The Abused Goddesses Campaign is creating waves , raising hackles (best exemplified by recent posts from Nisha Susan, Brinda Bose and Sayantani Dasgupta). Created by an advertising agency, Taproot, the campaign uses the images of (models dressed as) popular and much-loved Indian goddesses bearing the most telling signs of mortality – pain and hurt – and urges the viewer to consider that the only kind of woman free from the threat of violence is the divine kind and possibly not even them.
The conversation this campaign has generated is polarised; on the one hand you have Buzzfeed breathlessly declaring it ‘powerful’ and many agree; the viral sharing of the images on Twitter and Facebook are one indication of this. On the other, smaller, side, you have people raising questions like:
– Why Hindu Goddesses? Not everyone in India relates to these images. We shouldn’t be using these images in a diverse and multicultural country
– Why must we be likened to goddesses in order to earn our rights as humans?
– Why these goddesses, we already have the image of the terrifying and terrible Kali who is violent and invincible.
– Hinduism has been interpreted to have practices and rituals that discriminate against women (this of course greatly upsets the Hindu Right and a champion, an academic, comes to the defense of Hinduism and the Right)
As you know, I’m the questioning kind, so you know where I sit. I’m writing this post in order to raise something that hasn’t so far in all the deconstruction: the visual itself. The Delhi Gang Rape has revealed some things about middle class, social media-enabled Indian: we’re data-illiterate, and don’t understand how government works and laws get made. I’m going to add another one: we are visually illiterate and don’t know how to read the visual. In particular, in this context, I don’t think the critics of this campaign have approached it as a visual campaign. This is the subject of this post.
Tactical Tech, where I work (there’s the disclaimer/plug) is going to officially launch our newest publication, Visualising Information for Advocacy which is all about how the visual works in advocacy, on October 1st, 2013. The Abused Goddesses Campaign is a good example of what we would refer to as a ‘Get the Idea’ sort of campaign – one that uses strong and provocative imagery to inspire extreme emotions such as shock, suprise and anger or humour and laughter. These sorts of campaigns typically feature captivating and arresting images, very little data or nuance. As we say:
“If badly conceived or executed, it can alienate or insult an audience. But when it works, the effect of such a campaign can be significant: it can spread quickly across media, be talked about and rapidly bring attention to an issue. These kinds of images pass on tiny packets of information about the issue, referring only obliquely to what people commonly think of as evidence, rather than presenting it directly. As provocations, such images mostly work as routes leading into a wider campaign where further information about the issue can be found. They are often designed to appeal to people who have not yet been exposed to the issue or who don’t have a clear position.”
In this respect, I think the Abused Goddesses campaign works very well. I think it has got a lot of people’s attention because the creators of the campaign have very smartly chosen a provocative set of symbols to work with. In the print at the bottom of the poster (really have to zoom in online to see it) the designers say they intend to send out a strong message and I think they have. Whether I agree with the use of particular symbols is another matter, and I’m not the person tasked with creating an arresting campaign. This isn’t to challenge what people like Nisha and Brinda are saying – I think their deconstructions and critiques are much-needed and we only need to continue to challenge our readings and use of the visual. I think their analyses focus on the politics of representation rather than the deployment of the visual in advertising. There is a difference. Personally, I think that in a plural society we only need more kinds of visuals – annoying, bad ones and really great ones – and more conversations about why they work or don’t.