The Eco-Critical Photographer: An Interview With Subhankar Banerjee

homepageimage The Eco Critical Photographer: An Interview With Subhankar Banerjee

It is not novel to say that we are at a critical point in time for our planet, but it bears being repeated until we are all involved in some kind of change. Policy makers, actors, scientists, writers, farmers, students, and engineers–all (and more) have chimed into the global conversation about climate change. Add to the top of that list one very important photographer, Subhankar Banerjee, and a few forward-thinking art historians.

Banerjee’s photographs ask us to reframe the way we look at our environment, by focusing on one eco-system–the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge–and the indigenous tribes, native animals and geological structures that populate it. His work is being celebrated just as art historians are reframing their own critical lens to reconsider art through an “eco-critical” perspective.

When I spoke with Banerjee this past September, he shared with me news of a forthcoming book by art historian Alan Braddock (assistant professor of Art History at Temple University) called “A Keener Perspective: Ecocritical Studies in American Art History.” Included in this work is an essay by Finis Dunaway titled, “Reframing the Last Frontier: Subhankar Banerjee and the Visual Politics of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.”

Banerjee took the time to speak with me about his work–the themes he explores, his approach and the good friends he has made along the way.

Visit www.subhankarbanerjee.org for more about the artist.

Alexandra Tursi: You started your career as a computer programmer. What hastened the switch to photographer?

Subhankar Banerjee: It’s hard to give a short answer to that. My life has very much followed a zigzag path. I was born and grew up in India. My granduncle was a painter so I was introduced to painting when I was thirteen years old.

Growing up where I was–West Bengal in India–I was surrounded by other arts. Cinema was a big thing for me, as were poetry and literature. Having grown up in a middle-income family, though, I pursued a career that would provide an income. Aspiring to be an artist wasn’t in my mind.

I came to the United States and completed science degrees, but even in New Mexico, where I went to graduate school, I got to thinking about the land, and picked up a camera on my own–nothing complex, a simple 35mm single-reflex lens. I was hiking and backpacking along the Southwest and taking pictures along the way. Then, I went to Seattle, got involved in photo clubs in the Pacific Northwest and took trips with mountaineers, and also on my own, building my photographic process along the way.

Then, a point came: either I take the jump now, or I probably never will. And I did. I left a comfortable job with Boeing. It was not an overnight decision, though. It was more of a long, subconscious separation as I got more comfortable with photography and felt ready.

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AT: Do the sciences and your prior studies before make their way into your work at all?

SB: Neither physics not computer science enters my work in any sense, but science plays a vital role in my work in the sense that I primarily work in the realm of cultural and human ecology. It’s a field of science, and it is also a field of the humanities. From the beginning of the Arctic Project, I’ve been in very close contact with the scientists who work in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. That is how science enters my work, but it stops there. I don’t want the work to have that scientific, rational mind, or sort of neutrality of observation, viewer objectivity–all of those things I reject.

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AT: What was it like when you made your first trip to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?

SB: It was one of those things where I thought I had prepared myself, but the first day it was 40 degrees below zero. Robert Thompson (now a good friend) said: “Let’s go for a walk.” Then, in the evening we went to Erie Island, a small Barrier Island. The wind starting blowing at 30, 40, 50 miles per hour and the wind chill dropped to 90, then 100 below zero. And I was like, “What the hell am I doing here?” I thought I had really gotten myself in over my head. I couldn’t see three feet in front of me, and I was contemplating going back to Seattle. I wasn’t prepared for the harshness. My friend said, “Don’t worry. Things will get much worse, but you will survive.” I trusted my life to Robert and now, nine years later, we are good friends, who have been to Siberia together for a Vanity Fair article.

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AT: How long are you in the field for when you’re doing your work?

SB: It all depends. When I started in 2001, I was there [in the Arctic] for seven months. In 2002, I was there for seven months. Now, of course I’m married and the other thing is that it is extremely expensive to work in the Arctic. When I get a little funding, I do a little bit of work and come back. When I was there in 2006, I spent three months there. In 2007, I spent a month in the Arctic and one month in Siberia. It has become an issue of funding.

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AT: From a technical standpoint, what are the challenges and concerns that you run into when you’re photographing?

