Bhopal: Facing 30 is a photographic project in two parts that portrays the site of the 1984 Bhopal disaster today and of the people that continue to be affected 30 years on. Both parts of this project will be presented in book form to be published for the 30th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster.
On the night of December 2nd, 1984, a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, began leaking 27 tons of the deadly gas methyl isocyanate. None of the six safety systems designed to contain such a leak were operational, allowing the gas to spread throughout the city of Bhopal. Half a million people were exposed to the gas and 25,000 have died to date as a result of their exposure. More than 120,000 people still suffer from ailments caused by the accident and the subsequent pollution at the plant site.
For this project I have produced a series of empowering formal family portraits of the people who reside in the colonies on the perimeter wall of the Union Carbide site that resulted in the worst gas leak disaster known to man. The residents photographed are those that are registered with the Sambhavna Trust Clinic, Bhopal, and are all receiving treatment for resulting health issues and are all below the poverty line. The clinic has found that the third generation of children born to the sufferers of the Bhopal disaster, and subsequent water contamination, are continuing to be born with birth defects.
The portraits element of this project is a follow-up from a series of images of the entire boundary wall of the Union Carbide site that I took in January 2013 whilst on a three-month research trip to India.
Having arrived in Bhopal, the first thing I did was visit the Union Carbide site. I became fascinated with the wall that was erected to contain the factory and the disaster site – a wall that supposedly determines the boundary between what is safe, and what is not (the site has never been cleaned up, and continues to house the residual toxins from the methyl isocyanate gas leak, hazardous to human and environmental health). The most astonishing thing about the wall is the level of degradation and the amount of areas that provide easy access to what is deemed ‘un-safe’. There are cavernous holes at ground level, steps and ledges that lead up and over the wall, there are security gates left open, parts that are knee high. The perimeter wall has rows and rows of residents’ houses backing on to it. Children clamber the walls or pass through the holes – it’s an appealing grassy spot for a game of cricket. Families graze their livestock within the walls. The animals’ patties are dried against the wall for fuel to burn. From the height of a small child you cannot see the remains of the abandoned factory, you can just see that the grass is greener on the inside. From this perspective, there is no danger.
Mesmerised by this situation, I decided to document the entire boundary wall of the Union Carbide site, from the perspective of a young child, say six or seven years old. Each image overlaps slightly, always at the point of the wall. Therefore it is the wall that is the continuum when the images are presented together.
An important aspect of my project is the juxtaposition of people and place. On the one hand the families that live close to the contaminated site are a symbol of resilience and optimism, whilst on the other the site represents 30 years of pain and suffering. For this reason I returned to India to capture the formal family portraits of those living in the highly populated colonies surrounding the Union Carbide site that on my previous trip were extremely welcoming and full of hope and positivity, despite their health continually at risk. These people, mostly without modern technology, would not have been able to document their children growing up, or have a professional family portrait taken. In India, a formal family portrait demonstrates wealth, accomplishment, and a sense of achievement; all things usually associated with the higher castes.
I made the portraits formal, in keeping with Indian studio portraiture and invited people to come in their best traditional dress, as if for a wedding or celebration. I hope that these dignified images – that you will see soon with the release of the Bhopal: Facing 30 book – will be the empowering symbol of positivity resilience and optimism.
Project partners include Bhopal Medical Appeal, Brighton, Sambhavna Trust Clinic, Bhopal, Photofusion, London, and the Asian Resource Centre, Croydon. The project will also incorporate a series of public engagement talks and events during 2014. Venues include Photofusion, Community Art Centre, Brighton, Housmans Bookshop, London, Daunt Books, London, Roehampton University & Leeds University, and Amnesty International’s Human Rights Action Centre, London. In addition, Bhopal: Facing 30 aims to tour galleries in the UK and India.
Bhopal: Facing 30 is a project funded by Arts Council England, and supported by the Bhopal Medical Appeal.