“Seasons of Life and Land will surely become a classic of American environmental consciousness. It is impeccably researched, intelligently conceived, astonishingly observant and radiant with love for its subject. […] Potentially, they [Subhankar’s photographs] are as influential as the massive Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska that saved the refuge [Arctic National Wildlife Refuge] from the drillers in 1989. They should make even the most gung–ho believer in the American public’s absolute right to cheap gasoline feel uncomfortable.”
—Andrew Robinson, The Times Higher Education Supplement, London, 27 June 2003
“Among the wonders to appear in the changing Arctic in recent years is the Indian–born photographer and activist Subhankar Banerjee. […] In Arctic Voices, long–term issues of global importance—the exploitation of wild places for fossil fuels, and whether we’re determined to ride our energy binge to the grim end—are made immediate and vivid […] In this impassioned book, Banerjee shows a situation so serious that it has created a movement, where “voices of resistance are gathering, are getting louder and louder.” May his heartfelt efforts magnify them.”
—Ian Frazier, The New York Review of Books, New York, 7 March 2013
Subhankar Banerjee is an Indian born American photographer, writer, and activist. Over the past decade he has been a leading voice on issues of arctic conservation, indigenous human rights, resource development and climate change. More recently he has also been focusing on global forest deaths from climate change. His photographs, writing and lectures have reached millions of people around the world.
Subhankar was born in 1967 in Berhampore, a small town near Kolkata, India. His early experiences in his parents’ tropical home in rural Bengal fostered his life long interest in the value of land and its resources. Early in his childhood his parents introduced him to the work of their friend—renowned writer and activist MAHASWETA DEVI, whose work and life continues to inspire him. During his childhood, in the cinemas of the small towns where he grew up, he also came to know the work of brilliant Bengali filmmakers including, SATYAJIT RAY, MRINAL SEN, and RITWIK GHATAK. He loved cinema and found their visual explorations of everyday life and larger social issues immensely inspiring. His great uncle Bimal Mookerjee, a painter, taught him how to paint. He created portraits and detailed rural scenes, but knew from growing up in a middle–income family that it would be nearly impossible for him to pursue a career in the arts. He chose instead the practical path of studying engineering at Jadavpur University in Kolkata, and later earned two masters degrees in physics and computer science at New Mexico State University in the US.
In the New Mexican Desert, he fell in love with the open spaces of the American West. He hiked and backpacked frequently in New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah, and bought a 35mm camera with which he began taking photographs. After finishing his graduate study, he moved to Seattle, Washington to take up a research job in the sciences. In the Pacific Northwest, his commitment to photography grew, and he photographed extensively during many outdoor trips in Washington, Oregon, Montana, Wyoming, California, New Hampshire, Vermont, Florida, British Columbia, Alberta, and Manitoba. In 2000, he left his scientific career behind and began a long–term photography project in the American Arctic.
After a fourteen–month long journey in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Subhankar published his first book in 2003, ARCTIC NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE: SEASONS OF LIFE AND LAND (Seattle: The Mountaineers Books). The book received several awards, including Independent Book Publishers Award, ForeWord Magazine Independent Publishers Book of the Year Award, Banff Mountain Book Festival Best Book in Mountain Images Award, and was named one of the top twenty science books of 2003 by the Discover magazine. In his review of the book, Andrew Robinson wrote in THE TIMES HIGHER EDUCATION SUPPLEMENT, “Seasons of Life and Land will surely become a classic of American environmental consciousness. It is impeccably researched, intelligently conceived, astonishingly observant and radiant with love for its subject. […] Potentially, they [Subhankar’s photographs] are as influential as the massive Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska that saved the refuge from the drillers in 1989. They should make even the most gung–ho believer in the American public’s absolute right to cheap gasoline feel uncomfortable.” Through a generous grant from Lannan Foundation, 10,000 copies of the book were donated to indigenous communities, activists, students, libraries and policy makers in the United States and other Arctic countries. The accompanying exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History was censored during the George W. Bush administration that resulted in major criticism from the international press. Subsequently, both the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the CALIFORNIA ACADEMY OF SCIENCES in San Francisco revived two separate versions of the Seasons of Life and Land exhibition. With generous support from the Lannan Foundation, the California Academy of Sciences traveled seven simultaneous copies of the exhibition to sixteen museums around the US. A detailed account of that history can be found in historian Finis Dunaway’s essay “Reframing the Last Frontier: Subhankar Banerjee and the Visual Politics of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge” in the anthology A KEENER PERCEPTION: ECOCRITICAL STUDIES IN AMERICAN ART HISTORY (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2009). The Arctic Refuge continues to remain free of oil development.
