A photo series documenting Bhopal’s toxic tragedy is cheek by jowl with the Dow-sponsored Olympic Games.
When Samar Jodha, the photographer and artist known for his work on marginalisation and conflict issues, was asked by the BBC in 2004 to photograph scenes in Bhopal, the project took him inside the deserted Union Carbide plant where the world’s worst industrial disaster had taken place twenty years before. It led to one of his most powerful projects to date: a series of photographs documenting the eerie emptiness and toxicity of the abandoned plant that has been exhibited across India and seen by some 100,000 people. Now he’s brought the exhibition — expanded and encased in a seven-tonne, 40-ft-long black box — to London, where, despite vocal public protest, Dow Chemicals remains a major sponsor and partner of the Olympic Games.
Bhopal: A Silent Picture stands in the grounds of Amnesty International’s Human Rights Action Centre in East London, not far from the Olympic Village. On one wall three-dimensional black-and-white images capture the oppressive silence of the plant, its rusty pipes and boilers, its dilapidated furniture and walls, and, hauntingly, the innocuous-looking control room that was at the centre of the catastrophic events of December 2, 1984. Facing them are mannequins draped in black cloth, a damning nod to the “wrap” that Dow is providing the Games’ main stadium and which Seb Coe, the Chairman of the London Games, has described as the “icing on the cake”. The cloth is covered with the names and ID numbers assigned to all those who died on that day. 227/U: Miss Sunita; 229/U: AshaBai; 231/U: Child. You hear the sounds of crickets, a single desperate gasp for breath, the ominous sound of slowly-leaking gas followed by a loud hiss, as smoke fills the exhibit, startling visitors. An air conditioner blasts cool air into the space to create the atmosphere of a cold winter night.
“For me this has been about looking at the space where it all originated. In some of the places you go to inside the plant — the closed areas during the monsoon — you can barely breathe, there is so much poison still in the ground,” soft-spoken Jodha tells me. “The machines are gone, everything is gone, it’s just the structures that are left there. It’s like a ghost town, and in a country like India, ghost towns are a very rare thing.”
He says the work itself has grown in response to public reactions to it. “I’ve had a huge amount of engagement with my audience, which is what I want. You see the reaction of people and that is what public art pieces are all about. It’s not about putting something in a corporate lobby.”
The exhibit will be in Europe for the next two years, and Jodha hopes it will be able to tour Britain, including visits to schools and cultural festivals, to spread the bigger message he is hoping to convey.
“What I am talking about is the wider issue of what corporate irresponsibility can lead to. What does Bhopal represent? It represents what corporates are capable of doing,” he says. “Look at this country [Britain], three years back the bankers really sc****d up everything and now they’re doing it again.”
The free exhibition at the Human Rights Action Centre, 17-25 New Inn Yard, London, is on view till July 31.