Pollution, drought, erosion, deforestation. For many people, these issues exist on the periphery of everyday life. But for Arati Kumar-Rao, a journalist and photographer fascinated by the environment since childhood, documenting these fragile worlds is her life’s work. Travelling across the globe, she reports on the chronically unreported through her camera.
“Violent conflicts make headlines,” Kumar-Rao said. “But a slow violence – one that is neither spectacular nor explosive – remains invisible, inflicted on communities by ecological degradation and climate change. Unfolding over temporal scales, its true implication manifests over generations.”
Kumar-Rao’s photography captures this “slow violence” with remarkable grace, ranging from stunning, aerial shots of river systems to intimate portraits and detailed close-ups. Each photo has a melancholic allure, showing us the beauty of the world and yet reminding us just how delicate that beauty is.
In one of her recent projects, Kumar-Rao visited the Ganges-Brahmaputra basin, which supports more than 600 million people in four countries: Nepal, Tibet, India and Bangladesh. She focussed her attention on the Sundarbans, the largest unbroken stand of mangroves in the world. She knew that this beautiful and vulnerable area, which stretches across southern Bangladesh and India’s West Bengal, would act as a microcosm for the damage being done across the whole region.
“Driven by a frenzied hunger for growth, India is re-engineering her landscape in the name of development: diverting rivers, mining deserts and building over marshes and grasslands,” she explained.
These interventions are eroding whole ecosystems, turning rivers into sand and rice fields into dustbowls – and are having an impact on human survival.
“Fish catches have fallen 85 to 90% in many reaches of the Ganges-Brahmaputra basin in eastern India,” Kumar-Rao said.
As a result of her work, Kumar-Rao has developed a unique relationship with travel. Although she enjoys the chance to see the world, she also carries the weight of its problems on her shoulders.
“I was sitting atop a rocky outcrop the last time I was on the Ganges,” Kumar-Rao said. “What lay below me was a calm, snaking, sacred river. It looked heart-stoppingly beautiful. But I knew better. There were no fish in that river. The dolphins had disappeared inexplicably… This was a landscape of beauty as much as it was a landscape of loss.”
But Kumar-Rao is able to channel this heartache into positive action. Through her hauntingly beautiful photography, she hopes to highlight not only the damage being done, but also the reasons behind it.
“The causes of environmental degradation are never spoken about – only the symptoms, erosion or floods or droughts, are. And, so, only the symptoms get addressed. I want to change that,” Kumar-Rao said. “My goal is to walk these ‘symptoms’ back into the history of the land. It is important to realise how human intervention can cause damage for years to come.”
Looking to the future, Kumar-Rao sees no endpoint on her work: “I will continue telling stories – for landscapes and lives change, and following those changes is what I do.”
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