In 2006 Subhankar returned to the Arctic to expand the geographic and conceptual scope of his work. His work has since become instrumental in the conservation efforts of several ecoculturally significant areas of the American Arctic, including Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Teshekpuk Lake wetlands, Utukok River uplands, Beaufort and Chukchi seas. He works closely with the Gwich’in and Inupiat indigenous communities of the North American Arctic, and with environmental organizations Alaska Wilderness League, Northern Alaska Environmental Center and others. He also spent time with the Eveny and the Yukaghir indigenous communities in Siberia. A detailed theoretical analysis of his Arctic photography can be found in art historian Yates McKee’s essay “Of Survival: Climate Change and Uncanny Landscape in the Photography of Subhankar Banerjee” in the anthology IMPASSES OF THE POST–GLOBAL: THEORY IN THE ERA OF CLIMATE CHANGE, VOL. 2 (Open Humanities Press, 2012). Subhankar began to write essays in 2007, first in academic publications, and later blog pieces in CLIMATESTORYTELLERS.ORG that he founded in 2010, and in TOMDISPATCH. His most recent essays were published in the Third Text journal special issue Contemporary Art and Politics of Ecology in 2013, and the 18th Biennale of Sydney catalog all our relations in 2012. From August 2010 till June 2012, he worked with little sleep to edit an anthology on the Arctic. With help of two successive residencies—Director’s Visitor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Distinguished Visiting Professor at Fordham University, and a generous grant from the Alaska Wilderness League, in July 2012, ARCTIC VOICES: RESISTANCE AT THE TIPPING POINT was published by Seven Stories Press, with writing by 34 indigenous activists, conservationists, scientists and writers; and photographs and drawing by 16 artists. In his review of the book, Ian Frazier wrote in THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS, “One of the great strengths of Arctic Voices is that it shows how Alaska and the Arctic are tied to the places where most of us live. […] In Arctic Voices, long–term issues of global importance—the exploitation of wild places for fossil fuels, and whether we’re determined to ride out our energy binge to the grim end—are made immediate and vivid […] In this impassioned book, Banerjee shows a situation so serious that it has created a movement, where “voices of resistance are gathering, are getting louder and louder.” May his heartfelt efforts magnify them.”
From 2006 till 2010, Subhankar made photographs in the New Mexican desert, near his home, to engage with the climate change impacts in the desert and other ecocultural concerns. With support from the Lannan Foundation, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth presented a one–person exhibition of the desert series in 2011, WHERE I LIVE I HOPE TO KNOW. Select photographs from the desert series were also included in the group exhibition EARTH NOW: AMERICAN PHOTOGRAPHERS AND THE ENVIRONMENT at the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe. Subhankar’s photographs have been exhibited in more than fifty museums and galleries around the world, including HOOD MUSEUM OF ART at Dartmouth College, MILWAUKEE ART MUSEUM, NEVADA MUSEUM OF ART, and the 18TH BIENNALE OF SYDNEY: ALL OUR RELATIONS.
