Interview by Svetlana Bachevanova
Alex Masi is a winner of the 2012 FotoEvidence Book Award.
After having completed a degree in ‘Photojournalism’ at the ‘London College of Communication’ in
2006, Alex has begun to investigate and document critical socio-environmental issues and human rights abuses in countries such as India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and most recently Iraq. He has devoted his attention on exposing peculiar stories of human-made injustice, focusing mainly on children, their living conditions, their health, their human rights.
In the past 3 years Alex has visited Bhopal, India, several times documenting the severe water pollution in the city and its impact the local population, as a consequence to the poisonous chemicals left behind by Union Carbide (now DOW Chemical) after the infamous 1984 gas disaster. Most recently, he has collected testimonies and produced images exposing the mysterious sharp increase in birth defects in Fallujah, Iraq, after two fierce US-led sieges in 2004.
Alex believes documentary photography ought to be an active catalyst in promoting awareness, political and juridical change, and foster action by individuals, NGOs and governmental bodies. He strives to portray his subjects with intimacy and meaning. Alex aspires to convey emotions, to present images that stimulate our deeper and most innate feelings, our senses of empathy, justice, respect and brotherhood.
SB. How did you decide to become a photographer dedicated to documenting social injustice?
AM. I have personally always been attracted to the way a photograph can ‘stop time’, and ‘capture a moment’ holding meaningful details about the subject; details that can later be discovered and explored. The first book I ever owned on the subject, over eleven years ago, was the 50-year collection of the historical Magnum photo agency. I was impressed by the way some images could spur inside me a strong emotional response, curiosity, compassion, helplessness and anger, while and at the same time they were able to educate and enlighten me about the multifaceted nature of humanity. Images can affect us consciously, because of the information they carry within the frame, and subconsciously, due to the feelings they sometimes evoke inside us.
After learning more about the tradition of documentary photography and photojournalism, I committed to understand its historical and present role within society, and our collective need within society for independent long-term documentary photography.
I also found exceptional inspiration in the life and work of W. Eugene Smith, and in particular in his long-term Minamata mercury project in Japan. His devotion to a cause, and his images, have been fundamental to my passion and interest in bringing to light social injustice.
The path was uncertain, but the ethical principles that supported me in this endeavour were very clear. In January 2008, after concluding a 2-year photojournalism degree at the ‘London College of Communication’, I travelled to India, where I decided to kick-start my professional career. I had a first taste of covering a foreign story during my studies, when I was briefly engaged in Israel with Bedouin communities, and in South Africa, with children affected by HIV. I wanted to gain experience in the field, to begin confronting myself with the desperate conditions many people around the world face daily, and to be better prepared to portray such realities for my audience.
SB. How did you decide to work on a project related with an event that happened almost three decades ago?
AM. In January 2008, I traveled to India in order to visit some of the country’s most polluted places, with the intention to collect images on various issues affecting society’s poorest and less represented people. My topics ranged from extreme poverty, industrial hazards and child labour, to rural life, water contamination, birth defects and urban slum dwellers.
It was not until April 2009, that I first visited Bhopal, the city that witnessed what is considered the worst industrial disaster in history, caused in 1984 by the negligence of the American corporation Union Carbide. (now DOW Chemical)
At the time, I did read some articles denouncing how the underground water reservoirs near the abandoned Union Carbide industrial complex, were now highly polluted due to toxic chemicals indiscriminately dumped by the American corporation over its years of operation in Bhopal.
The dangerous waste, left unattended since the time of the 1984 disaster, is still penetrating the soil and reaching the underground reservoirs of the area. For years, over 30,000 people living in about twenty affected colonies have been in danger of falling ill for consuming the tainted groundwater, or have had to rely on largely unaffordable alternatives.
Fortunately, the local government is now working on providing pipelines and water tanks in a number of locations on a regular basis. Nevertheless, the job of delivering safe drinking water, and remedying the long-lasting environmental damage in Bhopal, after nearly three decades of indifference, is far from complete. Temporary water tanks cannot be considered a final solution to Bhopal’s on-going groundwater contamination, continuing unabated today, or to its birth defects and other illnesses experienced by the local population.
