BADABON (THE MANGROVE FOREST) : PHOTO BOOK

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The conflict between man and animal has been going on for ages and my project Badabon - The Mangrove forest is an attempt to understand and analyse one such battleground in the backyard of my own ancestral land in the state of West Bengal in India. About 100 kilometres away from the hustle and bustle of the city Kolkata lies Sunderbon - an immense archipelago of islands where nature reigns supreme. The area is tectonically active, geomorphologically fragile and incredibly backward. It is the largest bloc of mangrove forest in the world extending over 9,500 sq. km. This uninterrupted stretch of wilderness is also home to 450 Royal Bengal Tigers - one of the deadliest predators in the world. On the Indian side, about 4.5 million people live around the tidal forest and are continuously pushing the limits of a delicately poised ecology standing on the brink of disaster.

 

On an average about 60-80 people are killed in a face-off with this 225 kilogram beast every year making it the worst case of human-animal conflict in the world. This appetite of human flesh of the tigers in this part of the world can in fact be traced back to the days of the Mughal empire and right through the British colonial rule to September 2014. While there are many theories to explain this aberration, there is no denying the fact that people and the tiger are jostling for space and food here in the wetlands of the Sunderbon delta.  

While the tiger’s endangered status has got global attention, the people have been alienated. Even the main stream and local media follow a similar pattern with the coverage being more tiger centric. Most of the visual imagery including film making has been about the tiger, homing in the fact of its near extinction and a natural calamity looming large. Photographers too have explored the biodiversity of its flora and fauna to a great extent but little work has been done on the 54 of the 102 islands which are inhabited and have been yearning for attention.

 

My endeavour is the fill this gap by bringing forward the issues of the people who have lived under the shadow of the tiger. Their history of constant tussle with the elements of nature and highlight how both the tiger and the people share a similar history of displacement. I was deeply influenced by the work of Alan Sekula in Fish Story and wanted my photo book to be more of a research artefact than anything else.

 

The book Badabon follows a cinematic approach. Firstly it establishes the place by its fragile yet stunning landscape and then traces the region’s history with visual references from local archives. The narrative then moves on to the lives of the people, which is defined by their everyday conflict with the wild elements of nature and then goes on to their blind faith in the supernatural and cult of the tiger-god. The conclusion is derived from a personally conducted survey of 90 people and outlines their aspirations for the future.

 

To establish the region, I have used the technique of panorama photography and the elongated field of view has helped me to portray the vastness of the area to a great extent. To photograph the fragility created by the daily cycle of ebb and tide, an underwater camera was used to capture the process of inundation.

To keep the historical part of the research visually stimulating it was imperative to use archival images and archeological artefacts. The integration of paintings by local artists helped to represent the region’s history through the eyes of its own people adding a new dimension to the Badabon project.

 

It is essential to mention photographers like Alison Joyce and GMB Akash whose work on tiger-victims on the Bangladeshi side of the delta has inspired me immensely, to take up this project. In addition, Sophie Ristelhueber motivated me to keep the visual language simple but still be as impactful as her Talking wounds project on Afghanistan.

 

The endeavour has been to tell the story of the plight of the people living on the edge of civilisation and about lives that are valued less. The book also hopes to create a fruitful environment for discussions on conversation, sustainable development and promotion of ideas like eco-tourism in the area. Hopefully it will instigate a thought about inclusive growth in the minds of the policy makers and divert just a tiny bit of attention from the tiger to the locals of the area. Last but not the least, the ultimate aim of this book is to create hope for the islanders of Sunderbon and provide them with an opportunity to live with pride and conviction.