Just got used to seeing the hashtag #Chaiwala and Pakistan's Arshad Khan's pictures plastered all over the internet? Well, he's been replaced by, wait for it, the 'Tarkariwali' from Nepal.
This new successor to Arshad Khan a.k.a. The #Chaiwala's crown, is a seemingly teenaged girl in a green tunic, carrying a load of vegetables to sell in Nepal. She's being referred to as the #Tarkariwali. And along with her, we can see the emergence of a disturbing new trend.
What is this new fad of putting up pictures of strangers, on social media? And of identifying them by their profession?
While it is completely within one's rights to create artworks such as photographs, paintings, documentaries and so on which appreciate the beauty of others, the present mode of adulation for these unlikely models appears to have some unsettling undertones.
Consent is one of the most crucial and basic factors to remember when creating art using other people or their property (physical or intellectual) as subjects for a particular creation. Consent involves asking the subject beforehand whether they are comfortable or agreeable to the idea of being transformed into somebody else's creation. Was consent asked for before putting either the #Chaiwala or the #Tarkariwali's images on social media?
Privacy: Rich vs Poor
Artists, especially photographers often cite artistic license as the moral safeguard while defending instances of ethical faux pas. Candid travel and street photography as well as photojournalism are all art forms based on capturing phenomena in real time. This includes pictures of people - famous or ordinary.
But hey, remember when some candid photographs of Shah Rukh Khan's teenage daughter were 'leaked' online? To nobody's surprise, media sites ran the story with headlines like 'Hot Bikini Pics Of SRK's Daughter'. Within hours, King Khan was all over the internet - with good reason - furious at the unauthorised use of his daughters pictures, demanding the images be taken down. The pictures promptly disappeared in a while along with the media frenzy.
According to some reports, in Arshad's case, Pakistani photographer Jiah Ali, who took the candid shot and posted it on Instagram, had asked the boy for his consent before taking the picture and even returned to inform him of his newfound stardom.
In the Tarkariwali's case, it is as yet unclear whether her pictures were taken with her consent or without.
This website however claims that her picture was taken with her permission.
Exploitation by consent
After the sudden stardom of the 'hot' Chaiwala, many in the media raised the question of class exploitation of such unwitting models by upper/upper-middle class consumers.
In one of his interviews post-fame, Arshad, the Chaiwalla who became an overnight celebrity and apparently is now fielding modelling offers, told the press that it was a real surprise for him.
An online fashion site has already signed the boy as their model, and media reports claim Arshad is currently in talks with a number of modelling projects. The online fashion site claimed 'Chaiwala no more' Arshad is now a Fashion-wala.
The fashion and glamour industry, infamous for its objectification and overt sexualization of models and subjects (both men and women), is not easy to survive. Is the young boy from northwestern Pakistan's secluded Pashtun community equipped enough to deal with the cut throat fashion and advertising industry? Only time can tell.
Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. But there is something definitely disturbing about the decidedly elitist tags which are being used to describe these subjects. Chaiwala. Tarkariwali.
It's as if we cannot believe that people from a weaker economic background could possibly be attractive. Almost as if they were oddities.
As sociologist Nida Kirmani tweeted about Arshad.
The elite getting excited over a hot #ChaiWala reeks of class privilege and the objectification of working class men. Check yourself, folks!— Nida Kirmani (@nidkirm) October 18, 2016
The idea is that the images are garnering surprise and praise BECAUSE they belong to people who we feel should be devoid of virtues such as grace or beauty. The internet fame and the sensation that the person becomes is only BECAUSE the beauty belongs to a tea seller or a vegetable vendor.
Labour fetishism and exoticisation of poverty is yet another aspect of such classism, an affliction common to most photographs of Steve McCurry, who has often been accused of harbouring an 'imperial gaze'. You see images of blue-eyed farm boys and rosy-cheeked country girls from conflict and poverty-torn regions, but you only see the pretty face and not the background.
Labour fetishism as a form of art has been around for a while in Western media. Read 'hot firemen', 'macho construction workers' and 'saucy french maid'. Each of the descriptions involve overt sexualisation of the subject to the point their actual identities as people are melded into a stereotype.
It's sad to see that this has spilled over into the subcontinent as well.
Let's not get carried away
Thanks to our smartphone cameras and SLRs and so on, we've all started to think of ourselves as Annie Leibowitz. But as feminist columnist, Bina Shaha told AFP while commenting on the buzz about the #Chaiwala pictures, “Just because people are bored does not mean you can play with someone’s life.”
She also spoke of the reverse sexism and reverse objectification of men:
"We are more used to seeing this happen to women, it is still creepy when it happens to a boy".
But the thread that runs through both instances with both subjects is classism more than sexism. That too, the subject's class.
After all, when was the last time we saw a picture of a good looking entrepreneur or a famous dancer or publisher, with the hashtag #Entrepreneur or #Dancer or #Publisher? The emergence of the #Chaiwalla and #Tarkariwali images simply highlights a casual classism, which we do not even realise lies within us. And it's high time we realise how offensive such hashtags and photos are.