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Memories of Bhopal 1984: 'Sadness. Dismay. Guilt. Shame'

By Vaihayasi Pande Daniel
Last updated on: December 04, 2014 17:57 IST
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'Children were most vulnerable to the gas exposure' 

'Either the child's family does not want to be identified. Or they are dead' 

'They don’t know what to do with all the chemicals sitting in there' 

Pablo Bartholomew, the legendary Indian photojournalist whose searing images from the Bhopal gas tragedy stunned a nation's conscience 30 years ago, speaks to Vaihayasi Pande Daniel/

Pablo Bartholomew plans to go back to Bhopal very soon.

If not this year, then in early 2015.

The Padmashri-winning Indian photographer, who gave a face to the Bhopal gas tragedy when he shot a heart-grabbing picture of a young child being buried in the dust December 5, during his 20-day coverage of the city in 1984 -- does not believe he has an obligation to do something for Bhopal the way an activist does. But looking at it humanistically, he feels there is much more that can be done.

“We undersold ourselves,” Bartholomew says. He means India did.

The result: The people of Bhopal are still suffering. Not enough money has been invested in cleaning up that area of city, he says, where water and soil remain contaminated and people are still dying or living tough days with horrid deformities

Bartholomew’s been back to Bhopal many times over the years. Initially in quick succession. Then for the 10th anniversary. And the 20th.

He would like to go back again to take still more pictures, he tells Vaihayasi Pande Daniel/

Pictures that might yet help. Even 30 years later.

Where were you when heard about the Bhopal disaster? How difficult was it to make it to Bhopal during those days? How did you reach there?

It was the start of the 1984 Indian elections. I was already in Patna on the morning of December 3 when I heard about the Bhopal gas leak. BBC said 30 died in a gas explosion at about 8.30 am IST in a news bulletin.

(This part of this answer is the same as a portion of the speech he gave at The Hindu LitFest 2014 in Chennai earlier this year. He offers the same answer in this interview to I turned to Dilip (Mehta, a photographer for Contact Press with whom Bartholomew was covering the run-up to the 1984 elections) and said: 'Hey, the radio is saying 30 dead in Bhopal. Do you think this is something we should look at it?'… Dilip says: 'Theek hai. This is India.'

We have other things to do. We have set our agenda. That evening we fly out to Lucknow and we are going to Amethi to look at (politician) Maneka (Gandhi)…

At night we land up at a dhabha just outside Sultanpur railway station (near Amethi). There’s a black and white TV there. Doordarshan news has just started… I see (at an intersection)… there are these handcarts being pulled or pushed, piled with bodies. My jaw kind of falls open.

I am nudging Dilip and saying, 'Look, this is Bhopal.' It is very fuzzy footage. Terribly shot. It was most surreal-looking. We sort of gaped at the television set. It was a short clip. It goes. Not much is said. Not much is explained. That sort of becomes a wake-up call that maybe something bigger is happening and maybe we should go.

So we eat dinner, jump into the car and start heading out to Lucknow. Of course (it’s) a good north Indian winter. The fog is so heavy that we can’t see five feet. The driver says: 'Look I can’t find the road. We may have an accident. So we decide to stay the night. Work with Maneka tomorrow. Cover whatever she’s doing. Leave early afternoon so we can catch the evening flight to Delhi…

(When) we arrive at the airport (the next evening we learn) the Indian Airlines plane has a burst tyre. It is going nowhere. Anyway there are no seats on that plane. So even when the replacement tyre comes… it may not take us. So we go to the railway station, find a train. We get a train at around 11 o’clock that takes us to Agra. We reach there at 4 in the morning and wake up a cab driver. Drive to Gwalior. And from Gwalior we take the hopping flight that goes Delhi-Gwalior-Bhopal-Indore-Bombay…

We are very grateful that we didn’t go back to Delhi because apparently the journalists, photographers, TV crew were beating each other up to get onto the plane because in those days it was all manual ticketing. Every sector had a quota and (there was) a six passenger (quota) from Gwalior… So both Dilip and me got on. On the plane we met Raghu, that’s Raghu Rai (award-winning photographer). We looked at him and said: 'Hmm, why are you so late?' He said he missed waking up, 'So I missed my flight yesterday. So here I am.'

So there we were, three photographers disembarking at Bhopal December 5 to find there is no transport available. We waited around for an hour till some cabbie showed up.

This is why the three of us (happened to) jump into the same car, went to the same locations, and that’s why we had near similar images, pretty much…

Would you please recall the scene when you first arrived in the city and when you got closer to the disaster site?

By December 5 all looked normal. As in the weather. Crisp and cold. A sharp winter sun.

The gas had blown away.

In its path it had left devastation. The stench of bloated animal carcasses strewn around the city. People lying around in a daze with their eyes bandaged.

