Rewinding back into the nostalgic 1990s – from where and when it started. In my early years when I was 6, my father once asked me to narrate a story to my family. He said, “Beta tising do aam kahani me.” (Son, today you will tell us a story)
I was only too excited, and said, “Baba aanj do Chirip Charang Charang Charang Chirip Charang Charang wala kahani yenj.” (Father, I will tell the story of Chirip Charang one)
It was a story about a sparrow which I would usually hear from my father before going to bed. I somehow managed to tell my favourite story in broken words and at the end I received a round of applause and a hug in addition from father.
When there was no electricity and no television, storytelling was an important culture of the Adivasis. In fact, it was not just the Adivasis, but this was common in every community. In my family, the wonders of storytelling could be experienced during cold nights when everyone sat around a magical bonfire and listened to stories. The stories which I heard in my childhood are not found in books or in any written records, and even though Adivasis have now stepped into modernization, they have also realized the importance of keeping a record of stories. Hence, they have started to tell stories through different mediums now.
Today, I am an independent photojournalist and am trying to tell stories through images. I want to tell stories which are unheard of, which are not in the limelight, and which are usually ignored by mainstream media.
My main story is about Jadugoda, a land where uranium was first mined in India. I was born and brought up here. I have grown up witnessing radiation hazards in all of Jadugoda and in my neighbourhood as well.
When I was younger, I thought the two nuclear bombs which were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were made from the uranium found in Jadugoda. It always made me feel guilty, as if the lands of Jadugoda was responsible for that incident. If uranium had never been discovered, maybe that incident wouldn’t have taken place.
On August 6, 2002, I first visited Japan to participate in the Hiroshima Day event and in the International Youth Conference. There, I learnt that in the year 1944, uranium mining was done in the Navajo Nation Lands and on Lakota Nations Land in USA for the US military’s Manhattan Project. I realized only then that many problems are much bigger than we actually see them to be.
It is not just the issue of Jadugoda, it is a global issue and the majority of people suffering globally are the Adivasis because uranium deposits are found everywhere in Adivasi land.
Capturing photos had always been my hobby since childhood, but that hobby turned into profession through inspiration and the guidance of very important people in my life.
I first met Shriprakash, a Jharkhand documentary filmmaker in 1996. He is well known for his film ‘Buddha Weeps in Jadugoda.’ He is also the recipient of the prestigious National Award for the film ‘Buru Gara’ in 2008. I was so inspired by him and during my teenage years wanted to become a filmmaker, just like him.
A lot of independent photojournalists visited Jadugoda to write about it. I was enamoured with photography, so I loved being a guide and interpreter to some of them. In 2009, I met Marisol da Silva, a photojournalist from Queensland, Australia. She was my first teacher of photography. Unfortunately, she couldn’t publish her work on Jadugoda, which was disappointing.
Again, a Japanese photojournalist Hajime Kimura came to visit Jadugoda, but he also couldn’t publish his work. Being with them, I understood the importance of visual storytelling and the need of such stories to reach a larger audience. I also learnt that people who know the history of the situation and are aware of the issue will stand with you against the uranium companies and the government.
It was Shriprakash who asked me to photo document families, so I started documenting them to keep a record of the incidents and how radiation affected families. These could be used as stories of evidence that radiation is harmful for the people and environment.
We were always dependent on someone to tell our stories but it was time an Adivasi boy from the community itself told his own story. I believed if I can tell a story at the age of six, then why not now? If outsiders can take photos professionally of Adivasi people, why can’t I do the same – me being from the same community?
In 2013, the 3rd International Uranium Film Festival was held in the capital city of Jharkhand, India. I got the opportunity to display my photos at the festival entitled ‘Jadugoda Unumo Tana: Drowning In Nuclear Greed.’
My photo exhibition was a great success. Marcia Gomes de Oliveira, the founder and executive director and Norbert G. Suchanek, the founder and general director of the Uranium Film Festival had also come for the festival. They appreciated my work and told me right then and there that they would like to have the exhibition in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, but I didn’t expect it would really materialise.
My first break was at the 3rd International Uranium Film Festival. Unfortunately, I couldn’t go to Brazil, but my work was appreciated by the people who saw it there. I became the first Adivasi from Jharkhand to exhibit my photos at an international platform. The exposure which I received led me to more national and international photo exhibitions.
My photos travelled to different regions and institutions of India in 2014, like the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, Films Division Mumbai, Annapurna International School of Film, Hyderabad. Again, I got the opportunity to exhibit my photos in Quebec City, Canada in 2015 at the 5th International Uranium Film Festival, then in Hiroshima, Japan in 2015 and in Osaka, Japan in 2017 and again at the 9th International Uranium Film Festival, 2019.
The exposure which I received made me confident, encouraged me, and kept me motivated to continue my work for a cause whose goal is yet to be achieved.
My dreams for the people of Jadugoda are far from what is reality now. Till then, these are my concerns:
1) The Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) belongs to the public sector which means tax money is used to run the company and the company is using the money to take innocent lives.
2) The villagers need to be rehabilitated to a safer place.
3) There should be a rehabilitation centre for children with physical and mental disabilities, which are often a result of radiation.
4) The mining will not last forever, the resources they are mining for will be exhausted someday. What plans does the government have for the people of Jadugoda then?
5) The tailing ponds where the radioactive waste is dumped in the open, has to be covered by the government completely with concrete. If the deposit of uranium finishes, the company will abandon the place. Who will look after the tailing pond after that? If the tailing pond cracks due to a natural disaster, who will be responsible?
6) There has to be an end to this nuclear cycle. No more uranium mining and no more nuclear weapons. India is not in a state of war, why do we need weapons unnecessarily? Those millions wasted on nuclear warfare could be used for much needed development in the country. If producing electricity is the plan then, I must say, the government lacks quality knowledge about renewable energies.
I began this journey with the intention of sharing my images of the ground reality of how a uranium mine has turned Jadugoda into a nuclear graveyard.
Every hand has a camera in it these days, but its benefits fully depends on how one uses it. I used it to tell a story that the government doesn’t want the public to know. The Indian government would never accept that uranium mining causes radiation which affects human population and the environment, unless people all over the world put pressure on them.
My camera is my weapon, my photos are the bullets. I hope my weapon never gets rusted and my bullets never run out.