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Meet the Indian-American photographer demystifying the Arctic

Last updated on: September 27, 2013 18:31 IST

Meet the Indian-American photographer demystifying the Arctic

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Monali Sarkar

Fighting environmental and political odds, engineer-physicist-photographer Subhankar Banerjee endeavours to bring out the untold truth about the Arctic.

Subhankar Banerjee says that is his most important contribution. The leading Arctic photographer and conservationist in conversation with Monali Sarkar

Subhankar Banerjee arrived in the Arctic in the middle of winter. For seven months.

The biologists helping him told him he was crazy. The natives thought he was crazy. But there was a method to his craziness.

Along with a comfortable research job at Boeing and a $1,500-a-day consulting job, he had given up his career in science, his health insurance, his apartment and even cashed in on his 401-K.

For him, it was now or never, and he knew, "If I can survive that (the Arctic winter), then I can survive the rest of the seasons," he told India Abroad in a phone conversation from his home in Seattle.

Banerjee calls himself a stay-home scholar these days. What he glosses over is that he has the world's ears for his narrative on Arctic conservation.

He has had it since soon after that first Arctic trip in 2001-2002.

Making a trip to the Arctic was not novel for a photographer, but what set Banerjee apart from the start was he spent a total of 14 months, travelling at least 4,000 miles, at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

He survived blizzards, wind chills that make you feel it's about -120 degree Fahrenheit, frostbite, swarming mosquitoes, and dive bombing gyrfalcons (largest of the falcon species). He spent months snapping photographs that would forever change the way the world viewed the Arctic.

'I photographed everything I could point my lens to,' Banerjee writes in an essay on SubhankarBanerjee.org. 'At the end of the year, I realised the idea to document the Arctic is a futile one -- the land is very vast, the biodiversity too broad, and the indigenous communities numerous. I had to simplify. I realised I needed a handful of motifs that I could comprehend and follow through slowly over time.'

His primary motif became colour, followed by connectivity and the bent posture.

"My work is to demystify the Arctic -- the romanticism and the political perceptions," he says. "The first motif was colour, because the Arctic is thought of as snow and ice. So, for politicians it is very easy to dismiss it as a 'frozen wasteland,' or 'barren wasteland' or 'flat white nothingness,' and these are exact quotes by politicians. That's why I chose colour, not as a medium but as a motif."

It is striking because of its sparse, delicate use -- sometimes in a tinge of blue on snow-covered land, sometimes letting out the brown in the landscape, sometimes letting the green slip in.

The result was a story the world didn't know was hiding inside the layers of snow and ice. It was a story that Banerjee brought out in his first book in 2003 -- Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land.

The book changed Banerjee's life in a way he never could have imagined.

He was almost immediately hailed as the leading photographer on the Arctic and earned him an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History.

But he became truly, and instantly, famous -- though he prefers to call it "notorious" -- after a Senator presented his book as evidence of what was at stake during a floor debate on drilling for oil in the refuge.

Then, just before the exhibition opened, the Smithsonian moved it away from a prime spot and removed or truncated most of the captions, under alleged political pressure.

What followed cemented the fame of the book and its photographer like nothing could have.

The incident sparked media outrage and became the center of a political debate that raged in Washington, DC, but was followed internationally.

And Banerjee found himself the face of a cause he had never set out to lead.

Though still uncomfortable with politics, he has in the decade that followed come to terms with having to deal with it and other necessary evils that crop up in the fight for environmental conservation.

Along the way he has picked up honours like the Cultural Freedom Award from the Lannan Foundation, the inaugural Greenleaf Artist Award from the United Nations Environment Programme, the National Conservation Achievement Award from the National Wildlife Federation, and was named an Arctic Hero by Alaska Wilderness League.

Banerjee spoke to India Abroad about a decade of being at the forefront as a photographer and environmental activist involved with the Inupiat and the Gwich'in people of Alaska, the Canadian Yukon, and the Yukaghir and the Even people in the Siberian Arctic.


