On the night of 2/3 December 1984 at the Union Carbide India Limited pesticide plant in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, a systemic maintenance negligence and violation of security standards led to a massive leak of methyl isocyanate into the atmosphere. Almost four thousand people were killed instantly by the gas exposure. Another eight thousand died within following two weeks. Overall, it is estimated that half a million people have been affected by the leak and the plant-caused pollution of the soil and water. What was referred as the world’s worst industrial disaster still remains largely unfixed, in health, environmental and social justice terms. Photographer Alex Masi has spent several years documenting the long aftermath of the Bhopal disaster and raising awareness of the problem.
Photographs by Alex Masi / Text by Indra Sinha
If something is outrageous enough, the mind refuses to see it. On the morning of December 3, 1984, hours after the gas leak, the photographers Raghu Rai and Pablo Bartholomew were walking around Bhopal streets that looked like scenes from an apocalypse. Bodies of human beings and animals lay everywhere, caught in their death agonies. Such a scene could never have been imagined. The only way to experience it was to be there, and even then their response was mainly one of disbelief.
They came to a piece of stony ground where a man was crouched low. On coming closer they saw that he was burying a child. He had scraped a shallow grave, laid the small body in it, and had covered it with gravel. Then he hesitated, his hand hovered over the grave, and softly, gently, he brushed away the soil from his daughter’s face for one last look. Watching this happen, both photographers were in tears. The pictures they took, one in Raghu’s trademark black and white, Pablo’s in color, won each of them a World Press Photo Award. But more important than any award was that this moment became the iconic image of the Union Carbide disaster, and would eventually be a universally recognized and understood symbol of the survivors’ struggle for justice.
That was day one. Since then nearly three decades have elapsed. A long list of talented photographers has helped document the plight of the people and their long battle for basic human rights. The powerful images they made were published in newspapers and magazines, but would have had fleeting, ephemeral lives, had not the best of them been picked up by the campaigns and used, over and over, thus conferring on them some kind of immortality.
I have been working with the Bhopalis for nearly twenty years, and during that time have written hundreds of thousands of words that have found their way into books and websites, posters, newsletters and fundraising appeals. Often I was telling stories that I realized people back home, would find hard to believe, literally incredible. But people trust their eyes, so always I would look for a photograph to corroborate and confirm the truth of the outrageous thing or event I was describing.
My words were just one more accusation of cruelty, callousness and injustice. A picture would have been proof. A picture would have been news.
The Bhopalis’ struggle has been going on for such a long time that it is now possible to break it into different periods. Thus, at the beginning, the focus was on the immediate chaos and the factory itself. Once The Bhopal Medical Appeal came into being, we needed to show the clinic, and the injured people who were receiving care. Since the 1999 Greenpeace report established the extent and severity of the toxic contamination, we have tried to show its causes and consequences. In the affected areas the rate of birth defects is many times higher than the national average, in certain places ten times higher, but to begin with, we lacked the pictures to tell this story.
Then Alex Masi arrived in Bhopal.
Alex had come to India to document issues focusing on children’s rights. He had heard of the 1984 Union Carbide gas disaster in Bhopal, but did not know about the poisoning of the water, nor about the toxic waste. It was some months before he visited the city. What he saw horrified him, and brought him back eight times to make a body of work that won him a series of awards, culminating in the 2012 FotoEvidence Book Award, a major part of which is the publication of this book, Bhopal Second Disaster.
Alex describes himself not just as a journalist and photographer but also a participant. “Bhopal is a story”, he says, “where it’s impossible to be impartial”. The facts are stark, the existence of the toxic waste is not something that can be disputed, nor that Union didn’t care about the people living near the factory.
“Normally,” Alex says, “I work on a personal story for at least a month, but in Bhopal once I began visiting disabled children, to see the way they and their families lived, it led to looking at how others were coping. I also wanted to show that there is life beyond disaster and to photograph people and their children being joyful.”
Far from simply photographing suffering children, Alex became involved with their care and welfare. “I don’t go into someone’s home to get the shot I want, but to work with what’s actually happening there. I don’t ask people to do anything they wouldn’t normally do. I want to make images that will touch the emotions of people who see them. To do this I have to allow my own emotions to be touched, and sometimes affected.”
When I have my camera to my eye, I think only of the picture I’m taking, but technique is useless if I do not feel what these children and families are experiencing. I cannot describe a feeling, just feel it and try to find a visual style that will evoke that feeling when people see my pictures.
About Alex’s pictures there is an exquisite clarity, as if he has thought through his shot before he takes it, planned and waited for the right opportunity. When I saw his picture of the derelict Union Carbide factory under a heavy monsoon sky, I thought at once that this, like Raghu’s baby, was going to be one of the defining images of Bhopal. I said, “The brilliance of this picture is that it recalls both Bhopal’s disasters in one image. These dark rainclouds are the gas escaping from the factory and also the threat looming over the contaminated communities. It is at the same time in the world, recording a meteorological phenomenon, and in people’s minds. There’s also a silver light behind the clouds, as if to suggest there is hope that they will lift, and that something better lies beyond.” Alex replied, “The Bhopalis say they have given up hope, as it only leads to despair. Bitter as this sounds, they usually laugh as they say it. I think they have discovered something stronger and finer than hope, and I aim to share that powerful feeling with the world.”
Bhopal Second Disaster has been published as a book that is available on sale.
Alex Masi is a documentary photographer and multimedia journalist based in London, UK. His work has appeared in numerous international publications, including National Geographic, The New York Times, Newsweek, Foreign Policy and The Guardian. Alex dedicated his entire career to reporting social and environmental injustice, with special concern on issues where children’s rights are or might be violated. He covered such stories in Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria and the US. In 2009 he started working on the long aftermath of the Bhopal gas disaster. The resulting project has won many prizes and was extended by an another one, Poonam’s Tale of Hope, that helps raising funds for education of two sisters from a family living close to the disaster site.
You can book an individual photojournalism course with Alex.
Indra Sinha is a British writer of English and Indian descent. His novel, Animal’s People, was shortlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize and winner of the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Europe and South Asia. Set in the fictional Indian city of Khaufpur, the book is a reworking of the Bhopal disaster based on Sinha’s long association working with the survivors. In 1994, he wrote an appeal to The Guardian for funds to set up a clinic for those still suffering from the effects of the Union Carbide gas disaster. The generous response enabled him to set up the Bhopal Medical Appeal and in 1996 a clinic was built which has won international awards for the quality of its work. The above text is an abridged version of the foreword Indra wrote for Alex Masi’s Bhopal Second Disaster (2012) book.
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