As early as 1976, there were warnings: pollution and toxic leaks occurring at regular basis at the Union Carbide pesticide factory in Bhopal, India. A local paper wrote: “Wake up, people of Bhopal, you are on the edge of a volcano.” At the midnight of December 2nd-3rd, 1984, that volcano erupted. A gas leak unleashed menthyl-iso-cyanate into air and water in a disaster that would eventually kill over 30,000 people and harm hundreds of thousands more.
What really happened was still debated and litigated. The plant’s safety track record suggested corporate and regulatory negligence as well as operator errors, but others believe a catastrophic failure at such scale could not have happened without deliberate sabotage by disgruntled employees, pointing out to discrepancies in eyewitness accounts. No matter the cause, within the first 24 hours, some 3,000 people were dead.
Hospitals could barely cope with the survivors. Undertakers had to work through the night. The Hindus were mass cremated (several bodies on one pyre) and the Muslims in three-tier graves (a body, then some mud, another body, more mud and then another body).
29-year old Pablo Bartholomew was covering an election campaign in Patna for French news agency Gamma when he heard the news on BBC radio and saw videos:
Early in the morning of 5th December 1984, following the vehicles that were taking the dead to be cremated and buried, Bartholomew and Rai came across a group of people gathered around a father who was about to bury his child.
Both photographers quickly took similar shots of the burial before the grave was filled with dirt, Bartholomew in color, Rai in black-and-white. They did not ask the name of the child or father, and to this day, their identities remain unknown. No one had come forward claiming to be a relative of them.
Rai was working for India Today and his photos were widely seen locally. Bartholomew’s photos were distributed by Gamma abroad, and won the World Press Photo of the Year for 1984. Bartholomew remained there for a fortnight photographing the devastation. He went back on the first anniversary skipping his brother’s wedding.