SB: That part is kind of simple. All of my cameras are completely mechanical; there isn’t even a light meter in the camera. These are really old, mechanical medium-format cameras, so you still get a very large shot. I have a light meter that stays inside my parka so it can operate. There is no battery or anything to deal with because in such cold weather these things don’t work.

The only technical challenge then becomes that film becomes very brittle in such conditions. Anytime it goes 50 below or colder, it snaps very quickly. You have to be careful when you’re winding or loading the film. It becomes a very arduous task. In Siberia, where we were is technically the oldest uninhabited place on earth; in January it goes to 98 below. I broke a lot of film. Just loading one load of film is a huge chore. And when you load one, then you’re working and you snap it, pretty much the day is done.

Otherwise, the camera is happy in the cold.

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AT: How is the work you did in Siberia different or similar to the work you did in Arctic?

SB: What we [with Robert Thompson] did in Siberia was spend time with two indigenous communities: the Yukaghir and the Even. The story [for Vanity Fair] was very interesting: this was the first significant article to come out in the West about climate change in Russia. The writer did his thing. He went months before me. My focus was to create something very intimate.

Whereas in Alaska, the people are hunters, in Siberia they are herders. Herding is a totally different concept: there are reindeers that travel and the people travel with them. They are traveling 1000-2000 kilometers in a year cycle. We were in one of those communities and seeing very similar climate change impact even though officials in Moscow were not only denying that climate change is an issue in Russia, they were proving the point that there is climate cooling. As soon as we got there, everything changed. They are experiencing severe impact like the people of Alaska: melting, icing. There are a lot of similarities.

Then, the other community is the oldest Siberian indigenous community, and they are hunters. They were ice fishing in winter. They are also seeing similar changes: it’s pouring earlier and freezing later–it makes travel more treacherous. Siberia is like Alaska fifty years ago.

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AT: Could you discuss your three motifs–color, certain wildlife, and the bent posture?

SB: I’m not a documentarian, and I realized fairly early on that I cannot document the Arctic–the land is far too vast and there are far too many things going on. With time, I figured out that I just needed a few simple conceptual conceits that I could then follow through to develop a set of ideas. The North is so misrepresented in our society–how we think about it, how we relate to it. I wanted to challenge these misconceptions. These motifs grew out naturally.

The first is color: most people think of the Arctic as just snow and ice, and ice and snow. It’s far more than that. There is a remarkable diversity of color. This became a motif as a means to understand ecology as well as a motive to challenge the snow/ice idea. It is very subtle and simple–brown and blue, grey and blue. The color guides you to look at the land differently.

There is a political motive as well. People think of the Arctic as way the heck out there–it’s remote, it has nothing to do with my life, why would I care about it? Then I got to thinking, oh my goodness, it’s possibly the most connected land on earth. I began to define this global connectedness and local and regional connectedness in terms of the species that migrate there from all over the world. Then, I realized a toxic connection: as the birds migrate, the toxins migrate as well and end up in the Arctic ecology so the Arctic peoples and animals have become extremely polluted because of that, primarily in Greenland and in the High Canadian Arctic, but it’s beginning to happen everywhere. It’s a tragic connection.

But there is something else–I wanted to develop the idea of local and regional connectedness. Caribou and whales–these animals migrate a great distance, several thousand miles. Their migration connects with dozen of indigenous communities, creating a local and regional food harvest. That’s where the motif of select wildlife comes from: birds, caribou, whales and fish.

The bent posture is the cultural work. I wasn’t interested in journalistic voyeurism, I was interested in learning what these people saw as being threatened by the dominant culture–whether it’s oil drilling or climate change or what have you. What they feel is most threatened is the subsistence harvest practices, because that’s where their food comes from. The meat is a critical and significant component of their diet (80 percent). In the Lower 48, we’ve become so disconnected from our food–our meat is plastic shrink-wrapped, and we don’t know where the hell is comes from.

The bent posture is also more of an aesthetic concept. My wife introduced me to the French painter Jean-Francois Millet, and I studied Millet’s work extensively. Some of his work deals with this same posture. Millet had a peasant background and studying his work you can see what deep engagement can lead to. I look at the bent posture as a contemporary idea, it is something that has disappeared from our consciousness, and we just sit down all the time. It is a political statement: the disappearance of the posture has led to social injustices.