Image: Polar bear on bernard harbor, Barter Island, June 2001; Inset: Subhankar Banerjee
Photographs: Courtesy: Subhankar Banerjee

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'Having gone to the sub-Arctic I fell in love with it'

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An engineer-physicist who gives up a comfortable job at Boeing to combine art and environmental activism seems like a difficult transition. Was it, in fact, easier than we imagine, considering you were answering your calling?

It's true. I was answering my calling. (But) I have done this now several times in my career.

When I did this, as you can imagine, my parents really were worried. They always supported me; they never said no to anything, but they were worried that I was giving up a comfortable job.

But again, this was not the first time I did this.

When engineering seemed like a very comfortable choice, and I could create a wonderful career, I went into theoretical physics where it is impossible to make a living.

Then leaving a comfortable career to do photography was another turning point.

And I have done it again.

As soon as my work became accepted in the art world, I left that in a way and became more of a scholar on environmental humanities.

So, again as soon as I got comfortable in art (laughs) I had this calling that I needed to understand more complex issues of environmental humanities.
We think of environmentalism from a science point of view, but what can artists, writers, scholars, historians, or philosophers bring to the table?

That is a question I am working on right now.

I have done this several times. I think (Subrahmanyan) Chandrashekhar did that as a physicist (the Indian-American physicist and Nobel Laureate); every 10 years he would do something different. There is that fear that if you get too comfortable you might stop creating.

You would become, what I call, formulaic, and that happens all the time with successful artists. This is what sells, and this is what is accepted in the museums and that is what you keep producing. And I have great distaste for that.

As soon as that happens (getting comfortable) I get out of that.

It was in the desert of New Mexico that you fell in love with wide open spaces, yet your work focused on Arctic conservation. What was it about the Arctic that drew you in?

That would be serendipity.

After I left Boeing, I was going all over the country looking for what to do. There was nothing really that inspired me. Then I went with a couple of friends to Churchill, in sub-arctic Canada, where polar bears gather, and where all these nature photographs of polar bears used to come from.

I came back with a very disappointing experience of seeing one bear and a very extreme case of tourism. The bear was like a spectacle. Even though it's wild, out there, there were eight, nine large vehicles surrounding the bear and people snapping pictures.

That is not why I left my science career.

Having gone to the sub-Arctic I fell in love with it. Having come from the tropics, the Arctic is the absolute opposite, and opposites attract. I was intrigued.

That's where it began.


Image: Adult muskox, the most adapted of all the Arctic species, with a newborn calf along the Canning River from foothills of the Brooks Range mountains to the coastal plain, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Photographs: Subhankar Banerjee

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'What was most remarkable was that life exists in all of those months in the Arctic'

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Starting a new career with a seven-month journey through the National Arctic Wildlife Refuge is a huge challenge...

It's worse. I started in winter. Even the biologists of the Refuge who were helping me -- they and the indigenous people were very helpful -- said, 'You are crazy that you want to start in winter.'

It is extremely, extremely harsh, but I felt if I have to work in the Arctic I better start in the most extreme situation.

If I can survive that, I can survive the rest of the seasons.

What were those seven months like?

There were seven months the first year and seven months the next year. I covered every season -- in the Arctic you have eight to nine months of winter and three to four months of spring, summer, autumn combined.

The only way to describe those months is it is truly, extremely harsh. Physically it is extremely challenging, even for people who live there. They have, of course, adapted to it, and they know how to survive, but it is very challenging.

You are talking about temperatures -- and I am saying it in Fahrenheit, although at -40 degrees, Fahrenheit and Centigrade is the same -- say -40 degree F or colder, maybe another 10 or 20 degree colder than that.

And then you add wind. In the Arctic coast, the wind is extremely harsh and non-stop. It blows at 50/60 mph; sometimes it is 80 mph. It is hard to explain in words or images what that wind chill means. It feels like about -120 degree F.

It is impossible for humans to imagine something like that.

The only reason I survived is I don't see myself as an explorer; I have an antipathy to the exploration narrative because it is fundamentally imperial in nature.

My aim was to survive, and the only way to survive was working with my local indigenous friends, learning with them and from them.

