It's a three-letter word but it packs a punch. It is also getting increasingly dirty. In this season of oil and war, a passionate Bengali finds himself at the centre of a high-stakes political battle in the US Congress with the big hand of the White House lurking right behind. The oil lobby would like nothing better than for Subhankar Banerjee to shut up and ship out to Calcutta but he is all the rage on Capitol Hill these days—a darling to the Democrats but a devil to the Republicans. His unique photographs of Arctic wildlife, of polar bears and cubs, of tiny songbirds and migrating caribou herds have destroyed the carefully mounted fiction of the oil lobby that nothing lives in those white, barren expanses of snow most of the year.
Banerjee knows he is a target in a big fight. He is the reason the Democrats are pushing the Senate Rules Committee to hold a hearing on why the Smithsonian—that grand, well-funded public repository of American culture and history—mysteriously decided to "downgrade" Banerjee's photo exhibition from the "rotunda" of the world's second most visited museum to a basement gallery. He is the reason why the Republicans, who dominate the House of Representatives, the Senate and the White House, are trying to scuttle the hearing. They don't want his photos in their face anymore.
The May 6 scheduled hearing was "suspiciously" postponed, a Democrat Senate aide told Outlook. Another is planned for May 20 but given the pulls and pressures at play, no one wants to predict the future. "At this point, I don't speak with the museum officials," said a dismayed Banerjee on phone from Seattle. "The whole thing has become too hot politically." He fears his exhibition might be cancelled, so high is the radiation from the Arctic photos.
Its effects were first felt when Senator Barbara Boxer of California dramatically waved an enlarged photo of a polar bear in the Senate on March 18 and asked everyone to read Banerjee's book before voting. She had an advance copy of Seasons of Life and Land, a book with a foreword by former president Jimmy Carter and essays by the likes of Peter Matthiessen, the acclaimed author of numerous works on vanishing cultures and endangered wildlife, as well as an endorsement by actor-activist Robert Redford. It was a close vote—52 to 48 in the Senate against opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil drilling.
The defeat of oil interests badly shook Senator Ted Stevens, a Republican from Alaska, who had declared his personal stake in the bill thus: "People who vote against this today are voting against me. I'll never forget it." The Senate didn't heed his warning, but it appeared to have a resonance in the House of Representatives. On April 11, the House passed the bill 228 to 197. The conference committee will now draft a compromise bill to tide over the schism between the two chambers.
The Republicans insist they didn't have anything to do with the Smithsonian controversy. But the institution's keen interest in Banerjee's work disappeared all too suddenly. His publishers received two letters from the Smithsonian, informing them of a "change" in venue and demanding that their name be excluded from all future prints of the book.
The photo exhibition at the Museum of Natural History opened on May 2 in a basement passageway close to a freight elevator—the polar bears were perpetually lost behind crates and boxes. Instead of the main museum rotunda, which would automatically have ensured thousands of curious eyes everyday—especially of school children—the exhibition was now lost. No signs pointed the way, the Smithsonian website no longer highlighted or even listed Banerjee's exhibition.
A Senate aide has clicked pictures of the miserable location in preparation for next week's Senate hearing when Lawrence Small, Smithsonian chief, will be questioned.She told Outlook the Dems had organised their own "uncensored" exhibition of Banerjee's photos in a Senate office building for some quick consciousness-raising. Small will have to answer why his staff replaced Banerjee's passionate captions with static, boring one-liners. A furious Senator Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, has already shot off two letters to the Smithsonian, demanding an explanation. Senators Boxer and Maria Cantwell, also Dems, vented their ire at "these sudden and hostile actions" and demanded the Smithsonian restore Banerjee's exhibition to its original spot and end the "political retribution" and "persecution". Cantwell, being a senator from Banerjee's Washington state, is fighting hard.
The gnashing of senatorial teeth has attracted high media attention with the Los Angeles Times editorialising thus: "It's sweet justice when attempts at censorship backfire and call attention to the very thing the censor hoped to hide. The White House, which has vowed to renew its push for drilling, should be scared of Banerjee's photographs." Interior secretary Gale Norton vowed to keep fighting for oil drilling because "that one small spot is believed to have the ability to produce more oil than the entire state of Texas". Wrong, shout the opponents, with Banerjee asking: is it worth it to spoil the last true wilderness for what would only be a six-month supply for the American market? The Arctic refuge is home to 160 resident and migratory bird species from six continents. His images, placed in the tradition of Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter, have become a potent weapon. "My work has no political content," Banerjee says. "But in a way I do take a stand. I want this habitat preserved."
He is the first photographer to comprehensively document the Arctic wildlife over 14 months, recording mama bears and their cubs, the large caribou herds migrating to calve at the other end, the snow geese, an ice-age relic called the muskox and North America's northernmost sheep named Dall. "It was a life-changing experience. I survived in horrendous winds and temperatures of -100° F. I slept in tents with no heating because we had to save on fuel," he said. His guide Robert Thompson, a member of the Inupiat Eskimo tribe, became a lifelong friend. There was only one close shave when Banerjee fell into an icy river in mid-November and got drenched, parka and all. "We set up camp immediately, built a fire and I dried off."
Banerjee also observed the Inupiat's sacred whale hunt and the tribe's survival on marine life. He lived with the Gwich'in Indians who depend on the caribou herds for food, clothing and their cultural identity. They all welcomed him into their homes, showing him a side of America not commonly seen. The book is a coup for Banerjee, an unknown photographer until he convinced wilderness enthusiasts, foundations, friends and a publisher to put their faith in his hubris to risk all for his life's passion. He roped in the best essayists, anthropologists, poets and ex-presidents to lend their weight to the project. His objective: to get "permanent" refuge status for one of the coldest, harshest but crucial ecosystems in the world. And to "live with the polar bears", as he says of an obsession that took him across 4,000 miles on foot and kayak, and cost a total of $2,50,000, including his lifetime savings of $80,000 and a debt of $100,000.
"Even the National Geographic hasn't done a winter story there. Everyone does little summer stories," he says with pride. From Calcutta to Capitol Hill, it's been a long journey for Banerjee, who came to New Mexico in 1990 to study after graduating as a physicist from Jadavpur University. When he moved to Seattle for a job at Boeing, he joined their photo club. Nature became his classroom as he developed a love for the Arctic and its first citizen—the polar bear.Now his work might help save the bears from the oil lobby—even if for a while.