Welcome to Project Live – India !
Over the coming weeks, I shall be travelling across India with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting who are sponsoring my latest project Toxic Development: Pollution in India.
Follow me as I cross the country, documenting in stills, video and audio, one of India’s most serious environmental and social issues.
Have a thought or question about an update? Please use the comments section below. I look forward to hearing from you.
Choke Point Kolkata
In downtown Kolkata, a man covers his face from the intense air pollution which plagues the city. It is believed that upwards of 70% of people in the city suffer from some form of respiratory problem, as a result of the city’s air.
On the outskirts of Kolkata, men carry baskets of leather trimmings to a large cauldron for burning. The small pieces are burnt, dried and then sold for use as food for farm animals, such as chickens, or for use as fertiliser. Burning of the leather produces harmful gases that are released openly into the surrounding air. Workers often have little to no protection against the harmful smoke that is released.
A man looks up from a sewer drain in central Kolkata. The city’s sewerage infrastructure is struggling to cope with an increasing population and subsequent usage demand.
Woman stand on top of the Dhapa landfill, the destination for much of Kolkata’s solid waste over the past 30 years. It is estimated that only 10% of Kolkata’s waste is recycled, contributing to the growing problem of the municipality’s disposal of waste that is sitting just a couple of kilometres from the city’s downtown area.
Residents of the Captain Bherry community in Kolkata gather around a water pump in the early morning. In the foreground a small pond is suffering from sever eutrophication, a phenomenon caused by excessive nutrients being released into the water, resulting in the proliferation of algae on the surface and subsequent death of aquatic life below.
A man washes himself at sunset on the banks of the Ganges River, in central Kolkata.
Foam floats not the surface of the Bhangar Canal, on the eastern outskirts of Kolkata. Flowing off of the nearby Vidyadhari River, the canal receives water mostly from nearby tanneries which process leather. At various points along the canal, toxic wastewater from the tanneries is released into the nearby waterway. At sluice gates nearby, the water has turned to foam as the chemical-laced water is churned up.
Crows watch over Hindu idols and piles of garbage discarded near the banks of the Ganges River.
In the A.K. Steel Market in central Kolkata, workers carry baskets full of discarded metal after they have been used for making bottle tops.
A young child looks out from one of Kolkata’s iconic ‘ambassador’ taxis. Traffic is an increasing problem which is choking the city.
Residents of the Captain Bherry community in Kolkata gather around a water pipe in the early morning. Poverty is still rife in the city and access to plumbing remains a privilege for many.
Kolkatans walk past a fire burning plastics in the Topsia Street district, in the east of the city. The area is notable for its informal plastic recycling industry. Waste is often discarded and burnt in the evenings.
Kolkatans walk past a fire burning plastics in the Topsia Street district, in the east of the city. The area is notable for its informal plastic recycling industry. Waste is often discarded and burnt in the evenings.
A cow grazes in littered field on the side of a highway in east Kolkata. The cow is seen as a holy and revered animal in Indian culture, however even it is not safe from increasing pollution, especially in urban areas.
Sara Swati Mondol, 45, stands in a refuse collection point in the Kolay Market in Kolkata. She collects discarded plastic which she later resells in her village. She has been doing this job since childhood earns around US$1 per day. Many millions of Indian people still live below the poverty line and are the set or of society often most vulnerable to pollution.
A woman and child, who are refugees from Bangladesh, sit on the banks of a canal in the Rajabazar district of central Kolkata. The government has recently cleared the banks of the nearby canal in attempt to clean up the waterway.
A man sorting through different types of plastic goods in an informal recycling centre in the Topsia Road district of eastern Kolkata.
Two children in the grounds of a brick factory, in the Malancha district of eastern Kolkata. As their parents work nearby, children often play in the area, exposing them to harmful materials and waste produced in the industrial process.
