What are we doing? | May 2024

Everything in Their Eyes: 40 Years of Disaster in Bhopal

LBO team members Lynn Wray and Clare Barker have been in Brighton recently visiting ‘Everything in Their Eyes: 40 Years of Disaster in Bhopal’, an exhibition curated by our project partners The Bhopal Medical Appeal and featuring work from the LBO project. Staged at the Phoenix Art Space as part of the Brighton Fringe Festival, the exhibition commemorates the 40th anniversary of the 1984 Union Carbide (UC) gas disaster in December this year, tells the story of the Bhopal gas and water disasters through the eyes of survivors and activists, and showcases the BMA’s impactful campaigns over the last thirty years.

The exhibition starts by going back further than the catastrophic events of 1984 to explore the breathtaking corporate hubris that resulted in disaster in Bhopal. This is evident in the exhibited selection of Union Carbide’s mid-20th century ‘hand of God’ advertisements. These include an advert for Sevin, the pesticide manufactured in the Bhopal factory, and the infamous ‘Science helps build a new India’ ad which positions UC as a benevolent force acting to modernise an ‘ancient’ and backward civilisation. In a powerful juxtaposition, these posters are displayed alongside one of the BMA’s most successful campaigns, ‘Union Carbide, may God forgive you’, creating a dialogue between Carbide’s overbearing (and unknowingly prophetic) claim to have ‘A Hand in Things to Come’ and the voices of survivors narrating the horrors and injustices of the gas disaster. The accusatory second-person address in this campaign – ‘You did not warn us […] You never said you were making poisons […] You […] never treated us as people’ – has the rhetorical effect of putting Union Carbide on trial for its corporate crimes. A technique used frequently by the BMA, this ‘you’ address is particularly effective in calling its readers to action since it turns ‘you’ (the reader, us) into ethical stakeholders, people with responsibility, agency and the capacity to act – in the reader’s case, to donate, volunteer or otherwise support the charity.

A corner of the exhibition space. One wall features a display entitled ‘A Hand in Things to Come’, featuring Union Carbide advertisements surrounding the BMA campaign ‘Union Carbide, May God Forgive You’. The adjoining wall display, ‘A Disaster Waiting to Happen’, includes photographs taken in the Union Carbide factory, testimony from factory workers, and extracts from official documents about health and safety.

In the following sections the BMA use photography, archival material, testimonies from officials and survivors to document the failings in the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal. Raghu Rai’s award-winning photography, quotations from survivors, and BMA campaigns collectively tell the story of the 1984 ‘night that never ends’ and its aftermath. Survivor Leela Bai’s memory of ‘carpets of bodies’ is especially haunting given that the factory was producing insecticides: ‘For a minute, it reminded me of dead insects and dead beetles lying on the roads.’ A series of campaigns and testimonies recounts the devastating health impacts for people in Bhopal: evidence accumulated, as years and decades went by, not only that gas exposure caused genetic damage, affecting survivors’ children and grandchildren, but also that chemicals from the UC factory site, never cleaned up after the gas leak, had contaminated the groundwater supply and were continuing to poison thousands of Bhopali families. The stories of survivor groups’ activism are told in their own words – stories of ordinary people, many of them sick, marching hundreds of miles to confront the Prime Minister in Delhi.

Exhibition wall entitled ‘A Night that Never Ends’, with a large BMA logo above the title. The display features framed black and white photographs of disaster survivors by Raghu Rai, BMA campaign advertisements, and framed and unframed quotations from survivor testimony.

The largest wall in the exhibition is dedicated to the work of care and healing, funded by BMA donors, at Sambhavna Clinic and Chingari Rehabilitation Centre. Rohit Jain’s striking colour photographs of Chingari children with their families convey warmth, love and care, whilst medical illustrator Charlotte Donald Wilson (commissioned by the BMA as part of the LBO project) has contributed intricate, vivid drawings of plants in the Sambhavna medicinal gardens entwined with the organs whose symptoms they help to relieve.