Worse, Hamidia Hospital, which is located inside Bhopal’s medical college grounds, was a battleground. Dead bodies (were laid) under a shamiana (tent) in the main lawns. The morgue was overflowing. The wards were all full including all the corridors, with people lying all around, eyes bandaged, breathing heavily. The worst was the children’s ward where the newly-born and the very young suffered the worst.

Would you describe the scene and the background of the picture of a child being buried by the parents that you took, image, above? What was happening there and where exactly was it -- how far from Union Carbide factory?

Many Muslim families were burying their dead. Children were the most vulnerable to the gas exposure.

That photo was taken at the Muslim burial ground. The Hindu cremation ground and Muslim burial ground are adjoining. The Hindus also buried their children in their part as there was no flowing water…

Everything was a blur. I moved from JP Nagar, which was opposite the Carbide factory, to the hospital and then to the crematorium area and back again, in that circle. Everything was fairly close. From JP Nagar/Carbide, the cremation ground would be about two km as the crow flies. The hospital would be about four km.

Have you ever been able to track who this child was, age, antecedents or who the parents were, etc? Do you feel the parents survived?

In the first few years I looked. I tried via activist groups, NGOs and through the media.

But no one came forward.

So either the family does not want to be identified. Or they are dead.

After you took that particular picture and other famous ones, what were your feelings, if there was anything specific?

In those days we never saw our pictures. The unprocessed film was shipped out to Paris. So we only got to see what was published. And much later.

Did you know at the time that, that particular photograph was going to be an important picture? If so, why did you feel so?

When taking images, you always have a sense of what can be a strong image… But then again, there are many other factors that govern the making of a good image on a technical and aesthetic level. It’s only when the material is processed and edited that you get to see how strong an image is.

Thirty years later, what do you feel about the Bhopal tragedy? What memories and emotions does it bring up?

Sadness. Dismay. Guilt. Shame.

(The next part of this answer is taken, at Bartholomew’s request, from his speech at the Chennai litfest in February 2014 and at a talk, and a subsequent question answer session he had at Harvard University’s South Asia Institute mid-November). And I look at it as a failure of something I wasn’t able to do. Part of it is that so many years have gone by and I didn’t jump into it then. Somewhere I feel it is a little late as something I have been involved with I will try and go back this year…

Success for Bhopal would have been 10 times, or a hundred times the volume of money, and the money actually reaching the victims and cutting out all the fraud, red tape, and all the corruption. That’s one part of it. The other, if there was a lot more money and a vision, then the cleanup, which is equally important, could have been completed at a very early stage.

Right now they don’t know what to do with all the chemicals sitting in there. It could have environmental consequences and health issues. There is talk about creating a dump to get rid of the chemicals – but where is that dump going to be? How is it going to be contained? So it’s one of those industrial issues, a modern contemporary issue, that is the same thing as what’s happened in Japan (with the earthquake in Fukushima).

People are now just tired. That’s what happens to anything – there’s a fatigue that sets in. It’s the same way that journalism has changed and the media has changed, because you hardly have any hard news anymore – it’s all about lifestyle and fashion, about people’s aspirations, because that’s easier to do, rather than look at the bad and the ugly.

Which have been some of the most important pictures you have taken so far in your career?

It is a historical process as to what gets regarded as important. I have many bodies of work that precede my journalistic career. I have always worked on long-term projects whether in the Northeast or documenting the Indian émigré experience in the US, France, Britain and Mauritius. Many of this work will become important as time goes by.

Which do you feel were the other pictures you took in Bhopal that you consider equally important and why?

There are many. From the time of the disaster to the (ones taken when I) came back the next year. On the 10th anniversary. And the 20th anniversary.

Do you have any associations with Bhopal, ie, connections? Have you been back there recently or earlier?

My immediate neighbour, below where I live in Delhi, lived in Bhopal. Her second child is a little touched, as she was pregnant at the time of the gas leak, though their side of the city was not affected badly, but people still had health consequences.

I have been back several times, as the years went by, but I don’t have the stomach to make fleeting visits anymore. Next time I will go back for a chunk of time to do something there.

Thirty years is a long time and most of India’s young would be quite disconnected with the grimness and size of this tragedy and how appalling it was. Is there something important you could tell them?

Yes, that it could repeat itself in other ways. That they need to be actively aware of the global and environmental issues. And be involved and do something. It's not just about earning money and being in a comfortable cocoon.


'India had never seen anything like Bhopal'

REWIND: Finding Bhopal gas tragedy's Warren Anderson

When Doomsday was upon Bhopal

The Bhopal gas tragedy: 30 years on

How 1984 changed the lives of women in Bhopal

How $ 37.68 a day could have saved Bhopal

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Vaihayasi Pande Daniel / in Mumbai
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