SB. Why did you title your work, "Bhopal Second Disaster"?
AM. Bhopal first entered the world’s collective consciousness when on the night of 2nd-3rd December 1984 the American chemical corporation Union Carbide, (now DOW Chemical), accidentally released 30 metric tons of highly poisonous methyl isocyanate. (MIC)
All the safety mechanisms in place failed to work.
Half a million people were exposed to the toxic cloud and around eight thousands people died within a few days.
The first event, in 1984, is often referred to as The Bhopal Disaster, or The Bhopal Gas Tragedy. Its aftermath: groundwater contamination, birth defects and illnesses associated with toxic water consumption, almost thirty years later, represents what I generally call ’The Bhopal Second Disaster’.
SB. What do you remember from your first visit to the area in Bhopal, India?
AM. By the time I began documenting water pollution in Bhopal, I had experienced similar problems on a smaller scale in other industrial cities in India.
I felt prepared, but the number of those affected and the poverty, struggle, helplessness and isolation children and their families have been facing, touched me in a particular way. I wanted to understand this feeling, let it encircle me, let it lead me when it was time to find expression, and to visually communicate the story through my images.
This has not been the only long-lasting impression of my Bhopal experience. Most of the people I have met were kind, genuine and welcoming families and individuals that hold life dear to their heart, and wish for a better future.
Where we can find despair, we must also search for hope; where we witness sadness; there must also be moments of joy. This is reason why my body of work from Bhopal includes joyous, colorful moments simply celebrating life.
SB. How did the residents from in Bhopal, India respond to your presence there?
AM. The residents of the colonies surrounding the abandoned Union Carbide (now DOW Chemical) industrial complex have been visited by photographers, journalists and filmmakers for some time in the past, considering the story began almost thirty years ago. People had no objections to me moving around any colony, visiting my subjects and finding new ones.
Most of the dwellers by now are well aware of the polluted water, and do what they can to avoid it whenever possible. They also well understood why I was there to meet and photograph seriously affected children and their families. My diligent fixers, Ravi and Neelam, both from Bhopal, have also been exceptional with their knowledge of the city and its people, and in facilitating my photographic work and research.
SB. How do they react to what is happening in their community now?
AM. Many parents accompany their disabled children to Chingari Rehabilitation Center on a daily basis, and try to live on, regardless of their misfortunes, in the hope that sometime in the future, DOW Chemical will be held accountable, and more services will be available for its victims.
In fact, there is only so much the colonies’ dwellers could personally do, apart from demonstrating and pressing the local and central government in India, which is something that regularly happens through local survivors’ groups.
SB. In 2011 you received a Grant for Good that allowed you to share some of the money from the grant with subjects from your story. Who did you chose to support and why?
AM. In the beginning of 2011, after my initial series of images began to gain some international attention, I was awarded the ‘Focus For Humanity Fellowship’ to produce photographs specifically aimed to fulfill The Bhopal Medical Appeal’s visual needs.
Later in the same year, I was assigned the ‘Getty Images Grant for Good’, with the purpose of creating a fund raising advertisement campaign. According to the grant’s rules, half of the 15,000 USD budget was destined to cover The Bhopal Medical Appeal’s costs.
This project has been selected for a number of international awards, (available here: alexmasi.co.uk/poonam/press) and my image of Poonam, now 8, sitting under the rain, has granted me the unique chance to help her in a direct way:
‘The Photographers Giving Back Award’, in Sweden, offered me a special grant of 5000 USD to create and implement a specifically designed plan, benefiting her entire family. All of the money is destined for their well being, education and growth.
I will soon talk more at length about Poonam in a blog I created exactly for this reason. www.alexmasi.co.uk/poonam
What surprises me most, is how one single chance for improvement, combined with some external help and our engagement, has sparked such a bright and colorful new enthusiasm for life in this family.
I hope this new project will one day grow to become my second book about Bhopal, and possibly a full-length documentary.