Display on a white wall entitled ‘Together, we Built a House of Healing’, featuring framed and unframed photographs of Sambhavna Clinic, staff and patients. Four framed drawings by Charlotte Donald Wilson depict human organs in black and white, intertwined with colour drawings of plants used in Sambhavna’s medicines.

Our LBO residency with the BMA focused on experimenting with how to adapt their effective long-form storytelling strategies – so powerful in print news media, as this exhibition testifies – to digital media platforms. Over the course of the residency we co-created digital storytelling resources using the accessible platform Shorthand (these are still works in progress and will be launched later in the year). We wanted to place a special emphasis on the story of ongoing groundwater contamination and its health effects to counter the assumption that the Bhopal disaster happened 40 years ago or is in the past; as one BMA poster in the exhibition asserts, ‘Union Carbide’s disaster in Bhopal didn’t just happen in 1984. It began.’ BMA colleagues in Bhopal collected new interviews with people living in water-affected areas, and ‘Everything in Their Eyes’ features extracts from some of these testimonies. They provide important evidence of infrastructural failings – how the supposedly clean water supply pumped into some communities, hard-won through protest and activism, is limited, unreliable and often dirty – as well as evocative sensory descriptions of what it is like to have to drink poisoned water: ‘luminous green’, ‘like you had put green dye into the water’, one resident tells us, ‘it was like you were drinking the factory’.

Three colour paintings by Lynn Wray of the same water pump surrounded by buckets and water vessels. In the first image, green liquid pours from the pump. In the middle image, the pump is not in use and in the third image, the pump has been painted red.

We wanted to amplify these powerful stories with visual representations, and working with the BMA and LBO collaborator Dr Shalini Sharma, we explored ways of representing the water infrastructure and water receptacles in Bhopal: ponds, pipes, tanks, buckets, utensils. Our aim was to capture the systemic issues at stake and to make visible the ‘slow violence’ of groundwater contamination as chemicals abandoned at the factory site and seeping from UC’s solar evaporation ponds make their way into the water supply and into people’s bodies, organs and cells. LBO Research Fellow Dr Lynn Wray explored how sequential drawing might be used as a means of visually communicating the slow, violent impact of water contamination on domestic objects, water infrastructure and bodies over time. Her practice-based research investigated how drawing might be combined with the ‘scrollmation’ features of Shorthand to construct images with care and attentiveness that would prolong the gaze of the viewer and demonstrate respect for the lived experience and everyday evidence of survivors.

Three colour paintings by Lynn Wray of the same handleless bucket, with the second and third images showing increasing levels of erosion and scaly residue on the inside rim.

The resulting sequential drawings and animations show key moments in the history of groundwater contamination: water pumps painted red for danger; new tanks supplying ‘clean’ water which often run dry; the corrosive effects of contaminated water on pots and pans and buckets. Several of these artworks feature in the exhibition along with a triptych of multimedia collages that bring the exhibition narrative full circle: in Wray’s reworking of Union Carbide’s ‘hand of god’ adverts, the huge white hand of corporate power is transplanted to a Bhopal landscape and its pesticide test tube now drips red poison into a solar evaporation pond and on into the Bhopal water supply.

Three exhibition visitors looking at framed artworks and extracts from Bhopal survivors’ stories

The 40th anniversary of the gas disaster, on 2 December this year, will be commemorated in Bhopal and internationally, and media attention to these commemorations will provide many opportunities to raise awareness about the Bhopal gas and water disasters. This exhibition is an important example of the power of storytelling in exposing injustice and promoting care. Our ongoing collaboration with the Bhopal Medical Appeal this year, we hope, will contribute to this collective act of storytelling and remembering, helping to ensure that the gas disaster is not forgotten and that groundwater contamination in Bhopal is recognised as a disaster happening right now, today, and continuing into the future.