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May 16, 2019

An Eye-Opening Visual Journey Revealing The ‘Slow-Violence’ Inflicted On Our Biosphere

Text by Huzan Tata. Photographs by Arati Kumar-Rao

Her portraits, while beautifully cinematic in quality, document the degradation and exploitation of the land around us. Environmental writer and photographer Arati Kumar-Rao lays bare the ‘slow violence’ being inflicted on the South Asian biosphere, as she takes Verve on an a journey through her immersive travels…

When and why did you decide to pursue environmental writing and photography as a full-time career?
The urge to tell stories through images and words has been a part of me since I was a teen. Each month, when the National Geographic arrived, I’d pore over it, taking in the breadth of stories and the depth of reportage. I remember one particular issue, with a blurred photo of a charging forest elephant on its cover — it was an image from Michael ‘Nick’ Nichols’ documentation of the Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park in the Congo. I also remember Michael Fay’s Megatransect across Africa that he started in 1999. I knew then that I, too, wanted to walk across landscapes, studying them and telling their stories. But I wandered a lot before returning to my first love, picking up skills that are not directly related to photojournalism but do still stand me in good stead. I started out wanting to study physics, and after completing a master’s degree I realised that working in a lab was not my cup of tea. I also tried my hand at a lucrative corporate job, but I realised quickly that, again, that too was not what I wanted to wake up and do every day.

The answer to why I am doing what I do lies in my childhood. While growing up, I was privy to raucous debates between my uncles and my dad on the merits and demerits of large dams and their impacts on lives and rivers. Those conversations likely burned themselves deep into my psyche, and one day — through the febrile stupor of typhoid — I decided to quit my corporate job and plunge headlong into the unknown. Now, I am here to stay. I wake up each morning knowing there is nothing else that I would rather be doing.

Is the slightly haunting atmosphere of your images intentional?
I guess my photos reflect the landscapes I work in and the problems they are facing. If my work haunts one, I hope it amounts to something — in that I hope it brings about new policies and actions aimed at restoring ecosystems and allowing its denizens to thrive.

You’ve said previously that your words and images go together, that your storytelling would be incomplete without either one. What’s your creative process like?
I research each story a lot, then immerse myself in the landscape. I walk around and listen to the people on the ground — scientists, sociologists, and anthropologists. And eventually, I shoot. I go back to places in different seasons, in subsequent years. I shoot the changes I see, and I shoot sameness as well. I allow landscapes and people the time to reveal things — about themselves and about me. I like to write about places only after I have seen its cycles, though given budget or grant constraints, there have been stories I have written and shot over just a season.

By co-founding the environmental organisation the Peepli Project, what do you seek to achieve?
We find a woeful lack of deep and sustained reporting on issues, as well as reporting on the connectedness of things. This is the problem the Peepli Project is trying to resolve. We want to follow stories over time and space, make connections across siloed thinking, and eventually, maybe shine a light on how to process and parse issues so that solutions are not Band-Aids and we are not only treating symptoms, but hitting at the root of problems.

What are the challenges in your field?
The disconnection of city dwellers from the land and the apathy (or is it wilful disregard?) of the powers that be towards our land, rivers, and air. How can we be so short-sighted in imagining that industry trumps fresh air, clean waters, and a healthy land?

What’s been your greatest learning through your years of research — something that people should really know?
We need to study, understand, and respect the land. If we do not, we cannot hope to live healthy lives. Moreover, my work has taught me my place in the world. We live such privileged and entitled lives in the cities. But it is a delusion. We are all connected, and presuming that our bubbles, say in Delhi or Bengaluru, will not be affected by what is happening far away, like in the Ganga basin, is a dangerous type of myopia.

At a time when indigenous people are being evicted from their homes in forests, what kind of future do you envision for forest inhabitants and wildlife?
One dares to hope that we will see beyond narrow, short-term monetary gains; unscientific, dated conservation ideologies; and agenda-driven marketing and propaganda. We need to head towards just conservation and inclusive development for all.

In all your years of travelling around forests, what’s been an incident or experience that has affected your outlook?
I was returning from documenting the erosion brought on by the Farakka Barrage in West Bengal, where people repeatedly lost their homes. I had met folks who had lost everything over 17 times and had to start from scratch each time. My photography equipment was in the back of the car, and the drive back to Bengaluru from West Bengal was over 2,000 km. Somewhere along the way, during a halt at night, my 200-400-mm lens and DSLR camera were stolen — their combined worth would be five lakh rupees. But seeing so much devastation put my loss — and my privilege — into perspective. My material loss was nothing in the face of what nearly 60 per cent of India is suffering from — an irretrievable damage of viable livelihood and the stinging apathy of a wilfully blind government.

How has your background in biophysics affected your creative work?
All my previous lives — as a scientist, a graphic designer, a market researcher, a marketing strategist — affect the way I parse the world around me. An education in science is invaluable to what I do. The sum total makes me a chronicler of this world and allows me to repeatedly burst bubbles.

What do you hope people take away from your words and photos?
In one sentence, I hope that it makes people want to reconnect with the land. I hope it makes us all want to reverse what American ecologist and conservationist Aldo Leopold so succinctly put forth 70 years ago: ‘Civilisation has so cluttered this elemental man-earth relationship with gadgets and middlemen that awareness of it is growing dim. We fancy that industry supports us, forgetting what supports industry’.

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