History & Culture

Winner of UNICEF Photo of the Year 2021 on the changing face of the Sunderbans

The award-winning photograph that has Pallavi Parua standing among the ruins of Namkhana island in the Sunderbans

The award-winning photograph that has Pallavi Parua standing among the ruins of Namkhana island in the Sunderbans | Photo Credit: SUPRATIM BHATTACHARJEE

The wind howls through land marauded by water. It flips 12-year-old Pallavi Parua’s hair, ruffles the collar of her green gingham dress. It is the day after a cyclone ravaged Namkhana, an island in the Sundarbans. The Class VIII student stands forlorn by the battered tea shop she helped run with her family, serving tea after school-hours to the tourists at Fraserganj (named for Sir Andrew Fraser, Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal in the early 20th Century).

“This village in the Sundarbans, like most of the mangrove area in the delta formed by the confluence of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna in the Bay of Bengal, has seen destruction by man and Nature. Global warming has not only ravaged the ecologically fragile forests and wrecked the livelihoods of lakhs of people, it has also washed away a slice of Bengal’s history — the century old Fort Fraser. In my picture from the Sinking Sundarbans project, Pallavi stands framed against the debris of the fort as unruly waves lash against it,” says Supratim Bhattacharjee over phone from Baruipur, West Bengal.

The photograph was chosen among thousands as the winner for 2021 by UNICEF Germany, which once a year awards photo reports that document the personality and living conditions of children around the world. This year both first and second place have been awarded to Indian photographers.

Supratim Bhattacharjee, winner of the UNICEF Photo of the Year award 2021. He had placed second the previous year

Supratim Bhattacharjee, winner of the UNICEF Photo of the Year award 2021. He had placed second the previous year

Bhattacharjee, 38, who placed second last year in the UNICEF awards for Curse of Coal, a project that explores the lives of children in the coalfields of Jharia, says, “I have been involved with these projects, both sponsored by the Government of the Netherlands, for nearly a decade. I do not believe in just capturing people on a single visit; I prefer to form bonds with my subjects, go back and forth watching them change, watching their landscape change, sometimes shooting 700 pictures or so. I was at Fraserganj the night the cyclone hit covering the deadly impact of tidal floods. I found Pallavi the next morning, wandering around what used to be her wood, mud and tin home.”

With sea-levels around the Sundarbans rising faster than anywhere else on earth, the lives of nearly six million people and the Royal Bengal tiger that have this place as home are at stake. Cyclones that repeatedly crash this coast have led to salt-water flooding, making farming land infertile and the rivers that snake through the mangrove forests increasingly incapable of supporting freshwater marine life.

“When I changed track from being a filmmaker in Mumbai to travelling with my Canon 5D Mark III to look at climate change, I began in my own backyard. The Sundarbans was where I spent my childhood holidays with my grandparents and where my maternal uncle gifted me my first camera, a Kodak with which I shot sunsets,” says Bhattacharjee, adding that when he began Sinking Sundarbans in 2009, it was by listening to the stories of women pumping water from an almost flooded tube well. Their journeys to find fresh water was the first turn away for Bhattacharjee from the lush mangroves of his childhood.

“I have seen this landscape change in the 30 years I have known it,” says Bhattacharjee who has also participated virtually in the Climate Adaptation Summit 2021.

Lens on the ordinary

Even as Bhattacharjee films people wherever his feet may roam across the subcontinent and Nepal, he mostly trains his lens on the wretched of the earth. Another on-going project is in Jharkhand’s Jharia, where large reserves of coking coal and coal field fires burning underground pose a threat to the population.

Since 2013, Bhattacharjee has been travelling the 300-odd kilometres to Jharia, filming especially the lost childhoods of children who help their parents collect coal from the open pits.

For his next, he hopes to focus on Central India where groundwater sources are fast depleting. “The mining mafia makes it a little difficult but I believe that pictures make an impact. My job is to show reality. The plight of these children running about with coal streaked faces, the islanders of Sundarbans trying to make a living in the face of Nature’s wrath, the women of Central India walking long distances in search of water… we need to see these images before it’s too late to make a change.”

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Printable version | Feb 13, 2022 7:14:04 am | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/supratim-bhattacharjee-unicef-photo-of-the-year-award-2021-sundarbans/article38364521.ece