IN THE EARLY HOURS OF 3 DECEMBER 1984, clouds of toxic gasses from a runaway chemical reaction started pouring out from a pesticide plant operated by the American multinational Union Carbide in Bhopal. The gasses, many heavier than the surrounding air, stayed close to the ground, and the wind took them southeast, smothering large swathes of the sleeping city. Bhopal was home to approximately 900,000 people at the time; over half a million were exposed to the toxins. By Union Carbide’s count, 3,828 people were killed that night, though other estimates place the number at no lower than eight thousand. The death toll to date is thought to stand at about 25,000. Over 120,000 people still suffer from disorders caused by the disaster, and by industrial pollution at the site, which now stands abandoned. This December marks thirty years since the gas leak, considered the worst industrial disaster in history.
Several officers of Union Carbide’s Indian subsidiary have since been tried and sentenced for their roles in the explosion, and numerous civil and criminal cases against Union Carbide—now owned by the Dow Chemical Company—are still pending before Indian courts. Warren Anderson, the chairman and CEO of Union Carbide at the time of the disaster, never answered charges filed against him; he died this September in the United States, which repeatedly denied requests by Indian officials for his extradition.
The disaster was extensively documented by reporters, photographers and television crews. The most iconic image of the tragedy remains the photojournalist Pablo Bartholomew’s shot, taken in the days after the explosion, of a dead child partly buried under rubble, its mouth half open as a living hand brushes dirt from its ashen face. Thousands of other disturbing images have emerged from Bhopal since, as photographers have documented the continuing social and physiological impacts of the disaster.
The Italian photographer Alex Masi describes those impacts as “Bhopal’s second disaster.” Masi first visited the city in 2009, and returned several times over the next few years to photograph the almost 30,000 people who continue to live around the now abandoned plant. He focuses largely on the many children in these settlements who suffer from severe neurological disorders and physical deformities, produced by years of chemical contamination of the soil and water.
The photographer’s role in such a situation takes on an almost forensic characteristic. Masi believes that “documentary photography ought to be an active catalyst in promoting awareness, political and juridical change, and in fostering action by individuals, NGOs and governments.” His photographs—scenes from the everyday lives and surroundings of children often on the brink of death—serve as testimony of both past and present injustices.
Masi’s images from Bhopal recall the American photojournalist W Eugene Smith’s work in Japan, where in the early 1970s he documented the effects of toxic pollution from a Chisso Corporation chemical factory on the residents of the town of Minamata, in the country’s south. In December 1971, thirteen years before the Bhopal leak, Smith captured what would become a famous image of a young girl affected by severe mercury poisoning and her mother, titled ‘Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath.’ In Minamata, the debilitating effects of toxic poisoning continue to transcend generations, just as they do in Bhopal where the old Union Carbide complex continues to breed death in its shadow.
Correction: The captions for the ninth and tenth images of this photo essay have been corrected in this online version.