Ryan Ashcroft is a freelance photojournalist who hails from Adlington, Lancashire. Although he has only been seriously active for the past few years, he has harbored an interest in photography since the age of 12, when he got his first point and shoot camera (which he broke taking pictures of his mates in the snow). Ryan is currently in India, documenting the living situation of those who reside in Bhopal. He intends to shed light on the Bhopal Disaster of 1984, in which an industrial gas leak led to the death, injury and disability of thousands of people. Even over 30 years later, people in Bhopal continue to be affected by health defects and economic limitations.
“I want to document overlooked or forgotten stories and the Bhopal Disaster is definitely one of those. Not enough people back home know about the full extent of the tragedy, so I thought it’d be good to come out here and raise some awareness.”
Despite our geographical distance, we were fortunate enough to talk with Ryan due to the wonders of the internet. Our conversation spanned media, his experiences in Bhopal, and his opinions about what ought to change there. The photographer was also kind enough to share his work with us, which you can see below.
SB: Where are you living in Bhopal, and how long have you been there?
RA: I’m living at Sambhavna Clinic which is an independent, non-governmental organisation that cares for survivors of the disaster. I’ve been here for almost six weeks so far and plan to stay another one or two weeks before making my way back to Mumbai to fly home.
How have you been received in Bhopal?
Really well. Bhopal isn’t a tourist city whatsoever so it’s pretty rare for an international to be here. The locals are very friendly and constantly approach me to shake my hand and chat, ask for a picture, invite me to their homes, show me places or give me lifts on their motorbikes.
You’ve mentioned the contaminated and poisonous water – what’s the situation with regard to this? What does it do to people?
Sambhavna Clinic is located in the poorest and worst affected area of the city about half a kilometre from the derelict Union Carbide factory. The corporation was using the site as a dumping ground for toxic waste even before the disaster, and gradually the chemicals have leached into the soil and local water supply. There still hasn’t been a full clear up of the waste and numerous tests conducted around the factory and surrounding slum areas have found that high levels of pesticides, solvents and heavy metals such as mercury and nickel remain in the local drinking water. This has lead to high rates of birth defects, rapidly rising cancer rates, brain damage, mental disorders and erratic menstrual cycles.
How are you finding it out there, have you experienced anything eye-opening?
I’m finding the whole experience very eye-opening. The resilience of the survivors and the care provided to them by the staff at Sambhavna is incredible, this place really is a lifeline for a lot of people in the community. The time I spent at Chinagri Rehabilitation Centre really did open my eyes too. The centre is located in the poorest and worst affected area of the city and is committed to helping children born with various physical and psychological disabilities. These disabilities are a result of the gas exposure or water contamination. It’s awful to see new generations still being affected in different ways and really shows the ongoing damage caused by the disaster. The children all seem so happy though despite their conditions and this really made me count my blessings.
Do you see any potential for change in Bhopal – What do you think should happen
Organisations such as Sambhavna, Bhopal Group for Information and Action and Children against Dow/Union Carbide are always fighting for justice. They demand fair compensation for the thousands of people still suffering, a proper clean up of the hazardous waste, rehabilitation of survivors and appropriate legal action against Union Carbide and DOW Chemicals (the corporation that later took over Union Carbide).
Although fighting an American corporation has proven difficult, they have had some success. For example, the payout in 1989 initially meant that all criminal charges were dropped against the company, however, activist groups fought against this and in 1991, the criminal immunity granted to Union Carbide was revoked, as well as a Supreme Court order to construct a new 500-bed hospital for the victims. There was also a huge delay in compensation being granted from the agreed settlement amount, so the organisations took to the streets and battled in court for the compensation and also interest accrued over the years to arrive, meaning amounts granted to the victims were doubled. In 2014, after pressure from activist groups, the state government also completed work in some of the communities, meaning clean drinking water through pipes was provided to 10,000 families. A new order from the High Court has also instructed the state to extend the clean water facility to 20 additional communities who are still drinking contaminated water. These victories do show the change in Bhopal, however, it is an ongoing battle as thousands of people are still affected mentally and physically from the disaster. I think that Dow Chemicals and Union Carbide should finally accept responsibility, for this would mean greater payout, new facilities and some kind of closure for the victims.
What can people do to help the situation in Bhopal?
I’ve set up a JustGiving page for the Bhopal Medical Appeal which funds both Sambhavna and Chingari if anyone would like to donate even the smallest amount. People can also help by raising awareness through post shares and word of mouth, as this is the first step towards making a change.
You’ve been to Palestine as a photojournalist before. How did you get this opportunity?
I just paid for a flight out to Israel and made my way into Palestine on my own as a freelancer. You can read more about my time there here.
Going to these places and seeing such different and unforgettable things must be so involving. How do you decide when to come back?
Yes, it’s a great feeling. I decide to come back when my money or visa runs out! I like to stay in places for a while so I can get to know the locals properly.
Do you feel that photography is a powerful medium?
Definitely. Pictures have a way of communicating with people and this is especially important in photojournalism. A picture can draw someone in and give them a better understanding of a situation. One photograph really can speak a thousand words.
Why is your artistic focus on international/social issues?
I want my pictures to raise awareness and ideas. I had a lot of people messaging me after Palestine saying they didn’t know how bad it was out there before I went. If I can change even a few peoples opinions for the better or educate on an issue then I’m happy with my work.
People often talk about the suicide of the photographer of ‘Struggling Girl’ (1993). Do you ever feel frustrated or traumatised by your work?
I haven’t so far, seeing these things just motivates me to document them and share as best I can.
Do you think that journalism is an important platform?
Without a doubt. Journalism done properly can educate people on issues across the globe and inspire new ideas and movements. It can connect the world and show the true power of free speech by exposing corruption, various forms of abuse and human rights violations. Journalists investigating these fields deserve every credit too as they’re putting themselves at risk in order to share the truth.
What are your plans for the future?
I plan to continue documenting overlooked stories around the world, hopefully for an organisation or magazine in future. Keep an eye out for my next project!
You can check out more of Ryan’s work on Instagram, where he is active at @ryan_ashcroftt.
As a result of Ryan’s work, Funraising has decided to raise for the Bhopal Medical Appeal. We are currently fundraising to put on PostBox: Special Delivery on the 6th of June.
Experience tells us that every penny that gets put into our events makes a huge difference when it comes out of the other end. At our acid night, ‘Easy on the Dijon‘, with just £30 in donations and around £370 from a smaller event, we raised £800 for The Mustard Tree homelessness charity and got a huge conversation going about it. Please help us put the same effort in for the Bhopal Medical Appeal, by donating to our JustGiving page.