Subhankar Banerjee’s documentary photography of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska is a prime example of the impact art can have on politics. Banerjee’s photography is fundamentally tied to biology, politics, academics, and human rights. By capturing the Arctic landscape and the people who populate it as they are, and not how many Americans imagine them to be, Banerjee is doing the vital work of showing and telling audiences (including the U.S. government) about the impact prospects like oil drilling and sustained air pollution can have on the Arctic and the indigenous peoples who live there.
We have the honor of displaying highlights from his journey to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska in between 2000 and 2007, part of his Arctic series. The ANWR is one of the most biologically diverse conservations in the Arctic, and it also happens to sit on top of an estimated 16 billion barrels of recoverable crude oil. Banerjee’s Arctic series played a critical role in the conversation about art and environmentalism in the early 2000s during the George W. Bush administration. In 2003, Senator Barbara Boxer used Banerjee’s photographs on the Senate floor as evidence against drilling in the ANWR and managed to sway enough votes to temporarily stall oil development plans. Shortly after, when the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History ran an exhibition of his work, it chose to remove Banerjee’s accompanying wall text. These captions, which explain the geopolitical significance of the otherwise unassuming photographs, are just as much a part of his work as the photographs themselves. The incident sparked an international conversation about censorship, resulting in a Senate hearing in which the Smithsonian defended its actions by stating that the exhibition contained pro-conversation messages and that it could not take sides. The uncensored exhibition traveled to nineteen museums across the U.S. in its wake.
Banerjee’s photographs and accompanying captions retaliate with quiet strength against characterizations of the Arctic as a barren frozen wasteland or, conversely, as a romanticized, untouched (read: unpeopled) landscape. Banerjee presents this place that exists only in imagination for so many of us exactly as it is, utilizing unexpected color, perspective, and subject matter.
The three photosets in the Arctic series are broken down by color: white, green/gray, and brown. According to Banerjee, this was a conscious effort to dispel the misconception that the Arctic is all snow and ice. When we see the green Teshepuk Lake wetland of Known and Unknown Tracks and its reddish, muddy counterpart, Brant with Snow Geese and Chicks, we get a surprisingly colorful picture of the Arctic ecosystem. Notably, there is no dramatic lighting here to heighten our sense of wonder, only the gray overcast of a cloudy day.
As Kelley E. Wilder notes in her essay “Resource Wars,” it is significant that many of Banerjee’s works are taken from an aerial perspective. “Aerial photography is the language of war,” she writes, as well as the language of science. We look down on things we want to master, as colonial explorers surveyed lands they believed was their God-given destiny to occupy. But we also look down on things we want to examine closely, like specimens under a microscope, in order to learn something new. Banerjee’s aerial photographs have a sense of abstraction and detachment, as if he is presenting these images to us for our observation. His photographs that are taken from the ground depict indigenous people doing what they must to survive, like fishing or the bloody task of butchering a caribou (Gwich’in and The Caribou). These photos serve as an intentionally sharp contrast to the aerial shots, juxtaposing an aesthetically pleasing, detached view of the land with one that shows the biological, cultural, and spiritual dependence of indigenous peoples upon the land.
Perhaps more important than color and perspective is the geopolitical subject matter of the photographs, revealed to viewers in Banerjee’s explanatory captions. The icy translucence in Caribou Migration I anticipates the degradation of the landscape. The ice appears thin and could prove dangerous to the migrating caribou who cross it. The thinning of the ice caps has been found to directly correlate with carbon emissions, coming mostly from major industries. As the state of ice caps is jeopardized due to global warming, so too is the survival of the caribou. Known and Unknown Tracks from the Oil and the Geese series challenges widespread perceptions of Arctic imagery. Instead of an icy tundra, Banerjee presents us with a grassy expanse. Although Arctic National Wildlife Refuge regulations prevent human interference on the land, the visible tire tracks reveal early stages of the destructive mining of natural resources. As the ice melts away, shady practices are exposed and ethics are called into question.
While much of Banerjee’s photography is informed by his scientific background and activism, he is also influenced by the work of artists that came before him. Perhaps most apparent are the parallels between Banerjee’s photography and those of American 20th century environmental photographer Ansel Adams. Both artists’ works manifest feelings of solitude and contemplation, yet are anything but stagnant. Adams’ photographs capture massive amounts of scenery. The focus of his images is not on detail, but rather on the environment as a whole. The two artists’ approaches differ in that whereas Banerjee’s carefully considered color sets and aerial perspective strive to normalize the Arctic, Adams’ stark contrasts of black and white create drama and inspire a sense of awe. Adams’ fascination with Yosemite National Park motivated him to be a strong advocate for conservationism while Banerjee’s Arctic images have sparked a crucial dialogue around our collective carbon footprint.
In a talk for Engadin Art, an international conference which seeks to connect individuals interested in the intersection of art, architecture, and landscape, Banerjee shared that his practice is about art’s potential “above and beyond its place on the walls of museums and galleries.” Nearly twenty years after they were taken, in a time when scientific fact is dismissed as “fake news,” and in the wake of an alarming UN report on global warming, Banerjee’s work of showing and telling about the Arctic as it is remains critically relevant. The domino effect of these photographs had on the international conversation about the Arctic is proof of how inextricably tied art (and the Arctic) is to everything else. These photographs have been on the Senate floor, have been the subject of academic research, and have been the center of a conversation about censorship. They expose potential human rights issues and challenge our imagined idea of the Arctic. But we can’t let these thoughtful efforts of education be in vain. In Trump-era America, Banerjee has expressed his hope in an energized public to be more politically engaged and informed than ever before, citing the blocking of the Dakota Access Pipeline at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation as a sign of more victories to come. The fight will be hard, but he’s done this before.
By Kathryn Hornyak and Anne Muscat, Fordham University
Born in rural Berhampore, India in 1967, artist, writer, former physicist, and activist Subhankar Banerjee began fostering an appreciation for nature from an early age. As a child, his family exposed him to activism, literature, and Indian film. Despite his affinity towards forms of visual expression, Banerjee decided to pursue a degree in engineering at Jadavpur University in Kolkata. He continued his education in the U.S., earning two master’s degrees in physics and computer science from the New Mexico State University.
During Banerjee’s time in New Mexico, he began taking photographs of his surroundings on a 35mm camera, and later, documented his travels all over the U.S. After a brief stint as an engineer at Boeing, he left to become an artist and environmental activist full-time. His documentary photography of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is inextricably tied to ecology, politics, academics, and indigenous rights. Banerjee’s photography played a critical role in the conversation about art and environmentalism in the early 2000s, famously being presented on the Senate floor by Senator Barbara Boxer as evidence against drilling in the Arctic during the George W. Bush administration.
Between 2010 and 2012, Banerjee edited and published an anthology on the Arctic, Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point, comprising thirty–nine essays and testimonies by indigenous cultural activists, scientists, and writers accompanied by sixteen different artists’ photographs and drawings. Through visual art and writing, the collection calls attention to a vanishing landscape and narrows the gap between the Arctic and the rest of the world.
photo courtesy of the artist