Swastik Pal’s The Hungry Tide is a moving documentation of the plight of the Ghoramara islanders. In his statement to this work in progress, Pal writes of how the day he landed at the island, located 150 kilometres south of Kolkata, almost one third of the remaining landmass was inundated by a flash flood. An island that was once twenty square kilometres, has over the last two decades or even lesser, been now reduced to merely five square metres — and Pal’s photographs focus on the plight of its few remaining residents.
“What would you do if you see all that you had in life, sinking right in front of you?”
Pal opens his artist statement with this, in many ways, socratic question – and expands into how this is the everyday existence of the five thousand people still living at Ghoramara; for while most people have fled the island, there are still some who cannot afford to, or do not desire to, migrate. Capturing the lives of these people whose fates are sealed to this island that is gradually being washed away, and doomed to disappearance much like its neighbouring Lohachara that now lies still at the bottom of the river — Pal’s photographs are evocative in their documentation of the disintegrating environment and weighed by a sense of loss that is simultaneously present, as it is impending.
Reproduced below is a short interview with the photographer and a selection from this body of work that was one of three runner ups to the Tasveer-TFA Emerging Photographers Award 2015.
Extract from an interview with Swastik Pal, by Shilpa Vijayakrishnan
The title ‘The Hungry Tide’ evokes and references Amitav Ghosh’s poignant novel of course – how do you see it particularly resonating with both your work and your experience of the Sunderbans?
I read “The Hungry Tide” several years before I ended up photographing this island in the Sunderban Deltaic region. As a novel it affected me immensely, and the intense visual imagery which comes across in the author’s writing evoked an interest in this remote delta region.
While reading limited my experience, but fuelled my curiosity, the real journey taught me several life lessons. Working in such difficult terrain with minimum resources, with some extremely brave islanders, grounded and humbled me.
The terrain ensures that the only way to survive is to love, share and care.
A lot of your images feature children, is there any particular reason you were drawn to them as subjects – in light of their contexts?
This was entirely unplanned; when the water comes in, it’s very difficult to keep track and shoot exactly the way one would want to. Everyone runs to save their lives and livestock.
However, several portraits do feature young children, which I feel functions as a reminder of the vulnerability of the future ahead; living in a sinking island with regular threats of inundation that affect their health and education, it is the children with a fragile future.
Do you frame your work within an ‘activist’ idiom? Is the fact that it draws attention to environmental and social problems deliberate; or do you tend to not in fact to approach your work within such a construct?
I don’t consider myself as a social activist/environmental crusader in the proper sense of the word, as I do have a problem with the apparent concept of “this will change the world forever”. However, I am not against honest activism. It comes easily for some people, but for me the parameters of honesty and interest have to be defined.
I consider myself a photographer willing to work in various levels of society, and sensitivity and honesty are the primary tools for me. My work exists within society and if it acts as a catalyst to bring about activism/change, it serves as a bonus; though personally, I perceive honesty to be the biggest kind of activism.
What are you currently working on? And what are your plans for the future?
I am currently working on “The Hungry Tide” and would like to give it some more time. I am an impulsive, unplanned photographer, so the future as of yet, remains uncharted.