Banerjee’s photos focus on environment, advocate change
By Alicia Kim
Published on Thursday, January 15, 2009
A herd of caribou roaming over vast Arctic tundra; two indigenous villagers ice fishing; an isolated but lush wetland -- these are not just pretty images, but a reminder of what society may lose if climate change is not addressed, according to renowned photographer Subhankar Banerjee, the studio art department's current artist-in-residence.
Banerjee's photographs are now on display in the Hopkins Center's Jaffe-Friede Gallery.
The exhibit is part of Banerjee's ongoing project, "land-as-home," which focuses on indigenous human rights and land conservation in the Arctic. Banerjee, in a Tuesday evening lecture at the College, said he gained inspiration for this project after a visit to the Canadian Arctic in 2000. After the trip, Banerjee spent seven months in the U.S. Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, taking as many photographs as possible. Soon, however, he felt the need to find a more specific focus for his work, he said.
"I realized that just photographing the Arctic landscape was futile," Banerjee said. "I needed to simplify my motives."
Banerjee chose a limited color palette for his work, which primarily includes dull shades of brown, blue, white and gray.
He said he made this decision to uphold the general perception of the Arctic as a "frozen wasteland of snow and ice" and a "white nothingness."
Banerjee said he aims to close the gap between the Arctic and the rest of the world.
"The Arctic is remote and disconnected from our everyday lives," he said.
By designating whales, caribou, fish and birds -- all migratory animals that travel through the Arctic to other regions -- as his subjects, Banerjee said he hopes to promote the idea of "ecological interconnectedness," a term he used to describe the Arctic's link to less isolated regions.
Banerjee said he used another motif, bent posture, to draw attention to the harvest practices of the Arctic indigenous communities. In the Jaffe-Friede exhibit, two sets of vibrant photos depict villagers who are bent over while ice fishing and hunting caribou.
Banerjee named 19th century French painter Jean-FranÃ§ois Millet, who is noted for his scenes of peasant farmers working in the fields, as a key influence.
Driven by these motifs, Banerjee has expanded his project into a visual exploration of the Arctic's relevance to global issues.
Banerjee collaborated on "land-as-home" with Blue Earth Alliance, a non-profit organization whose goal is to use photography to educate the public about endangered cultures and the social consequences of losing their customs.
Banerjee has worked in collaboration with renowned novelist and nature writer Peter Matthiessen, the Gwich'in and Inupiat communities of Alaska and the Canadian Yukon, and most recently with the Yukaghir and Even communities of Siberia.
"When I first began to interact with the communities, I didn't photograph anything for a long time because I wanted to learn what was important to them and what story they wanted to tell the world," he recalled. "Even though I possess an outsider's point of view, I try to present my subjects honestly and with all their complexity."
Banerjee said he has worked to point out the imminent consequences of the resource wars on indigenous inhabitants. For instance, the Gwich'in have to adapt to decreases in the caribou population due to the conversion of land into oil-drilling sites, as they rely on caribou for food and clothing.
"The Arctic is being distinguished as an energy frontier, which means that it will become a bigger battleground for resource wars," Banerjee said. "If this happens, the climate change dialogue will likely take a back seat."
Through "land-as-home," Banerjee has honed his skill as a photographer for the past eight years, but he has not always been an artist.
After receiving degrees in engineering, physics and computer science, Banerjee worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and for Boeing in Seattle.
When he discovered a love for the wilderness, however, he decided to tap into his childhood passion for art, he said.
As an artist, Banerjee has achieved international attention and acclaim. His photographs have been published in over 100 magazines and newspapers and displayed in 40 exhibits in both the United States and abroad.
Although this is his first time as an artist-in-residence at the Hop, Banerjee said he is no stranger to Dartmouth.
Four of his habitat photographs, taken to highlight battles over the Arctic's resources, were shown in a solo exhibition at the Hood Museum of Art in 2007.
In addition to his photography, Banerjee also lectures on the environment.
In the past, he has spoken at the United Nations, the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels and at numerous universities. He organizes his lectures in conjunction with a non-profit organization, Speak Out: Institute for Democratic Education and Culture, that promotes progressive thinking about domestic and international issues on campuses and in communities.
Above all, Banerjee is an activist and champion for the protection of the Arctic. While his lectures loudly demand immediate action and a change of mindset, his photographs speak quietly through the lives they capture. Stepping into the Jaffe-Friede Gallery, the viewer can see the value of these lives and the need to protect and preserve them.
Banerjee's exhibit can be seen at the Hopkins Center's until Feb. 8. He is an artist-in-residence for the entirety of the 2009 Winter term.