Anshu Gupta was standing on top of a small mountain of rubble in Nepal, shortly after the devastating 2015 earthquakes that measured 7.8 on the Richter scale, when he noticed a man on a scooter drive towards him. When he stopped, he got off and, without removing his helmet, slowly walked towards a three-storey building that had collapsed. Suddenly, he frowned at the sky and limply crossed his arms. That moment of despair compelled Gupta, who was there to aid in relief work, to raise his camera and record the moment. Later, he would find out that the man was a resident of this building and was seeing it for the first time since the earthquake.
But Gupta, in his many years of social entrepreneurship through the award-winning work of Goonj, a Delhi-based NGO operating in 27 states, is not interested only in documenting distress. In the same earthquake, he photographed a girl pretending to ride a stone lion that had dislodged from its pillar and fallen on the ground. In the 2008 Bihar floods, he photographed villagers helping each other cross a water-choked stretch of land on stilts. In 2018, he saw cots floating on water outside a Kerala home destroyed by floods — those cots had been brought out by the house’s residents — and photographed them to memorialise a “symbol of hope”, of the human resolve to move on from disaster.
Such moments, and many more chosen from over two decades of Goonj’s efforts to provide relief to disaster-struck areas, are now displayed till Tuesday at India Habitat Centre in an exhibition titled ‘Witnessing Disasters’.
“It’s a matter of regarding the ignored places,” he says of how he chooses his subjects: sometimes an individual, a place, or a stray uprooted tree. “It’s always a question of how to deal with what has happened, all while holding a 10 kg bag of rice. People often think our role ends with distributing relief material. But it’s not just a material solution that’s important, there’s an emotional part to it as well.”
Through over 60 curated photos, Gupta aims to narrow the distance that people feel from pictures of pain and deprivation.
“Disasters take away a person’s dignity,” he says. “Society looks at a disaster like an event – we react to, we help, but eventually everyone forgets. Collecting big data and spreading relief material is fine, but we have to remember when a disaster strikes, people lose decades of work, what families have built over generations is gone, kids stop going to school. After a disaster, affected people may only be talked about as refugees. Such photos help as their stories are not so distant.”
Gupta believes that broadcasting explicit or graphic imagery — a practice he finds the media guilty of — isn’t the way to generate empathy. “The way the Ukraine-Russia war or the current situation in Gaza has been reported… would you like your kid or parent to see something like that? We need to bring out a human angle to such events, and not just with a camera or picture… This exhibition exists [without dead bodies] to bring you closer to such conflicts and show you how recovery follows.”