Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
May 16, 2016

Bhopal Portrait: Not Pathetic, Not Stereotyped

This image comes from my ongoing 'Bhopal Toxic Trespass' work highlighting the catastrophic effects from the thousands of tons of carcinogenic #chemicals that continue to #poison the Bhopal (India) aquifer today. The worlds-worst ever #industrial accident site - that killed over 10,000 immediately in December 1984- was never cleaned up and the former pesticide plant still lies rusting and polluting the area over 31 years later. photo: Giles Clarke.

I guess what’s so notable here is that the photo would seem so pitiable. The instinct to look upon people in the developing world as tragic or dismal, especially if they have suffered great catastrophe or blight, remains a dominant western instinct (emphasis on dominant).

With that instinct comes endless photographs filled with poses of sadness, gestures of dejection and gazes of beseeching and helplessness. Just not here. We’re looking at Sameer and his mother in Bhopal, photographed by Giles Clarke.  (The photo won second place at the Australian HeadOn festival portrait competition, and you can read the extended caption below.) I will not use the word “victim,” but Sameer is one of those whose existence has been profoundly shaped by the massive chemical accident still causing damage more than three decades later.

If the portrait prominently references a tragedy and a care agency, it hardly pulls for pity. As wasted as Sameer’s body looks, his face and his mother’s face sport complex expressions. Both have a sense of self-possession. He has a look of curiosity and her gaze has a grounded, present, almost pleasant countenance. As she grips her own foot, she contains his body across her legs in the most familiar, yet relaxed way. Sitting on a carpet against the bare wall, the image is notable because it’s not “a one note.” Just as much and assuredly, it’s the portrait of two people who were asked and agreed to take a few minutes out of their day.

(photo@gettyreportage contributor Giles Clarke (@clarkegiles) via Instagram. caption: Thanks to the judges at the 2016 @headonphotofestival for placing ‘Sameer, aged 16’ in 2nd place at this years Australian HeadOn festival portrait competition and now hanging in the Museum of Sydney -picked from over 2,000 submissions! This image comes from my ongoing ‘Bhopal Toxic Trespass’ work highlighting the catastrophic effects from the thousands of tons of carcinogenic #chemicals that continue to #poison the Bhopal (India) aquifer today. The worlds-worst ever #industrial accident site – that killed over 10,000 immediately in December 1984- was never cleaned up and the former pesticide plant still lies rusting and polluting the area over 31 years later. Sameer is one of the hundreds of children being cared for by staff at The Chingari Trust in Bhopal today. For more www.bhopal.org.)

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