There were blizzards. In the winter you could fall into rivers -- which I did -- and you can die instantly from hypothermia.

But having said all that, what was most remarkable was that life exists in all of those months in the Arctic.

In the middle of winter, when the ground is snow covered, the pregnant polar bears go into a den in October-November and give birth in December-January. They nurse their calves, usually one or two, inside the den until about March. In March or April they come out.

Then there is another species called the musk ox. That is the most adapted of all the Arctic species to the cold -- much more than polar bears are -- because they have the warmest wool on the planet. They give birth in April.

Nobody knows why they do that; all other animals are giving birth in June when the snow has disappeared, spring has come. But their calves survive that.

And then comes spring.

You have 180, 200 species of birds arriving from all over the world, nesting. So, there is this incredible cacophony, and tens of thousands of caribous arriving on the coast to give birth.

Life comes back in extreme profusion. And then it slowly dissipates.

All the birds go back to their summer places and the caribous go back to their wintering ground. The place becomes quiet, but there is still some life that exists.

We don't think of the Arctic as a diverse place. We think there are caribous and polar bears, but it is remarkably diverse ecologically.

Then there are thousands of indigenous people. Actually, the most important work I have done is to bring out their issues. Being able to spend time with them and become like a family member is a humbling experience.

When I say I fell in love with the desert that is one kind, but this was (he paused, seemingly grasping for a word that encompassed the depth of his feeling for the Arctic, and probably because there is no word that powerful said), realising that our planet still has places like this (was amazing).

It was fascinating. Now, I have become kind of a stay-home scholar, but those years were my best years.


Image: A Pacific loon on nest in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge during spring. Loons are among the oldest surviving species on earth, having been around for more than 20 million years.
Photographs: Subhankar Banerjee

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'My work is helping bridge the gap between the ecological rights and human rights of the people'

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Contrary to popular belief, you view the Arctic as 'the most connected land on Earth.' Can you please elaborate on this?

That has probably been the most important contribution that I have made.

All along the Arctic was thought of as a remote place, like the Romans called it -- terra incognita. Even for the early explorers who went out there the idea was to explore the last frontier of our planet. When I started my work, the dominant rhetoric among the environmental organisations was (that it is) the last frontier.

Over the years, I realised that it isn't; it is the most connected place on earth.

The connection -- I now have a solid way of framing it -- is both celebratory and tragic.

The celebratory part is that birds go to the Arctic from every part of the planet. In fact, at the National Arctic Wildlife Refuge there is a bird called yellow wag tail that nests there. They come from South East Asia, and they winter right outside Calcutta.

This is not a one-to-one connection, I should make that point -- it's many-to-many. There will be a yellow wag tail in Calcutta, in other parts of India, Borneo, various parts of South East Asia, various parts of the Arctic. Those were the kinds of connections I began to see...

The king salmon migrates up to 2,000 miles -- it goes from the Arctic Ocean to other parts to spawn -- and it is being eaten in London, Tokyo, Paris, even New Delhi.

Then there is the tragic connection. This is why all my work is about demystifying the Arctic.

The Arctic is thought of as such a mythical place. It is thought to be a pristine, clean environment, that there is no pollution. But it is the reverse.

Some of the world's most polluted animals and humans live in the high Arctic. It is tragic that the breast milk of high Arctic women in Greenland and some parts of northern Canada are scientifically regarded as hazardous waste!

The reason is industrial pollutants from all industries -- oil, gas coal, you name it -- do a very interesting process, almost like the animate entities.

Like birds migrate from the southern latitudes to the Arctic, industrial pollutants do exactly the same through a process called 'jumping and hopping.'
When the air is warmer they go up in the air, then the wind current takes them some distance. Then when it is cold, it falls. It keeps doing this.

Through wind and ocean currents all industrial pollutants -- all the DDTs, the PCBs, the dirty dozen that (conservationist) Rachel Carson wrote about, mercury and sulfur from coal-fired power plants in India, China, US -- show up in the Arctic.

