Photographers recall horror 31 years after Bhopal gas tragedy
A picture tells a thousand words and freezes a moment for years. HT marks the World Photography Day by speaking to two stalwarts of photography, Pablo Bartholomew and Raghu Rai who captured the aftermath of the horrific Bhopal gas tragedy–one of the world’s worst industrial disaster– risking their own lives.
The two photographers spoke at length on challenges that a photographer faces while covering a tragedy.
More than 31 years back, deadly methyl isocynate gas leaked at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal that claimed thousands of lives and still has an impact over children who are born after the disaster.
Pablo Bartholomew, who was then working for a French news agency in India, photographed the tragedy right from the next day until last year.
“I started working closely with Bollywood and other corporate people but that did not satisfy me. Then I joined a French news agency and I was in Patna on December 2, 1984, covering Rajiv Gandhi’s election campaign, when I heard about the tragedy on BBC radio,” says Bartholomew.
“ After …I saw disturbing videos of hand carts carrying corpses on Doordarsan and that was a wake-up call for me and a fellow photographer and we left for Bhopal. On the only flight to Bhopal, we met another photographer Raghu Rai and the three us got the rare opportunity to capture the tragedy.”
The photograph of a dead child being buried, become a symbol for the tragedy and won the World Press Photo award.
Raghu Rai, who worked for a leading magazine when the disaster struck, also shot the burial of the unknown child, says, “It was a heart-rending situation. His was an innocent face and usually when you see a dead person, their eyes are closed, but that child had his eyes wide open and his family members were giving the last caress to him.”
“That moment still gives me chills and that picture is enough to say the worst about the tragedy. We used to go to Hamidia Hospital, the factory premises and to the burial grounds and everywhere, there were similar spine-chilling scenes.”
Asked about the precautions they took while covering the tragedy, Raghu says, “We were so engrossed at that time, that we hardly thought of risks involved. We just wanted to document the tragedy to the maximum extent.”
“We were not at all scared. We were shooting at the hospital, at burial grounds and around the factory and …officials were very cooperative. They knew the seriousness and they understood the need to document that.
“Risk is a part of this profession. When a reporter or a photographer goes to cover an earthquake or a flood, he or she never thinks about his or her own life. You can even die,” says Pablo.
Asked about how he felt to intrude in people’s lives while shooting such incidents and what impact had on him, Pablo says, “You just can’t be a gentleman photographer. We are vultures in certain way.”
“There is a humanist way to look at life, but this is our job. We need to get into people’s lives as they are affected. It’s just like a surgeon performing a heart surgery, amid all the blood and veins…
“To spread the word and to let the world know about a tragedy, you have to reconcile with disaster and then just shoot.”
A perfect photograph, Raghu says,” is the one that captures the real feelings and strengths of a particular situation”.