Miranda Gavin | Photobook Review #4
Photobook Review #4:
Bhopal: Facing 30 by Francesca Moore
For this month, I have selected Photofusion member Francesca Moore’s self-published book Bhopal: Facing 30, a book that also supports an exhibition running until 4 December at Photofusion in London. After last month’s choice of books with little or no text, this month’s choice has substantial texts.
Bhopal: Facing 30 is a labour of love—you can feel it in every page, see it in every portrait, and notice it in every carefully considered detail. For those who are unfamiliar with Bhopal, twenty-seven tonnes of a poisonous gas, methyl isocyanate (MIC), began leaking from a storage tank in the Union Carbide pesticide plant on 2 December 1984 in India because not one of the six safety systems designed to contain a leak was operational.
Moore’s photographic project is presented in two parts and originates in the aftermath of the Bhopal disaster: one section is a series of thirty portraits of families who were in Bhopal at the time and now live in slum areas outside the enclosed site where they continue to be affected by severe contamination. The second part is a page-by-page continuous strip of small photos depicting the entire boundary wall that was built to enclose the polluted Union Carbide site. These images are preceded by two texts; an introduction by Satinath Sarangi, an ‘outside activist’ who is now the Managing Trustee of the Sambhavna Trust Clinic, Bhopal, and the second, an extensive personal account by Moore detailing the extent of the disaster and her working process.
The reader is thus taken on a journey that interweaves social anthropology—each portrait is accompanied by captions detailing the first name, gender, and age of the sitters as well as the location of the family in1984 and in 2014—environmental concerns, and traditional portraiture. For Bhopal: Facing 30, Moore has embarked on a rigorous reconstruction of colonial portrait photography familiar from the days of the British Raj, which she researched at the V&A photography collection, alongside Indian portraits produced in a local studio in the region in the 1950s. Using these images, which spoke of wealthy elites and the aspirations of middle-class Indians, Moore scrutinised the group portraits for signifiers of customs, hierarchies and traditions that she could reference in her own portraiture.
There is a palpable social conscience permeating the project as Moore grapples with the various decisions she had to make regarding how she photographed the families living beyond the boundary wall and the use of the collective pronoun ‘we’ in the pull quotes credits the assistance of her partner Lorenza. The deep red Zardosi-embroidered material, Muslim in origin and design, that folds across the front and back cover of the book provides the backdrop for the family portraits and is a key element, alongside two King chairs and a borrowed “bourgeois carpet”, used by Moore to dress the dusty, make-shift studio. All of the families, bar one, are Muslim and were invited to the studio wearing “their best clothes, as if for a wedding or a celebration”.
Using the same environment and point of view for each portrait thus allows the viewer to scrutinize the poses and clothes of each sitter for similarities, differences and the subtlest of nuances in body and facial gesture. The placement of the sitters’ hands is one such element, as is the choice of footwear; some people are wearing shoes, some sandals, some socks while others are barefoot. All the portraits are placed on the right-hand pages of the book with the accompanying captions on the left. In one family portrait, Munni B f/45, husband died 8 years ago, Resham f/8, mother and daughter occupy the same King chair, hands on lap, looking directly into the camera, leaving one chair empty indicating a poignant absence that is in contrast to the largest family portrait of twenty people.
In total Moore photographed 208 families, and although not all could be included in the main section of the book, each family received an 8×12 inch print to take home, and the inner front and back cover is given over to a grid of smaller images of every family photographed. Moore’s approach is one of respect toward her sitters while at the same time informing the audience as to the ongoing breadth and depth of the chemical disaster. This is evident in the use of vertical blue and red strips running the length of the page edge denoting gas and water contamination respectively—which is further evidence of the scope of the photographic project and of a confidence in using visual language to convey socially-driven messages through elements such as colour, maps, and point of view.
The wall enclosing the site is shot from the perspective of a six or seven-year-old child and, as such, it suggests a forbidden or secret place beyond the wall, a symbol, reminiscent from a Western cultural background, found in children’s stories such as Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden and Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant. The holes in the wall through which children climb to the enclosed patches of green grass where they can play cricket only adds to this association. The statistics and quotes that are spread throughout the book highlight Moore’s fascination with the demographics and the lives of the people she met as well as her methodological and scientific approach. Rich in detail and colour, Moore has co-opted the tradition and style of formal portraiture for those who are more often photographed destitute and in situ by outsider documentary photographers and photojournalists.
Moore’s book, which was published with the support of the Arts Council England, has an artistic and educational appeal and will hopefully raise awareness of the Bhopal disaster for a new generation. With a first print run of 100, Bhopal: Facing 30 is available in three limited editions and is a heartfelt and emancipatory testament to a fierce determination to represent the people who were, and who continue to be, affected by the disaster as dignified, resilient and strong individuals, as survivors not victims.
Foreword by Satinath Sarangi
217mm x 275mm landscape, 152 pages, hardback
First Edition 100 copies
Standard Book £45;
Limited Edition £75 (30 of 100); Limited Edition £120 (10 of 30, with enclosed 8 x 12 c-type print)
This book accompanying the exhibition was produced to commemorate the 30th Anniversary of the Bhopal disaster and is available from the gallery throughout the exhibition.
10% of the book’s sale price will be donated to the Bhopal Medical Appeal