This particular tragic connection was brought out by Los Angeles Times journalist Marla Cone. She wrote a book on this subject (and an essay in Banerjee's book Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point) about what she calls the Arctic paradox.

You think of the place as pristine, but it is quite the contrary.

There is also something called the Arctic haze (due to air pollution) that covers an area the size of the entire continent of Africa every year from November to April and very few people know about it.

So, there many ways, both celebratory and tragic, (that the Arctic is the most connected land).

My hope is to present the Arctic just as any other place.

It is wrong to romanticise the place just because it is remote; it is causing a lot of harm to the people out there.

Even though I say things like I fell in love with the Arctic, my work takes an anti-romantic stand. My idea is to not romanticise this place, the people and the culture but present a true picture of what it is.

Only if people see both sides, they may care.

Does your background play into your work?

In a very significant manner, and this I can say now. I couldn't say it when my first book came out.

What I mean is if I didn't have an Indian, rural, upbringing, I would have probably fallen, like almost all the Northern writers and environmentalists, in the trap of romanticism.

I admire the Northern philosophers and thinkers -- they have done important work -- but I am also critical of their work. A lot of the northern -- European and American -- environmental writing is very romantic and lyrical.

I would have fallen in that trap and missed the entire social justice side of it, which is the human culture as well. But having an Indian upbringing, seeing the films of Mrinal Sen, I couldn't ignore the indigenous people -- their lives, their issues, their concerns.

So, I was able to bring human rights and ecological rights into a unified entity.

Even today, there is a clear split in the middle. The ecological rights people are talking about one thing, and the human rights people are talking about the other thing, but they are not looking each other in the eye.

My work is helping bridge that gap.

For this, I am really grateful to the work of Ramachandra Guha. In my mind, he is the world's greatest environmental scholar. He challenged Northern environmentalism and wrote with critical and perceptive analysis of what Southern environmentalism is. He calls it 'environmentalism of the poor.'

People like Guha and Vandana Shiva (the Indian environmental activist) have done wonderful work and have huge influence on me.

Though I don't work in India, it plays a significant role in what I am trying to say.

I would have probably missed that earlier.


Image: An exposed coffin, Barter Island, August 2006. Subhankar Banerjee's friend from Kaktovik told him that the permafrost around the coffin -- of a 19th century New England whaler -- had melted away (a climate change phenomenon).
Photographs: Subhankar Banerjee

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'But overall, I would say, we are mostly losing'

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India has such influence on your work, yet I can't help wonder had you remained in India, do you think you would have been able to choose art as a career eventually?

The honest answer is probably no.

I would have joined a job. And really, my parents didn't have money, so I would not have been able to pursue any other career than something that brings in sustainable income.

In that sense, coming to the US, seeing other places, other people, other cultures, broadened my mind. No doubt about that.

You have witnessed the environmental situation go downhill. Last year, the extent of the Arctic summer sea ice hit the lowest ever. From Alaska to Siberia, tell us about the damage that you have seen first hand.

When I first went to the Arctic in 2001-2002, nobody in the community would talk about climate change.

When I went back in 2005-2006 -- and that is a miniscule time period in a geological sense -- everyone was talking about it. These communities were facing very serious impact that they had not seen before.

The coastal communities are currently the hardest hit. With climate change, the reduced sea ice -- in 2012 August-September the sea ice was 18 per cent lower than the previous worst record, which was in 2007 -- and climate change is causing more open water and a lot more storms. This combination is causing tremendous coastal erosion.

Several communities are facing immediate evacuation. Some of them have thousands of years of cultural heritage, and they will have to abandon it and figure out what to do. They are becoming climate refugees.

In my book, one of the scholars writes that the United States doesn't even have any federal law or agency to deal with this situation, to deal with climate refugees.

So, that's immediate. That's now. That's already happening.

The other thing, if we keep it business as usual, is the (danger to) permafrost.

It is melting. In one photograph I showed how permafrost melted and exposed the coffin of a 19th century New England whaler.

When permafrost melts, it releases methane... and methane is 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Scientists really worry about methane release from the Arctic.