Against smoggy skies, a man walks his daughter across a busy street in central Kolkata. According to the Delhi-based Center for Science and Environment, in their report ‘Air Quality and Mobility in Kolkata’, “18 out of every 100,000 persons in Kolkata fall victim to lung cancer annually. Seven out of 10 people in Kolkata are afflicted with some form of respiratory ailment. Also the percentage of children suffering from upper respiratory infections, cough, wheezing and eye irritation is increasing in direct proportion to the increasing concentration of PM10.”
A child jumps in the Ganges River near a jetty in Kolkata. Upon entering the city, the river is saturated with a mix of domestic and industrial waste that has accumulated as it has passed through numerous states in northern India, making it one of the most polluted rivers in the world.
Here is the first instalment from my recent journey to India. Choke Point Kolkata is a look at the many challenges that the city faces from pollution which is present in the air, water and soil.
“I am concerned about pollution. Lots of people are getting cancer and diseases,” says Dulal Chandigiri, as he scrubs a bicycle tire outside his small workshop in the Tiljala area of central Kolkata.
He is squatting down next to the small lake which sits just a meter or two from the front door of a small shack made of corrugated iron that has been his home for the past 42 years.
“When I came here it was all paddy fields. It was 90 percent village and 10 percent city then. The population is increasing. The main problem is that lots of trees are being cut down and houses are being built up.” Continue Reading Story
After 33 days of straight travelling and shooting, my time in India has come to an end. It’s a day that holds mixed emotions.
My journey started in mid-November, having embarked on this trip from my base in Beijing. It was my first time to visit India and I was unsure of what to expect. I don’t think I could have predicted what I was to witness.
This trip has been the toughest assignment of my professional career so far.
Physically, it has been a challenge. Over a month of straight shooting with no breaks has been tough but I wanted to fit in as much as I could during my somewhat limited time here.
Emotionally however, this has been by far the most difficult assignment. I lost count of the times that parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters broke down in tears while sharing their stories with me about how pollution has contributed to forever altering, and often taking, the lives of their closest relatives and friends.
It has been a sobering experience but one of the most meaningful projects I have worked on.
Now, I will start to piece together all of the stories I have heard over the past month, bringing together the sequences of images, videos and testimonies into stories that clearly show the seriousness of pollution issues here in India and how they are affecting people’s lives.
I leave first for home and Christmas with family and friends. I am ready for a break. A chance to recharge depleted batteries. Both my own and my camera’s.
I should have new stories ready in the new year, so please check back after the holidays for more stories from India. The first instalment, Choke Point Kolkata, is already live on the Pulitzer Center’s website.
I wish you, your family and friends a wonderful holiday season.
Arrival in Punjab
First, I must apologise for the lack of posts of the past week or two. Travelling recently in rural India made internet access and connection very difficult indeed. I’m back with a reliable connection, so will be posting more updates here now.
I’ve just arrived in India’s north-west state of Punjab and shall be here for the coming 9 days.
There’s a quiet crisis occurring here that is affecting both the local population and environment. More to come this week.
If you’re at Instagram user, you can also follow me as I update on Burn Magazine’s feed this week too.
It’s time for me to leave Kolkata after an intense 9 days in the ‘City of Joy’.
This incredible city has been a fantastic introduction into the kaleidoscope that is Indian culture.
It has also been a somewhat harrowing experience as I have witnessed some very shocking and disturbing scenes in the form of poverty, child labour and pollution.
As I jump on a train from one of the city’s bustling train stations this afternoon, I will have mixed feelings about leaving this city. I am looking forward to my next stop though, the city of Kanpur, in north-central India.
I shall continue to upload images and thoughts here on Project Live India. If you’d like to see more, please join me on Instagram. This week I am updating images onto the National Geographic Creative Instagram feed.
Child Workers in India
I’m coming to my last couple of days in Kolkata and am wrapping up my coverage of this fascinating city.
One of the sadder things I have seen while here has been witnessing child workers.
A teenage boy breaking down circuit boards in a village outside Kolkata. The dismantling of E-Waste is growing industry in India. When done informally however, workers are often at great risk from toxic chemicals and metals. Nov, 2013.
As my new project focuses on the effects of pollution, children working in industries are often present and are sadly some of the most vulnerable to the harmful effects of working in the conditions pictured.
