Horrors of Bhopal put into human perspective

'We are not Flowers, We are Flames' by Raghu Rai and Maude Dorr
‘We are not Flowers, We are Flames’ by Raghu Rai and Maude Dorr at Art/Not Gallery

By CODY ELLERD Contributing Editor

Courtesy of Maude Dorr

SEATTLE, Wash. (Fotophile.com) — The despair wrought by the worst industrial chemical disaster in human history is on display in Raghu Rai and Maude Dorr‘s exhibit at Seattle’s Art/Not Gallery.

On a December night in 1984, the Union Carbide pesticide factory in Bhopal, India, began spewing more than 27 tons of methyl isocyanate (MIC) and other poisonous gases throughout the crowded slums of Bhopal. By morning, an estimated 2,000 to 8,000 people were dead, and Rai, one of India’s most world-renowned photographers, was there to document the horror.

Some of his images depict death, such as mass cremations and the chilling portrait of a child as he’s buried — but most of his grainy B&W photographs focus on the survivors. Face after face stares into his camera with a near-uniform expression — mouth drawn, eyes wide and vacant as a brutalized soul pleads quietly from within.

Dorr, a journalist and artist, visited Bhopal in 2002. Her photographs, saturated in color and assembled into collages, accompany Rai’s to provide an appalling then-and-now contrast. The message of her images of the crumbling Union Carbide factory is clear: With jars of chemicals still lined up on shelves and tanks rotting on storeroom floors, we see that some twenty years after the disaster, Union Carbide has not lifted a finger to clean up the toxic site. This despite long-running campaigns by numerous groups to improve life for Bhopal’s 120,000 survivors, who continue to drink polluted ground water and suffer crippling health problems.

Organized by Amnesty International and an alliance of South Asian activist groups, “We are not Flowers, We are Flames” is unquestionably an exhibit with a mission. From the lengthy photo captions that hammer on the gruesome effects of MIC to the booklets of activist literature available, Rai and Dorr’s images implore you, with all the honesty and sensitivity they can muster, to be moved and to move.[