(Photo above: Those blinded by gas leak)
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).
In 1984, Raghu Rai was already a seasoned photographer. He had been honored by the Indian government for his Bangladesh photos in 1971 and in 1977 Henri Cartier-Bresson had nominated him to Magnum Photos. Working for India Today, he was alerted about the situation in Bhopal immediately and headed there the next morning on a flight, on which was a fellow photographer Pablo Bartholomew.
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.
It was a heart-rending situation. His was an innocent face and usually when you see a dead person, their eyes are closed, but that child had his eyes wide open and his family members were giving the last caress to him.
That moment still gives me chills and that picture is enough to say the worst about the tragedy. We used to go to Hamidia Hospital, the factory premises and to the burial grounds and everywhere, there were similar spine-chilling scenes.
We were so engrossed at that time, that we hardly thought of risks involved. We just wanted to document the tragedy to the maximum extent.
We were not at all scared. We were shooting at the hospital, at burial grounds and around the factory and …officials were very cooperative. They knew the seriousness and they understood the need to document that.
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. Full story that India Today published is here, with very low-res Raghu Rai photos.