A worker stands in the Dhapa landfill in Eastern Kolkata. It is the destination of much of the city’s solid waste. Situated next to the city’s wetlands, toxins are thought to be leaching into the surrounding soil and water. November, 2013.
Its been a few days since my last update as it seems Kolkata has been hard to draw myself away from!
This is an incredible city with an immense amount if energy that seems to take a hold of you whether you want it to or not!
As I’ve gotten my bearings over the past few days, we have begun to push deeper into the many issues surrounding pollution here in the city.
Kolkata is a city under siege by pollution which affects air, water and soil in all corners of the city.
This week, it is my aim to try to document some of these issues and try to understand how these challenges are being dealt with.
Arrival in Kolkata – A Cacophony of Sounds, Smells and Colours
Finally made it into Kolkata late last night after a prolonged journey from China (see previous posts below!). It’s great to finally be here and start my new project. The city has already left a deep impression on me.
Arriving late from the airport, the streets were asleep when I arrived. This morning however, they erupted and I woke to the sound of horns blaring from the street below. Kolkata had awakened.
As I arrived a day later than expected I went straight to work, photographing in the centre of the city.
I’m slowly getting my bearings in this busy and bustling city and will hopefully learn a lot more about its residents and numerous environmental issues over the next week.
More updates coming very soon. Now, I need to catch up on some lost sleep!
Stuck in Traveller’s Purgatory
One of a traveller’s least favourite things to hear are the words, “Sorry Sir/Madam, you’ve missed your connecting flight”. The next worse thing to hear after this sentence is, “We can’t get you on another flight until tomorrow”.
This inevitably means a night in either (a) the airport or (b) in a hotel nearby. In a lower tier Chinese city, that isn’t too appealing.
So, I heard these sentences yesterday and have been in traveller’s purgatory ever since.
En route India, I am nearly there but an unexpected night in the Chinese city of Kunming wasn’t what I had planned.
So what is one to do when waiting in non-descript hotels and airports? Take some pictures, of course.
T-4 hours and it’s time for cameras to go into bags.
I try very hard to travel light and keeping things to a minimum is tough, but essential. There’s nothing worse than having to carry around a lot of equipment on a long trip.
My final setup will normally be one bag for my photographic equipment (pictured) and one bag for my clothes and other things that can get away with being in the luggage hold of a plane. Two bags for one month. That’s it.
My back will thank me later…
Here’s post No.2 (first is here, in case you missed it) from my previous contribution to the RESOLVE blog. This was from a series of posts about preparing and carrying out my 4000km journey across China in 2009. In light of my impending travels, I hope this is of interest…
On assignment, make plans but assume they’ll change
Planning thoroughly and planning well are key to a large-scale assignment. However, staying flexible and being willing to throw out the plan at a moments notice is equally important. If you are prepared for both, there is a good chance your trip will be successful.
Traveling in rural China is not the best place to have a specific plan. Like most of us, I live in a large city where I am used to trains turning up on time, buses criss-crossing the city at all times of the day, and convenience at my fingertips almost everywhere. As soon as you step out of China’s major cities, a lot of this evaporates.
In my plan, I had penciled in one week for each location. As far as details — timing, when to arrive, when to leave, etc. — my notebook held no more information than, for example, “Week 1 – Inner Mongolia.” I knew exactly I where I wanted to go and what I wanted to achieve there, but it was impossible for me to predict how and when I would arrive and leave a certain place. In this respect, I had to remain completely flexible and not become frustrated if I could not get to a location on ‘x’ day, as ‘y’ day would probably be ok, too. This was a luxury I had working for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, which afforded me much more time than most assignments.
Adapting to change was the only constant on my trip. Mid-way through our journey, my assistant had to unexpectedly return to Beijing, forcing me to work alone for a small portion of the trip. I had anticipated something like this, so I focused on subjects I could cover without an assistant.
