‘Whether It’s Photography Or Activism, It Requires Involvement’: In Conversation With Ravi Agarwal

Posted on December 9, 2014 in Environment

By Abhishek Jha:

“Whether it’s photography or activism, it requires involvement. If you want to be a good photographer, then you must familiarise yourself with photography. If you want to make a change through activism, then you must know the subject you want to create quite well. So it requires some learning, but both require passion and some dedication.”

Not anyone with a camera is a photographer. Photography, like any other art, is a way of understanding life. And understanding comes through experience. Several people toyed with the camera obscura before Niépce brought the first photograph to us. But we have come a long way from Niépce and Daguerre’s photography and the camera itself is very accessible today. The technicalities can be learnt, acquired, and assimilated. The question then arises of the subject. The photograph not only captures but also transforms, adds perspective, brings to light. What is captured thus becomes very important.

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Activist and photographer Ravi Agarwal, Founder-Director of Toxics Link, an environmental NGO is someone who uses the photographs’s memory and perspective to foreground questions of ecology. Raising and answering questions through the power of his lens, an author of several books, Ravi co-curated Project Y: A Yamuna-Elbe Public Art and Outreach Project initiated by the Ministry of Culture, Hamburgh in 2011. His works have also been featured in exhibitions at India Habitat Centre (New Delhi), CACSA (Adelaide), GRIMMUSEUM, etc among many other places.

Here, in a quick chat with Youth Ki Awaaz, with and through his photographs, he tells us more – about the power of the lens, ecological questions that face us all, and the way in which cooperative action can save the planet.

 What do you say to the skeptics who say there is no global climate change happening, that it’s a constructed myth to drive attention away from more pressing issues?

I think people who have actually experienced it don’t say it. People who have been reading it and try to form an opinion say it. For example, if you ask the people living on the Arctic, they know that the ice is melting, they know that the polar bear is having difficulty in migration, they know that the fish stock is changing. So, I think, for people who are disconnected, it’s a debate for them. But people who actually experiencing it, for them it’s the reality.
And I think belief and knowledge come through experience. Even if you are a photographer, you can’t photograph if you are not there. You cannot photograph in your head. You have to go and take pictures. You have to be in the spot. So experience is key both to photography and to good activism. Otherwise it’s just hollow words.

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 You curated PROJECT Y: A Yamuna-Elbe Public Art and Outreach Project. What different end did you achieve curating it vis-à-vis your other works? Did you see people’s perception change after this work?

The idea of doing it on the river was conceived because everybody thinks that the river is very dirty. They have never been to the river. The idea was to take people there because it helps people to understand things. It (the river) has people living on it, it has biodiversity, it has birds, it has all kinds of flora and fauna. And the idea was that people should come and experience it and then you can see the various dimensions of it. People were able to connect back with nature.

 Did you see people understand the river as a natural place that should be left as pristine?

When you go out and actually experience it, then you at least have a chance of understanding it. People who came there also thought that they would never have gone to the river otherwise. But they came because of what was happening there and they were surprised at (knowing) that they have a river like this in the city. So that’s a starting point. Because functionally even the water comes from the river. If we desecrate nature it essentially affects us back in our life. And slowly you understand it more and more and try to link your connections to it.


How do you see an emotional attachment play a role in transforming rivers into an ecological space from being economic capital?

Emotional attachment we all have to different things, but sometimes it also becomes the reason for understanding something. And I think if you really understand something, you’ll understand that there is not much difference between ecology and economy. For example, if you know that where the construction cement comes from or (where) the Yamuna sand comes from and how the Yamuna is mined then you will also think: ‘Do I need to mine so much? Do I need to use this so much?’ Ecology and economy is both centred in you. Sustainability starts from the self. Dichotomy is when you start thinking of something as outside, as something that doesn’t affect you. Both affect you.

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Governments often cite pollution reports to displace existing settlers on rivers and build new planned settlements there. How do we answer them?

I think governments don’t reflect agenda which are not ours. What they say is actually what we want. So, you know, it is also our lack of awareness. When there is a water stress situation, then obviously water becomes a political issue because we want water. So we want the governments to provide us water.

In London, the Thames was very dirty and it was stinking. So when people couldn’t stand the stink, they didn’t want it and so the government had to act. We can’t blame them from the outside. It has to start with you, start with our awareness, with our recognising what the problem is.

And regarding displacement, you have to be fair in what you do. If you are looking at the greater common good and taking somebody’s life underway, then there must be ways to compensate and be fair to that person. When you start being unfair, then it becomes that thing: ‘I don’t care what happens to you but I will look after myself’. That becomes something which should not be acceptable to anybody in a decent society. So I think fairness and equity is the key to all actions. So long as we are fair, then I can find ways of activism to promote cooperative action.

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We understand that these people are to be compensated but there is also a relationship that exists. How do we protect this particular relationship that they have with the place and the river?

In a democratic setup you have to first ask the people. There are enough systems in our country where decision making has evolved. People have a say in the decisions that affect their lives. So there has to be some conversation and some cooperation. It (the authority) cannot just force it (a decision) down somebody’s throat. All options have to be explored.

For example, in many water issues, we have not explored the issue of water conservation. We always think of getting more water from somewhere but we are wasting so much water. So people have to start using them as scarce resources. In Delhi you find some people who get 300 litres of water per day and some who get 0. You don’t need more than 100 litres per day. So then there is a problem in the way you are distributing the water. Then you say you want to create a water treatment plant; but you are already wasting the water that you already have! Delhi has some of the highest amount of water that any city can have per capita, but you still have a water shortage. If you look at what the real problems are, you’ll find that we have a better cooperative way of moving forward.

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The current government is clearly keen on cleaning up the Ganga. The Ganga Action Plan is being given teeth. A new ministry has been assigned the job. Does that imply a similar plan for Yamuna in the near future?

Yamuna already has this interceptor canal that has been built. So there is already a lot of money spent on the Yamuna. Ganga Action Plan comes under the National River Conservation Directorate. The Ganga is a national river. Learning should follow to other places. We are still waiting for the government to declare what it is going to do.

Also, the Delhi elections are coming up. Can we expect something for Yamuna as well, because a lot of eyes are on these elections?

With Yamuna the main problem is there isn’t water flow. After Hathni Kund, the river is dry. There is a lot of wastage there. So we need to be a little more conscious of how the water is used. We need water management in all sectors. You need to ensure a minimum water flow. And right now the whole concentration has been on treatment, pollution treatment. But pollution treatment is not enough because without water there is no river. So they might clean some of the drains but the problem of water flow still needs to be sorted out.

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As the United Nations Climate Change Conference comes again to its formal end in Lima this week, we have an important question to ponder upon. Who is to save the ecology? The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report has a clear mandate for the policymakers. They must act. But as Ravi tells us, they respond to our demands. Questions of ecology must be raised by us. Now.