The Photograph begins with an old man slowly examining old photographs with his hands. The viewer feels almost intrusive watching the gnarled fingers pass over the pictures he knows so well that he need only touch their frames to bring the images to mind. The slow, tender motions of the old man are a direct contrast to the brash, young protagonist, Sita, who is introduced in the next scene.
At first glance, Sita is a young, immature, and breathtakingly beautiful woman who sings in a karaoke bar. The audience soon realizes, however, that Sita is working to support her young daughter and ailing grandmother back home. She works not only as a singer but also a prostitute. Her pimp is a vile and violent man who physically assaults her, screams at her, cuts off contact from her daughter, and demands money.
The Photograph does not romanticize, degrade, or judge Sita’s choice to become a prostitute. Instead, it paints the very realistic portrayal of survival sex, and how it destroys women by trapping them in a cycle of poverty and violence. That Sita is gang raped by johns and still continues to work is something all of the characters accept. This is a pragmatic view of the necessity of dangerous work for women who have no other viable options. By avoiding the “hooker with a heart of gold” stereotype, and showing the stark reality of some women’s experience, Nan Achnas makes Sita even more heartbreaking.
Sita also cleans and cooks for Mr. Johan, the elderly photographer we met in the opening scene. A begrudging host, he soon realizes Sita needs some kindness, and he needs to make peace with his own demons before he dies. Both Sita and Mr. Johan find acceptance in one another: two broken and bruised people just trying to survive.
The Photograph could have been shorter, as there were many scenes with no music or dialogue in which very little action happened. Despite these scenes, I became invested in Sita and Mr. Johan as the film progressed, and found myself living in their reality, which is light-years away from my living room. There were a few minor errors with the English subtitles, but nothing that significantly took away from the dialogue.
I thoroughly enjoyed Achnas’ decision to let the characters in The Photograph exist in their own reality, instead of within the context of some grand statement. The film depicts quiet and seemingly insubstantial lives intersecting to create a few moments of happiness, despite all the odds against it. After all, is this not how the universe actually works?