The biggest challenge during my Pulitzer assignment was when my “chapter” on abandoned cities appeared to have fallen through. I had researched and planned a trip to a spectacular abandoned city in the Inner Mongolian deserts. The day before embarking, we discovered that the area had just been shut off to outsiders because the route to the city passed through one of China’s space rocket launch centers. I had no other back-up location for abandoned cities, so I was concerned that this important chapter would be missed.
As we called hotels to book rooms for our future stops, we mentioned our predicament to a hotelier. This hotelier happened to be a professional guide to explorers and told us of another abandoned city rarely visited by outsiders. A quick search online revealed that the demise of the city fell inline with desertification, so we decided it was our final (and only) option. The old city of Yinpan turned out to be one of the highlights of the whole trip, despite coming about completely by chance.
Protection from Particulates and Particularly Nasty Pests
There’s a lot more to planning a trip than just preparing photo gear.
For this trip, there are going to be a number of things from which I am going to need protection.
Due to the subject matter of pollution, this rather serious looking mask will likely be needed. It’s an industrial level mask that provides protection from inhaling very fine amounts of dust in the air.
It’s designed to accept a myriad of different filters that remove different toxic particles which might otherwise be inhaled. Some of the situations I will find myself in over the coming weeks are likely going to require this. For now, I’m just trying it on for size.
The other protection I need is from another airborne threat…mosquitoes. I’ll be travelling mostly in northern India, which apparently is at slightly less risk from malaria than other parts of the country, but my doctor still prescribed 6 weeks of anti-malarial tablets. Better to be safe.
My bag is starting to fill up quickly!
As you will of seen from my last Equipment Check post, my digital set-up for shooting stills mainly comprises of using Canon DSLRs and lenses. Recently however, I’ve felt the urge to step back a little from all the technology and simplify things a little. Namely, picking up a film camera again.
I first picked up a camera (with the intention of taking photographs seriously) in the summer of 2001. I can remember it quite clearly but I can’t explain what urged me to pick up my mum’s old film camera. I just felt suddenly drawn to taking pictures.
I began by shooting B&W film, eventually converting my younger brother’s bedroom into a darkroom (N.B. he was away at University at the time – had he been there, that would of just been rude), teaching myself how to make prints. It was a wonderful experience but I soon fell for shooting in colour and I immediately gravitated towards shooting colour reversal film i.e. slide film. The first time I saw the colours from those transparencies jump of the light box, I was hooked.
Over the years, as I have been working as a professional photographer, film cameras quickly became less useful for assignment work as clients demanded quicker turnaround times from shooting and delivering the images. The quality of images produced by 35mm digital cameras are now exceptional too. As a result, my film cameras have gathered a lot of dust in recent years.
Now, I feel it’s time to resurrect my passion for film. I just recently picked up a Mamiya 6 (pictured) from the local camera market here in Beijing.
I don’t imagine that film is going to magically transform my images into something wildly different from the style you see here on my website, but I do think it will help me to be more deliberate. It will force me to slow down and think even more about what I want to capture. I think it’s good to mix things up a little.
I’m already looking forward to seeing the images on the light box!
Pre-Visualising an Issue and Project
My upcoming trip to India will be my first visit to the country. As I have never been there before, how do I know what I want to photograph and decide how to approach my chosen subject matter?
A man cycles past a polluted river in central Jakarta, Indonesia. 2013
From a logistical standpoint, this is going to be one of my biggest challenges. I have spent over a month researching possible locations to visit, reading the testimonies and experiences of local journalists, scientists and NGOs in India. I have researched how I will get from A to B to C, but until I get there it will be hard to determine if my plans will stay the same or change.
This all makes it essential that I collaborate with locals that know the places I want to visit and can help me meet the right people. I have a limited time in the country (one month) and want to make the most of every day. Local help will be essential.
A young boy stands near a large pile of refuse in a town on the Tibetan Plateau. 2012
From a thematic point of view, I am (somewhat unfortunately, but of my own making) very familiar with the issues surrounding pollution in Asia. I’ve witnessed some sobering scenes in countries such as China and Indonesia (see more photos here) which are also suffering from similar problems. I hope to draw upon my experiences photographing these issues and build upon the work I have done before.