He has given many interviews including, Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez (2012), Think Radio with Krys Boyd (KERA—NPR Dallas/Fort Worth) (2011), If You Love This Planet with Dr. Helen Caldicott (2011), IdentityTheory.com with Alexandra Tursi (2010), Democracy Now with Amy Goodman (2009), Institute of Physics: Once A Physicist (2008), and WBUR–NPR On–Point with Tom Ashbrook (2003). His stories have been featured in multiple television productions, including Sundance Channel’s series Big Ideas for A Small Planet, season 1, episode Create (2007). Profile stories about his work have appeared in many publications, including Vanity Fair by Ingrid Sischy (DECEMBER 2003), The Seattle Times Sunday Magazine by Lynda V. Mapes (MARCH 21, 2004), Seattle Post-Intelligencer by Regina Hackett (JUNE 25, 2005), livemint:The Wall Street Journal, India, by Ananda Banerjee (AUGUST 5, 2012), and The Telegraph, Kolkata, India, by G. S. Mudur (APRIL 14, 2013).
Subhankar has given over one hundred lectures. These events include, Lannan Foundation Cultural Freedom Event: Subhankar with Peter Matthiessen at the Lensic Performing Arts Center in Santa Fe (2004); Princeton University Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs (2004); Harvard University Museum of Natural History—Subhankar with Sarah James (2004); Seattle Arts and Lectures—Subhankar with Terry Tempest Williams and David Allen Sibley (attended by 2500 people in 2005); UNEP Climate Change Symposium at the Palais des Beaux–Arts in Brussels (2007); United Nations Headquarters in New York—Unlearning Intolerance: Art Changing Attitudes Toward the Environment (2008); Barnard College at Columbia University—Gender on Ice Conference (2008); Dartmouth College Hood Museum of Art—Photography and Activism (2009); University of Utah College of Humanities—Annual Lyceum II Lecture Subhankar and Peter Matthiessen (2009); Columbia College in Chicago—Annual Critical Encounters Series Human|Nature (2009); Tyler School of Art at Temple University in Philadelphia (2010); and Indiana University in Bloomington—Fall 2010 Themester: sustain·ability: Thriving on a Small Planet (2010); annual Rapaport Lecture in Contemporary Art at Amherst College
(2011); Amon Carter Museum of American Art (2011); a keynote speech at The Association for the Study of Literature and Environment biennial conference Species, Space and the Imagination of the Global (2011); Art+Environment conference at the Nevada Museum of Art (2011); Friends Forum Lecture at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton (2011); The Art of Sustainability panel at Princeton University (2011). In 2012, he gave many lectures, including at Fordham University, Stanford University, Mount Holyoke College, the concluding keynote speech at the Anchorage Museum NEXT NORTH SYMPOSIUM, and participated as a panelist in THE ANTHROPOCENE: PLANET EARTH IN THE AGE OF HUMANS—a Smithsonian Grand Challenges Symposium. In 2013, he will give a keynote speech at the POSTNATURAL—SOCIETY FOR LITERATURE, SCIENCE, AND THE ARTS annual conference at the University of Notre Dame, lectures at the ECO–AESTHETICS: CONTEMPORARY ART AND THE POLITICS OF ECOLOGY conference at the University College London, Gerrit Rietveld Academie of Fine Arts and Design in Amsterdam as part of their annual series WHERE ARE WE GOING, WALT WHITMAN?, and an event with Dr. James Hansen in the Lannan Foundation lecture series IN PURSUIT OF CULTURAL FREEDOM.
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Subhankar has received many awards, including inaugural Cultural Freedom Fellowship from Lannan Foundation (2003), inaugural Greenleaf Artist Award from United Nations Environment Programme (2005), National Conservation Achievement Award from National Wildlife Federation (2003), Special Achievement Award from Sierra Club (2003), Housberg Award from Alaska Conservation Foundation (2002), and was named an Arctic Hero by Alaska Wilderness League (2010). In 2011 he was named a Distinguished Alumni by New Mexico State University. He has been a visiting scholar at the graduate program in environmental humanities at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Artist–in–Residence at Dartmouth College, Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Department of Art History and Music at Fordham University in New York, Visiting Fellow at the Forbes College of Princeton University, and DIRECTOR’S VISITOR at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. In 2012 Subhankar received a CULTURAL FREEDOM AWARD from Lannan Foundation.