The photos on the wall, a mere eleven in number, could perhaps not pass muster as a complete exhibition. At least not in a regular gallery.
But ‘Aftermath’, as this photo show on display at G-5A gallery in Mumbai’s Mahalaxmi area is called, is no regular exhibition. Backed by Method, which believes in extending the margins of art in offbeat ways, ‘Aftermath’ reaches out to startle viewers out of the stupor of normal, routine life by showing them the abnormal normal in the lives of the innocent victims of corporate greed and governmental neglect.
“I shot many, many pictures, but chose only those with children in them,” says Rohit Jain, the photographer who took it upon himself to catalogue the sufferings of the victims of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy.
Photo By Rohit Jain
On the night of December 2, 1984 into the morning of December 3, approximately 40 tons of the toxic gas methylisocyanate (MIC) spewed from the Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) factory in Bhopal. Blown by the wind, the gas covered an area of roughly 40 square kilometer. The entire population of old Bhopal was affected; pregnant women miscarried as they ran, children died in their parents’ arms and much more. In the days after, the hospitals were overwhelmed by the dead and dying.
Union Carbide's chemical waste contaminated groundwater to the extent that, even 35 years later, children are burdened with a range of disabilities not seen anywhere else in India. Cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy (MD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Down‘s syndrome, blindness, learning difficulties and growth retardation are common and many of the children, by now young adults, have multiple conditions.
“I was browsing through the internet last year when I read the personal stories of witnesses present in Bhopal on the day of the disaster. It impacted me. I went to Bhopal and met many who had been affected in 1984,’ says Jain. He also realised a large number of children affected by the gas leak and contaminated groundwater and felt the need to alert the world about their suffering.
“I was particularly moved by the courage and love that families showed in looking after these deformed, affected children, born that way due to no fault of their own. I felt I wanted to tell the story through their lives.”
Photo By Rohit Jain
But as his interactions with the families extended into 15 days, Jain felt he could handle it no more. “I decided it was too painful for the families to answer my questions, and as I could not really make a difference in their lives, I should drop the idea of documenting the stories. I returned to Delhi.”
When some senior friends advised him to return and use his findings to fight the cause of the victims, he decided to put his own trauma aside, and continue the project.
Jain’s first idea was to address students in colleges, and people on the streets of Delhi, using the photos as placards. “I wanted to ask random people, ‘Do you know what this pic is,’ and create an opening to tell them the story behind the pic... but I lacked the courage to do it alone, as there was no response from people I contacted to join me in this,” he says. Jain pasted the photos on his Instagram account, and hoped it would be seen and create some effect.
And that was exactly what happened. “Method contacted me and offered to set up an exhibition,” he says happily.
With ‘Aftermath’, Jain’s decision to abandon further studies after graduation, to devote himself to social causes has finally been vindicated. “I see the response the photos create and the anger they cause and I realise that I have created some awareness even in a generation that had never heard of the gas tragedy,” he says. The exhibition has also extended his role as the voice of the victims. “I invited the students of mass media whom I lectured to on documentary photography to visit the exhibition, and it was amazing to see their reactions and responses ranging from shock to anger,” he added. “I asked them to help me spread awareness. And not let the victims remain the forgotten children of Union Carbide’s poison.”
Photo By Rohit Jain
Jain’s cause was further strengthened when the friend he had found ‘missing’ earlier, used his photographs as posters and held a public awareness programme on the plight of the Gas Tragedy victims at Jantar Mantar, Delhi, on December 2-3.
Though he has in the past used his art to create other awareness stories like the plight of Adivasis and their migration to cities, it is with ‘Aftermath’ that Jain, who is a grantee of the Pulitzer Centre’s grant for Crisis Reporting, has shown that Photography, an art which often entertains, can reach beyond entertainment to espouse a cause and awaken the public to social consciousness.
(The writer was the Editor of Femina for over a decade)