As you’ll see from my work, I’m interested in specific issues here in Asia. It’s my aim to focus on a few areas and cover them well, rather than spread myself too thin. This allows me to develop a consistency in my work and enables me to draw upon the experiences of previous projects and channel them into new ones.
I primarily use Canon DLSR cameras for stills and at the moment have the 5D Mark III. It’s just a wonderful DSLR camera and combined with prime lenses, produces great files and very sharp images, rich in detail and colour.
90% of the time I will be using the 35mm f1.4. It’s my favourite lens. If I need to get a little tighter, perhaps for a portrait, I’ll switch to the 50mm f1.2. This is also another great lens. My utility lenses i.e. the 16-35 f2.8 and 70-200 f4.0 are for scenes that I don’t normally capture but I like to have them to hand in case a specific situation arises which needs them.
I’ll be posting a few more Equipment Check updates in the coming days, so you can see what other equipment I am using to capture stills, video and audio in the field.
More news on India’s air pollution problem. This time from Hyderabad…
20% lung cancer caused by air pollution http://t.co/Db82Zht9yc
— TOI India News (@TOIIndiaNews) November 12, 2013
In 2009, I wrote a series of guest blog posts for the website RESOLVE. My contributions were about how I planned and carried out my long-term photographic projects, from conceptualising the projects, to execution. I thought this would be a great thing to re-share here in light of my upcoming trip. I hope it’s useful.
Long photo essays: Research, plan, and stay flexible
Before I was awarded the grant from Pulitzer, I had to have it clear in my mind what I wanted to achieve with this project and how exactly I wanted to achieve it. I had already been working on the subject of desertification on-and-off for over a year, so I already had a good idea of most of the main issues.
In drawing up my application for the grant, I had to lay out a detailed plan of where I would go during my proposed trip, which forced me to clearly identify the key issues that were important to the big topic. Beginning this planning process was no easy task. China is a vast place and desertification is an equally vast issue. I knew that I was going to have to lay a careful plan if I was to achieve everything I wanted to.
The first thing I did was revisit all the old articles that I had bookmarked online over the months. I have a habit of bookmarking interesting articles in case I ever need them or decide to follow-up on them for potential photo-essays. This helped me quickly review what I was already familiar with. Through my research, I then started to make a list of separate issues that were all linked to desertification. These included things like environmental refugees, degraded grasslands, abandoned cities, threatened water, tourism, science vs. the desert, etc.
The next step was to head to my office wall, where a large, detailed map of China became my logistical planning station. With articles in hand, I started to circle locations that seemed to represent each issue I wanted to cover. Quite soon, I had circles and scribbles all over the map. My proposal was going to be for a 6-week trip, so I knew I didn’t want to attempt too much — but I also needed to cover all the key issues. I decided to tackle six issues, one per week, giving me seven days with each location and issue.
One of my main goals for this project was to show that desertification was affecting vast swathes of China. I therefore planned to travel from “coast to coast,” 4,000 km from one side of China to the other, and picked locations that would move me progressively across the country. Most of my locations fell along China’s northern rail network, so I decided to ride these trains as a way to link my locations and give me a better feel for the land I was traveling through.
Once I had decided on locations and how I was going to travel to them, I needed to identify how I would cover the issue in each location. Again, this came down to research. I trawled the web looking for information on each location to give me a an idea of what images I could potentially make there. For some of the locations, however, the information was limited, so I knew it was going to take some investigative work once there to tell the story. Also, you can never plan completely what pictures you will take because it is often the serendipitous ones that eventually turn out to be the best.
Even after all my research was done and the plan was laid out, though, I just knew that everything would not transpire as smoothly as I hoped. “This is China — things are never straightforward,” I though to myself. I had prepared as best I could, but I also had to be ready to adapt quickly to the changes I would inevitably have to make to my plan.
"Airpocalypse" not limited to China. India experiencing similar air pollution crisis. http://t.co/Bsp6dPJlsn
— Al Gore (@algore) November 7, 2013