All in all, it’s not romanticizing a remote culture, it’s actually commenting on our contemporary food practices.

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AT: Children are so connected via the Internet. What is the detriment to their lack of connection to their local culture and local ecology?

SB: That is a key part of my work. That’s why I said that my life journey, everything that I’ve gone through is becoming relevant to the work I do now. Growing up, I would play in the mud and pond and these things. I didn’t have the money to buy toys and all that. The Internet is great: kids are connecting across the planet and knowledge is being shared, but we have become severely disconnected. There’s that book that came out called “Last Child in the Woods.”

It’s not even just to nature, because when you’re so connected with video games and everything, you live in this fantastical reality, later it becomes difficult for us to care about anything “out there.” Because of that, one person whose work I’ve been really inspired by is Gary Paul Nabhan, who wrote “Coming Home To Eat.” For kids, there is so much out there to be excited about that it is kind of a loss that they aren’t. The dangers are health problems, food problems, and social isolation.

AT: How did your relationship with Peter Matthiessen start?

SB: I was a kind of like a groupie for him, traveling around and listening to his talks. Then, I met him and invited him to come to the Arctic. I did have some inside information: everyone told me that the only way you can lure him is good fishing so I let him know that there would be good fishing up in the Arctic.

Now, he and I have become extremely close, like family. So far we’ve done three trips together to the Arctic in 2002, 2006 and 2007. I can’t think of anyone who can combine the idea of natural ecology and indigenous human life better than Peter Matthiessen.

AT: What are you working on together now?

SB: The idea is that the Arctic Project will eventually be published as a book and Peter will do the main writing. He will put in his essays, etc. I’m hoping he gets the Nobel Prize this year! His magnum opus came out last year. It’s very exciting. We have an ongoing collaboration.

AT: Would you call yourself an artist or an activist or both?

SB: As the years go by, I think about this more and more. To call myself an activist is disingenuous because I work with people who are true activists, like Robert Thompson.

Having said that, more and more I think of myself as an artist, and I get involved with activism in cycles and as necessary. I’ve been writing recently about human rights as it relates to legal suits brought up by the indigenous tribes. We’ve won some of these cases. I travel to DC to meet with lobbyists. I’m more an artist and educator.

AT: What else inspires you, artistically and otherwise?

SB: My influences come from diverse sources. Lately, it has primarily been the writings of historians like Karl Jacoby, a contemporary historian and revisionist historian of indigenous issues [at Brown University]. Also ecologists–people who study issues of food, such as Gary Paul Nabhan. And there are writings in the field of eco-criticism that pull from history, ecology, and philosophy. All are very influential on my work.

I like older art. Color is a huge part of what I do so Millet, Brueghel, John Constable are inspirations. I study these painters to better understand color. There are contemporary photographers who I really respect like Robert Adams and Nan Goldin, whose work I truly revere though it is very different from my own.

It’s the deep engagement that I like. Photography for the past decades has become such a disengaged medium of objectivity, a neutrality of observation. I’m not interested in objectivity. When I look at the work of Nan Goldin, it’s all about engagement, she is deeply engaged with her subjects. She also photographs what she knows. There is a sense of emotive possibility in her work. Everyone called Robert Adams boring for the longest time. Again with him, there is that sense of engagement. I don’t think he went into that camp of complete objectivity.

AT: What’s next for you? What are you working on now?

SB: Since 2006, I’ve been doing a project in the five-mile radius around my home. I just walk and photograph. The title of the project is “Where I Live I Hope To Know.” It’s already become possibly more significant than my Arctic work. It started simply with some walks and it has grown and grown to now involve the documentary potential of photography and the fictional potential of language. So photography and language are equally important. I’m looking to build the story of the American Desert, a story that we’ve never heard of, set in a suburban setting.

What is happening is that this project and the Arctic project are becoming one and the same. The two things that grew out of the new project are the idea of land providing human food and the diversity of wildlife. They are not really different at all, though they are different on an aesthetic level, which is exciting for me. I didn’t know it would lead me back here.

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