The Rhetorical Function of Raghu Rai’s Images of Bhopal

  • Carrie Patterson Baylor University


Twenty-six years have passed since the night toxic gas leaked from the Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India. Yet the incident, which occurred in December of 1984 and was estimated to be the cause of more than 300,000 casualties, still regularly appears in news headlines (Kim et al. 245). This is due partially to the grand scale of this infamous catastrophe, which lead to death and suffering for thousands of people. Another reason for the continuing coverage of the disaster for over two decades is the ongoing controversy concerning the causes of the leak and debate regarding which entities should be held accountable. Over this period of deliberation, documentary photographs depicting victims of the gas leak taken by renowned Indian photographer Raghu Rai have often operated as rhetorical catalysts (stimuli for discourse that prompts viewers to take action) to such disputes. Indeed, as Susan Sontag argues in Regarding the Pain of Others, disaster photography has a formative influence in “shaping what catastrophes and crises we pay attention to, what we care about, and ultimately what evaluations are attached to these conflicts” (105). In this way, visual rhetoric not only presents ideas to an audience but may also serve as a form of social activism, geared towards engaging the audience in a dialogue that forwards specific goals.
In this essay, I investigate this complicated relationship involving visual artifacts, viewers, and the actual victims of the crisis by analyzing the images created by Rai as a mode of visual rhetorical appeal. I argue that by offering an intimate view (that is, an overt and penetrating experience that is usually unavailable to distant audiences) of a devastating situation far away in time and often in place for viewers of these images, the photographs substitute for the reality of the situation and, through their verisimilitude, invite audiences to demand justice (Booth and Davisson). The essay unfolds by attending to how each image in the presented series of photographs helps to create an overlying narrative of crisis and distress by introducing the story line of the suffering of the Bhopali population, then establishes consubstantiality between the audience and the victims, and thus provokes the viewer to social action because of resulting guilt. To understand Rai’s visual rhetorical efficaciousness, or power to produce a desired effect, I will elaborate on Burke’s theorization of the guilt-redemption cycle, or the process by which humans assign culpability in order to ease their own consciences and enact reparations for the faults of an imperfect society.