SB. On this project you worked with Bhopal Medical Appeal and its free health clinic for the disaster survivors. How did they help you with your work on the field?
AM. Since visiting Bhopal in 2009, I have collaborated with The Bhopal Medical Appeal on a number of different ways.
Alongside Colin Toogood, the Brighton-based NGO’s media director, I catered my work to their needs while shooting with the funds provided by the ‘Focus For Humanity Fellowship’. Later in 2011, with the support of the ‘Getty Images Grant for Good’, I produced images that will serve in a specific fund raising campaign.
I visited the free health clinic for the disaster survivors, Sambhavna Trust, and Chingari Rehabilitation Center, providing education, physiotherapy and care for children born with serious birth defects.
Looking through the NGOs’ archives, discussing details with their leaders and doctors, as well as being introduced first-hand to the colonies and families living there, have all been helpful factors in the beginning of my independent coverage in Bhopal.
The Bhopal Medical Appeal (BMA) is a British-based non-governmental organization funding both Sambhavna Trust, and Chingari Rehabilitation Center. The two institutions provide free health care to the survivors of the 1984 Bhopal Gas Tragedy and to those children and families affected by the on-going contamination of the land and groundwater.
Alongside the Bhopal survivors’ groups, The BMA is also campaigning for a complete clean-up and mitigation of the environment in the city, and towards lifetime medical care to those affected. Finally, The BMA strives to disseminate the findings of its experience and research to other communities affected by unregulated industrial activity elsewhere in the world.
SB. You are following the court case in NY against Dow, the current owner of Union Carbide, which is seeking compensation for the pollution of the area. Do you have any indication of when and how the court will decide? What is your opinion of the case?
AM. While on one side it is defending itself in court, on the other side DOW Chemical has recently been awarded a ten-year contract as a worldwide Olympic Partner and as the official chemistry company for the Olympic Movement until 2020. The deal, estimated to be at around 150-200 millions USD, but undisclosed, come in addition to the 7 million UK£ Olympic Stadium wrap during London 2012, for which the Olympic Committee has been largely criticized in the past few months. Since DOW Chemical’s acquisition of Union Carbide in 2001, for a staggering 11.6 billions USD, the American corporation has refused to accept any responsibility for a resolution of Bhopal’s contamination problem.
The court case against DOW Chemical in New York City is trying to assess the responsibilities and liabilities of the corporation citing the ‘Polluter Pays Principle’. Its aims are to achieve long-term care for those affected, and a full and speedy assessment and clean-up of the contaminated areas, as well as damages of various nature.
Most recently, DOW Chemical has been in yet one more controversy, when a WikiLeaks cable publicly exposed their use of Stratfor, a provider of strategic intelligence on global business, to spy on activists campaigning to heal Bhopal’s open wounds.
DOW Chemical’s Ongoing Liabilities in Bhopal (PDF)
SB. What do you hope the publication of Bhopal Second Disaster will accomplish?
AM. While producing my long-term photographic work in Bhopal, I strove to portray my subjects with intimacy, meaning and depth. I wanted to convey emotions, to stimulate our deeper and most innate feelings, our senses of justice, compassion and brotherhood, in the hope of becoming an active catalyst for the promotion of awareness, action and change for the people of Bhopal.
I sincerely believe that publishing my collection of images from Bhopal in a book will allow me to reach, inform and engage a larger public than ever before, in positive and proactive ways.
This is my first book, and I feel extremely honored to be offered the precious opportunity to become part of the FotoEvidence tradition of documentary photography exposing dire realities of social injustice.
SB. Do you believe that photography can bring social change?
AM. I believe documentary photography is a powerful tool to inform and challenge the audience on a personal, intimate level, but not only: images can foster direct action by passionate and committed individuals, as well as by governments, policy-makers, groups and organizations.
Documentary photography is an important channel for us to learn with immediacy, to empathize and feel a little closer to people facing serious problems far away from our immediate surroundings. It is also a path towards a slow, but steady change in people’s ideas and behavior.
Photography plays a fundamental role in alerting and sensitizing the public in a straightforward, sometimes pungent way that no other medium has yet been capable of.