Methane is also releasing from the Siberian Tundra, the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, and even underneath the Arctic Ocean.

I recently did an event with Dr James Hansen, who is the world's leading global warming scientist. He was the director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and is kind of like the Galileo of climate science. The way he phrases it is: 'The Arctic must remain cold.'

More than any other place, if the Arctic becomes warm, it is a serious, serious issue for the planet. The sea ice, the glaciers, the ice sheet, the permafrost -- all of that needs to remain cold for us to have a stable planet.

All of this is happening so fast now that it is difficult to even keep up with the news.

Have there been any positives in this battle?

There are positives.

The place where I started -- the National Arctic Wildlife Refuge -- is the most debated public land in US history. The debate is whether to open it up for oil and gas or protect it.

We haven't left that debate. Even though the Bush administration fought very hard to open it up, we defeated their proposals again, and again, and again.

This particular movement has been going on for 60 years. It is mind boggling to think that an environmental movement can last that long; it is definitely the longest movement in the history of environmentalism.

It is a positive thing that people are fighting. We haven't lost that battle.

I will be writing about the history and anthropology of this environmentalism in my next book.

Another thing is that this year the Department of Interior protected 11 million acres in the Western Arctic, including some really crucial areas.
Though we probably won that battle because there was thought to be big oil there, but the estimates have gone down.

But overall, I would say, we are mostly losing.

The reason is two-fold.

One reason is this incredible US consumption. The Industrial Revolution took place in Europe, but America really made the idea of extreme consumption possible. Now that is a global phenomenon.

It takes me back to Rabindranath Tagore and (Mahatma) Gandhi who critiqued several aspects of industrialisation.

Now this is also happening in India. People have more money, and they want to live the kind of lifestyles that Americans do. Sociologically, it is impossible to point fingers at that.

But it is happening; globally there's massive consumption taking place.

The other side, which is more scary, is that the US is now moving forward with extreme energy projects -- Arctic drilling, fracking (hydraulic fracturing), mining is going up rather than stabilising.

The US is saying in a few years it will be the Saudi Arabia of the world in terms of oil and coal production.

So, production of fossil fuels is increasing in the US and Canada, and consumption is increasing in India, China, Brazil and everywhere else.

All of us (environmentalists) are saying the same thing -- it is not honest to fool ourselves. This is the reality. What do we do with it?

There are lots of people working on it, and that's why there is hope that within a generation -- young people are getting engaged, which was not the case before, and that is encouraging -- there will be tremendous upheaval and people will take action.

But it needs to happen soon.


Image: An Inupiat cemetery in Kaktovik, Alaska, marked by bowhead whale jawbones -- a sign of the relationship the Inupiats have with the whale.
Photographs: Subhankar Banerjee

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'I also really hope to do work in the Sunderbans'

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You have been very candid in your criticism of President Obama's environmental policies, especially when it comes to drilling in the Arctic...

I must say it (criticising Obama) is an extremely difficult thing to do. It is another one of those 'wrong career moves.'

By being critical of Obama I made just about every supporter I had angry. To criticise Obama in the US is not any easy thing to do. There are very few true critics of him.

That is why these days I think of academia as my refuge. (He has been a visiting scholar at the graduate programmeme in environmental humanities, University of Utah; artist–in –residence, Dartmouth College, Distinguished Visiting Professor, Department of Art History and Music, Fordham University; visiting fellow, Forbes College, Princeton University; and director's visitor, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton).

Do you foresee any change now that Obama is in his second term?

Second-term Presidents in the US are what we call lame-duck Presidents. They know they are on their way out.

But the issue is that Obama's policies are pro-Wall Street, pro-banks, pro-corporate.

He is also a great supporter of the military industrial complex in the US, which is causing some of the biggest damages on the planet... Even though there is this rhetoric that some of this is going down, it is business as usual.

Critics have pointed out that it is not that Obama was ever really interested in true welfare of the country. He was always serving the top of the economy.

Having any faith in Obama is misguided, and it is becoming more and more apparent.

While on the subject, your first brush with politics came very early in your career.

