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Picturing disaster

`Why dig up old corpses,' noted photographer Raghu Rai was asked, when he set off to track down victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy. But Rai, says ANURADHA ROY, wanted to take pictures to show that Bhopal is always a current issue. An exhibition of this work opens in Delhi today.

THERE is something so monotonous about other people's disasters: first the sympathy, the protest marches and the relief funds. Then the forgetting, except among the victims. It's been 17 years since 40 tonnes of lethal gases seeped into the homes, eyes and lungs of people who lived anywhere within 40 km of the Union Carbide factory at Bhopal.

"Why dig up old corpses?" Raghu Rai was asked, when he set off to track down the victims of that disaster. "Why not let things be?" Rai instead, wanted to take pictures that would make people sit up, remember, and do something.

The international environment organisation, Greenpeace, commissioned Raghu Rai this year to photograph the gas victims of Bhopal. The pictures were mounted in an exhibition at the "Rio to Johannesburg" Earth Summit in an effort to remind the world that for thousands of people, the gas disaster in Bhopal is not part of the past; it is always present. A book based on the exhibition, Exposure: A Corporate Crime has been simultaneously released. The exhibition has already had a run in Mumbai, and opens in Delhi in the second week of September.

"I remember making three-tiered graves. There was no option but to pick up one body on top of another", says Mohammed Aziz, as he looks at these skeletons that have come out of the graves.

Rai was a natural choice. In 1989, as India Today's photographer, he was in Bhopal, taking pictures that became iconic. An empty street with the sinister chimneys of the Carbide factory in the background, as a man carries his dead wife to the mass burial ground slung on his shoulder like a sack. The sightless eyes in a baby's dead face and a hand coming forward to give it a last caress before the rubble hides it from view. Going back so many years later, Rai says, has made his work on Bhopal stronger, added depth and detail. The pictures taken in the first few days after the disaster were done in a frenzy of haste and chaos.

This time Rai went alone to Bhopal on trips over about half a year. He had wondered, when agreeing to the assignment, how he would find the victims after so long. But they are all there, in the hospital queues, or visiting graveyards. The black and white images reveal a subterranean world of chronic ailments and slow death, of people whose humdrum world was malevolently altered for life one night.

Rai went back to the hospitals, courts, graveyards and cremation grounds. At the hospitals he would unobtrusively photograph patients waiting there with their relatives. If he found anyone particularly interesting, he would try to get into a conversation. He wanted to spend more time with them, taking more pictures: "The best pictures," Rai says, "often happen in the last few minutes of a two-hour session, when the subject has got tired of you clicking away, and forgets about you." Some of the hospital visitors would be irritable, wondering why they should talk to yet another stranger who would take their pictures, walk away and forget all about them. Some would invite him to their homes, happy to let off steam. "I had to be a little ruthless, to be professional," Rai says, "I had a job to do. So I would try to be as sensitive as possible, not intrude too much, but I had to get the pictures."

As I sat in Raghu Rai's office in Delhi's Golf Links, it was impossible not to wonder how different the story would have been if the methyl iso-cyanate (MIC) fumes had curled into the parks surrounding its pleasant bungalows, where laughing golden retrievers romped about with Irish setters. Part of the problem with Bhopal's disaster was that the half a million affected were not bungalow-dwellers. Not only are the survivors very sick, they are also usually very poor. Tea turned up trailing tails of tea bag strings. Rusk materialised from a secret drawer.

Two guilty activities at this point: dipping rusk into tea, and admiring the photographs as aesthetic objects, despite their content. One particularly powerful picture, of a beggar gazing at the camera, appalled, perhaps with his own life, put Rai into a retrospective shudder. "I didn't like taking that," he says, "The man is just so desperate."

We come across pictures of such wretched and desperate people all the time; we turn the page and go on to the cartoons and the sports news. To hardened onlookers, images of suffering can easily look like clichés. Raghu Rai is trying to describe how art avoids such clichés. "Energy" is a word that recurs as he waves his arms about explaining what good photographers — in common with all artists — try to do. "What the photographer wants to do is to go beyond the surface: everyone can see the surface. But the photographer has to capture those odd, uneasy moments when the subject reveals itself. A good picture will capture the spirit of the topic, its aura; that's what I try to do. I try to steal a moment from life, freeze it, and then put it back into life in a photograph."

The months he was shooting in Bhopal, Raghu Rai says, he went back dispirited to his hotel, too unsettled to meet any one. "I would have something to eat, a couple of drinks, and just go to bed." Mostly he was alone; sometimes he was accompanied by journalist Anil Sharma who has written the text for the book.

Bhopal was so long ago, it has become like so much background noise. Yet images as stark and tragic as the ones in Exposure would surely make some people pause and wonder afresh. They might wonder, for instance at how each sea otter damaged by the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989, merited $940 from the guilty company towards its cleaning up; human beings in India barely got $500 each for their lifelong treatment.

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