As a 17-year-old, about to go off to college, my parents told me one thing very clearly – a woman has to face sexual harassment everywhere, so keep looking out for unscrupulous elements. I was a young, naive girl, and having grown up in a household where discussions around sex and sexual harassment weren’t very common; I didn’t know how to deal with any untoward advances if I ever did face them.
A few months into college, a few friends suggested that I do an internship because that would immensely help me in my future career prospects. In 2011, I saw posters around my college of an upcoming magazine, which was offering photography and music internships. Heavily into classical music at that time, I gave a call to the number given on the poster. The person who picked up seemed extremely rude. He asked me to meet him in G.K. (Greater Kailash, Delhi), near Bread & More, as he didn’t have any office space back then. He even got annoyed when I called him to ask where Bread & More was (back then smartphones and Google maps on the phone weren’t a thing), and his response was, “Excuse me, how stupid are you? Just find the place by yourself!”
Even after being insulted, I went to meet him. He made me wait for a long time, but when he finally came in, his demeanour gave me the feel that I was talking to a professional photographer. All the while that we spoke, he kept ‘checking me out’. I brushed that off. What I found weird was that he didn’t want to know who I was, what my interest areas were, he didn’t even brief me about what a music internship actually is. Before we even got to talking further, he told me to get more than 50 likes on his Facebook page and add him as well. I did what he said and sent out messages to my friends, asking them to like the page.
What happened next scarred me for the rest of my college life. This particular photographer soon started messaging me on Facebook. Never talking about work, all he was interested in was to know where I lived, what were the curfew timings of my hostel, if I could party all night with him or not. I kept explaining to him that I wanted to know more about the work. But he didn’t seem interested.
The posts on his Facebook profile got weirder by the day. I don’t know much about photography, but I do know that nude photos of women, and clicking them from a chauvinistic angle that concentrates only on their private parts isn’t photography. ‘Sex’, ‘drugs’, ‘prostitutes’ – that was all that he ever posted about on his timeline. I thought I could respect him – after all, photography of any form was an art, right? But, somehow, I could never come to respect him for his work, and slowly, my dedication towards doing any work for him died out.
I soon stopped work on one article that we had agreed upon. And he too lost interest in what I was up to. But one day, out of the blue, I got an MMS from him. Expecting it to be a reminder that I wasn’t doing my work well, I opened it. It was a picture of a penis. I was shocked. I didn’t know how to react. All I could do was throw him out of my Facebook friend list, and block his number.
Can I call this sexual harassment? I always thought sexual harassment was physical, as a young girl. But what he did scarred me for life. I refused to believe in any person, and I was scared to approach anyone else for internships. I lost faith in my capability, doubted myself for a long time. Was I that insincere that all he saw in me was my sexuality, nothing else?
Today, after many years, I came across testimonials of others who were harassed in exactly the same way by him, even worse in some instances. Some were told they have ‘kissable lips’, some were forcefully coerced by him into sex, some were asked for a blow job, some were sent messages where he asked whether he could join them in the shower. His organization has recently come up with a Sexual Harassment cell, which is funny, because when the head of the organization himself is harassing others, who is there to protect them?
Today, whenever I look at his magazine, anger surges through me. I want to tell the world what happened to me, so that no other girl, with so many hopes, has to go through what I did in the name of working for a ‘world-class magazine’. He has even admitted to another survivor that he is a ‘massive flirt’. But his flirting isn’t innocent, his flirting isn’t fun. His flirting is sexual harassment. As a young girl, I thought I was in the wrong, because for me, my boss’s integrity was larger than my own self-respect. But after more than five years, I now know that I wasn’t the one who was at fault. He abused his privilege, he abused his power. I think it is essential that we speak up against such abuse.
Many of us have been mentally and physically abused by him. And if in the name of photography and being the head of an organization, he can abuse his privilege, and no action is being taken against him, then I am sorry to say, but I think I will lose faith in humanity soon some day.
Editorial Note: Ever since the story broke out on social media, we have been getting multiple accounts from people on the predatory behaviour of the individual mentioned in the above piece. Not just India, similar instances have reportedly occurred with women in other parts of the world. Many international organisations that were previously hosting this individual have now distanced themselves from him, owing to the surge of complaints against him. Keeping in mind the legalities and safety of the people who have raised their voice against him confidential and safe, we haven’t mentioned his name or that of the magazine he runs.