Alex Masi

Interview by Svetlana Bachevanova

The abandoned Union Carbide (now DOW Chemical) factory in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India. Photo:Alex Masi / Focus for Humanity

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’.


Zubin, 3, is portrayed in her usual semi-conscious state on the floor of her home in an impoverished area of Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India, near the abandoned Union Carbide (now DOW Chemical) industrial complex. Zubin has recently deceased.

 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.


Local women are busy collecting supposedly safe drinking water from a few public water tanks located around the abandoned Union Carbide (now DOW Chemical) industrial complex in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India. Photo: Alex Masi / Focus for Humanity

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: 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.

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.


Poonam, 10, is walking under the late monsoon rain on a path in the impoverished Oriya Basti Colony, Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, near the abandoned Union Carbide (now DOW Chemical) industrial complex.

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.


Patients are awaiting to receive Ayurvedic medicines in Sambhavna Clinic, the local NGO caring for the victims of gas and contaminated water in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India, near the abandoned Union Carbide (now DOW Chemical) industrial complex.

 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.


A girl is playing with a red ball during celebrations for the Dussehra Festival in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India, site of the 1984 Union Carbide (now DOW Chemical) gas disaster. Photo: Alex Masi / Getty Grant for Good