest salwar kameez and chappals I can find. My mantra is no jewelery whatsoever. A scarf or duppata is something, I will NOT forget to carry. Speaking the local language helps, but remember to never give out personal details.
There is not enough Photojournalist in India, but people enrolling for such courses in various universities is heartening. There is a lack of support system and no justice or even help from the police, when we need it. There is no training provided for us from news agencies. There is no system to fall back on when things go wrong, as most of us freelance."
(The photojournalist in the story did not want to be named. Shrabani Mukherjee files this story on her behalf)