Several last-minute changes -- moving the location, deleting and truncating captions, reportedly under pressure -- were incorporated in your exhibition at the Smithsonian in 2003 after the publication of your first book, Seasons of Life and Land.

It was ironic that the Smithsonian was commemorating the 100th anniversary of the national wildlife system that year.

Can you tell us about how you felt then and how you coped?

It was scary as hell! I was not a citizen then, and I suddenly became notorious. It was all over the media.

But the most scary thing was when one of the most powerful Senators, Ted Stevens (of Alaska, who has since passed away), called me, effectively, a liar on the Senate floor.

He said Jimmy Carter and Subhankar Banerjee were giving misinformation to the American public.

Not only did the Smithsonian censor the show, there was a Senate hearing, a Senate investigation, for which I had to go to DC.

It was a scary time.

I was not the least bit interested in politics. I still am not. I consider myself a scholar critiquing policies that are damaging the planet, but I am not interested in politics.

You had then said you were 'naive' about politics. How long did it take for you to lose that naivete?

When that happened, I got involved with the (environmental) campaign. I realised I had to educate myself about the realities of politics.

During the Bush era it was his top priority to open up that place (the Arctic Refuge) and I was going to DC often and giving lectures across the country -- not just areas that are Democratic, but also areas that are deeply Republican. I went not just to big universities; I have gone to very, very small places to give these talks.

I must say, some positive things happened.

The person who showed my work during the Senate debate was California Senator Barbara Boxer. She defended my work. Then there was Richard Durban, the influential Senator from Chicago. They sort of became my friends. They gave me support and even came to my exhibit openings, which is unheard of.

So, it was also a positive time -- that environmental change is possible.

Then in 2007 Senator Boxer became the first woman ever to chair the Senate Environmental Public Works Committee.

She has really stood up to the oil companies and coal companies. She supported positive policies and people like Senator Boxer are why you see some of the best (environmental) legislation comes out of California.

After she took over as chair of the committee, I went to DC and met with her. It was a joyous moment -- that maybe positive environmental changes are possible now.

And it was happening during the Bush era.

After President Obama came in, it was actually a bit of an irony that the environmental space, which is primarily Democrats, took it for granted that Obama would support environment-friendly policies.

When he didn't, they were surprised, but they didn't do anything about it.

So, we are losing just about every fight right now.

Is there any project in India that has grabbed your attention?

For several years I have been hoping to get engaged with India, and it hasn't happened.

My focus in India would be the forest issues -- the forests of the Himalayas, which has a whole bunch of issues.

I also really hope to do work in the Sunderbans.

I know almost nothing about the Sunderbans. I am very interested in various connections (one of his motifs), and this place is like an ecotome, where multiple ecological zones come together.

There is forest; there is ocean; there is the climate change issue; there is an indigenous culture; there are wildlife issues. It has always intrigued me.

I want to do something with not just the Sunderbans as a place, but also as a place through which we could highlight a lot of contemporary issues.

But it hasn't happened. I have had no interest from Indian academia or Indian art institutions.

Each year I think that's it, my Arctic work is done. I am going to start something in India. But the Arctic seems to be getting more, and more, and more intense. It is very hard for me to disentangle myself.

What next?

Each year I hope to start a project in India to engage with eco-cultural concerns. I've always wanted to spend time at the Sundarbans, and enjoyed very much reading Amitav Ghosh's novel The Hungry Tide.

Also last November I visited Munsiyari, met Malika Virdi, and was inspired by the work of the Maati women's collective that she founded.

But currently the issues in the Arctic are very intense. I plan to be involved with that for now.

Someday I do hope to spend more time in India and engage with the issues there.


Image: A tigress jumps into the waters of river Sundari Kati, after its release from a cage at Sunderbans, about 150 km (93 miles) south of Kolkata February 19, 2008. The pregnant tigress which strayed from deep inside a village on the fringes of the Sunderbans forest was rescued by the forest workers on Sunday after being stoned and badly beaten by villagers, a forest official said on Tuesday.
Photographs: Parth Sanyal/Reuters

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