Popsicle #1: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

“Even the person who lives like a dog still has some kind of life. Once my mother was beating me, and that thought came to me. I said, “If what is happening now, you beating me, is to keep happening for the rest of my life, it would be a bad life, but it would be a life, too.”’ Abdul – in Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

For Christmas, Uncle David gave me Louise Glück’s book of collected poems: 1962-2012. I figured this book would be perfect for my first 52 Popsicles assignment. I was particularly encouraged when I read her poem CeremonyNot only does she mention one of my all-time favorite poets, she also alludes to the pleasure/joy dichotomy I’ve been thinking about lately:

If you are so desperate 
for precedent, try
Stevens. Stevens
never traveled; that doesn’t mean
he didn’t know pleasure

Pleasure maybe but not joy. 

Like just about every other poem I read in Glück’s book, Ceremony is about the dissolution of a marriage. Worthwhile territory, of course, but the more I read, the more I felt the pleasure slipping away. “Very few lives are interesting,” wrote one critic of Glück, “and even fewer are sufficiently interesting to spawn nine books of autobiographical poetry.”

bookcover3eWorn down by all the navel gazing, I picked up the book Uncle David had given my wife: Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo. The remarkable thing about Boo’s acclaimed nonfiction portrayal of a Mumbai slum is how much it reads like fiction. The narrative of these lives, however ‘bad’, is portrayed with an interior intimacy almost never found in documentary work.

As a photographer, I couldn’t help but look at Boo’s achievement with envy. Pictures feel mute next to the novelistic universe she portrays. This got me to thinking about the book’s cover. I find it curious that the publisher chose a romantic photograph, particularly when Boo writes in her author’s note “I quickly grew impatient with poignant snapshots of Indian squalor.”


As it turns out, the cover is a montage of two photographs from Chiara Goia and Alex Masi.  I like both of these pictures. But I’d rather not attach any photographic imagery (including the UK cover) to Boo’s seamless merging of novelistic interiority and documentary rigor.

– Alec Soth

2 Replies to “Popsicle #1: Behind the Beautiful Forevers”

  1. I too read Ms. Boo’s book over the Holiday and as a photographer felt very much the same as you did about the power of her words. As a voracious reader I often have that feeling but then I remind myself of the strength of photography. The photograph of the little girl; the way she is gracefully squatting with her head thrown back and eyes closed has an immediate impact that I would never get from mere words. Photography is a different kind of poetry.

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