How Environmental Photo-Journalist Arati Kumar-Rao Is Telling A Dire Tale Through Stunning Images Of The Subcontinent

"The Cauvery waters crisis is a classic example of this syndrome."

16/09/2016 12:01 PM IST | Updated 17/09/2016 10:33 AM IST
Arati Kumar-Rao

Beyond the clamour of the Cauvery waters crisis — the bickering between two state governments, the toxic identity politics, the vandalism of public property, bandhs and violence — there's a story that's seldom told, even though it is at the heart of the turmoil. It is the story of vanishing water resources.

For the past several years, Arati Kumar-Rao has been documenting riverine ecologies, making long trips to the Sunderbans, following the course of the Ganga, travelling down the Cauvery to the Bay of Bengal, and recording the stories of the people and landscape sustained by these rivers.

Indeed, her multimedia practice is best described as "storytelling", which draws in elements of science, journalism and social justice, but remains uniquely faithful to its own character.

"A question I often grapple with is whether my work overlaps with journalism or activism," says Kumar-Rao. "Each of these labels often comes with one point of view, but I don't subscribe to any one way of looking at a situation." As a witness on the ground, she adds, she is always open to multiple ways of looking. "When I go to a place, I try to record and amplify what those affected by a situation say to me."

Arati Kumar-Rao

Kumar-Rao's training as a biophysicist brings a clinical edge to her work, even as her photographs remain aesthetically stunning and her reportage humane and alert to nuances that a purely scientific eye may miss.

Her affinity with environmentalism goes back to her childhood. Her father was an avid environmentalist, while her uncle, who worked with the World Bank, often had an opposing perspective on matters the two would argue over, such as the construction of dams. Then there were books, especially those by Wendell Berry, John Steinbeck, Rachel Carson and Barry Lopez, which left a lasting impression on her.

After a Masters' degree in science, some years in the US, and a successful career in the corporate sector, Kumar-Rao quit her job and returned to India to pursue what she really wanted to do: tell underreported stories in detail, in a manner that was attractive and accessible to the public.

Her style of storytelling, which is usually slow and long-drawn, befits the nature of her subject: the effect of climate change and environmental degradation on people and landscapes. "Three years into this work, I've realised how disconnected people in the cities are from the source of these issues," says Kumar-Rao. "We are usually fine with paying lip service to the symptom of a problem, afforestation for instance, because its real effects will take a long time to be felt."

It's true, to the average urbanite, a knowledge of climate change is fine as long as it involves reading the latest bestseller on the subject and speaking knowledgeably at cocktail parties.

Arati Kumar-Rao

And this is where Kumar-Rao's combination of visual and textual storytelling comes in.

The indifference that may be bred by the remoteness of the locales, or the threat of a disaster that will take years to precipitate, can be shaken by a compelling narrative. "Most people are receptive to a good story, even though they may be put off by statistics and data," says Kumar-Rao.

The social implications of environmental damage have to be made alive to make people appreciate the enormity of the dangers facing them. In the scale of climate change, one or five or ten years often mean nothing, but that doesn't mean we should be any less worried about it than more immediately tangible challenges to our lives.

"The Cauvery waters crisis is a classic example of this syndrome," says Kumar-Rao. "Every time there is a drought, protests break out, vehicles are burnt, and somehow that becomes the issue of the day." The government leaves crucial matters, such as changing patterns of land use along the river, unattended until it's too late. "You won't be able to tackle a job if you haven't done your homework or if you have allowed the situation to exacerbate to unmanageable levels," she says. "Treating the symptoms, each time there is an eruption of public anger, is not going to wish the larger problem away."

Arati Kumar-Rao

While politicians and policymakers may be impervious to warnings, Kumar-Rao's most eager and engaged audience remains young adults — boys and girls who are on the verge of stepping out on their own into the wider world. "They are not jaded and cynical yet, unlike the grown-ups, and many of them are very excited by photography," she says.

The other major group of audience that follows her work comes from social media. Kumar-Rao has close to 75,000 followers on Instagram, her River Diaries project on Tumblr is extremely popular, as is her work with Peepli, a journalists' collective, which she is a part of, focusing on longform storytelling.

But if social media is an obvious platform to reach out to thousands, it is also marked by a certain unthinking superficiality. It's so easy to "like" a beautiful image anyway, without paying much attention to its darker ironies, before moving on to the next one.

"I'm aware this may be happening, so I vary my work between visual storytelling and longform textual reporting," Kumar-Rao says. "Also, I keep at the kind of work I'm doing. It's not that I'll post about the environment today and about Bollywood tomorrow. So those who follow me do so knowing what kind of work to expect."

Arati Kumar-Rao

As a close observer of environmental change, Kumar-Rao is alert to the predictions of the future. "But I'm not an absolutist, once again thanks to my scientific training," she says. "Instead of blindfolding myself, I like to look at all the available data on the ground before I make up my mind about a certain situation."

Rather than assuming a blanket position on the question of, say, large dams or forestation, she prefers to take an informed view of each case after assessing the facts available to her. And science, so far, has rarely been wrong.

"Bangalore, for instance, gets more rainfall than the amount of water its citizens need," says Kumar-Rao, who also lives in the city. "But what are we doing to harvest that rain water? Are we trying to revive our lakes? No!"

On the contrary, water now needs to be pumped up to cater to the large number of multi-storey buildings that are being built all over the city, for the daily use of the residents and to wash the millions of cars that ply on the roads.

"The demand just keeps mounting and, unfortunately, it's only going to get worse," says Kumar-Rao, as she sets out on her next trip to the Sunderbans.

Arati Kumar-Rao

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