“Banerjee’s striking aesthetic compositions, together with his attention to ecological context, reframe the Arctic landscape and question some of the reigning assumptions about the relationship between nature and culture in modern America. His work makes viewers feel closer to the Arctic, not only by offering memorable portrayals of the region, but also by repeatedly reminding them of the ties that bind this distant land to their own lives.”
Subhankar Banerjee is an Indian born American photographer, writer, activist and environmental humanities scholar. He has been a leading voice on issues of Arctic conservation, indigenous human rights, resource wars, and climate change. He has also done work in the American Southwest that addresses desert ecology and forest deaths from climate change, and recently started a project to address climate change impacts and politics of ecology in the coastal temperate rainforests in the Pacific Northwest. His research focuses on the intersection of art, ecocultural activism and environmental humanities. Subhankar’s photographs, writing and lectures have reached millions of people around the world.
“The word arctic is derived from the ancient Greeks, for whom arktos meant the Bear (or North) Star. To those of us who live amidst today’s suburbs and strip malls—places where space shuttles and satellite TV have become familiar topics of everyday conversation—the stars may now seem far closer than they did to the ancient Greeks. In contrast, the Arctic evoked with such stark beauty in Subhankar Banerjee’s photos remains a remote and forbidding world. … So as much as Subhankar Banerjee’s photos reveal an unfamiliar and austere physical landscape, they also open up a new and discomforting intellectual terrain. … Banerjee’s images remind us, the Arctic, despite its name, is not as distant as the stars, and its inhabitants do not dwell in a world geographically or chronologically separate from our own. Whatever happens in the Arctic will eventually happen—indeed, has already begun to happen—to us all.”
—Karl Jacoby, “The Near North”, in Subhankar Banerjee: Photographs, Dartmouth College, 2009
“Aerial photography is the language of war. Generals have always sought out high places to survey their battlefields. … Subhankar Banerjee wields this vocabulary in his portfolio Resource Wars, skillfully combining it with rich visual references to photographic and painterly traditions. … Banerjee is not the first photographer to attempt to awaken the American public to the wealth of this nation’s natural beauty, and he won’t be the last. But his argument takes on a particular urgency and topicality that has not been seen since the Great Western Railway survey photographs of the mid–nineteenth century. … The photographs of Resource Wars are certainly a feast for the eyes. … But their raison d´être, their main purpose, is to compose a powerful argument and to feed the intellect. They leave us with more questions than answers.”
—Kelley E. Wilder, “Resource Wars”, in Subhankar Banerjee: Resource Wars, Sundaram Tagore Gallery, 2008
“Banerjee is concerned with…a relay between media and survival [as Judith Butler writes in, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable?], which he stages in terms of the specific formal and historical problems pertaining to photography as a medium. The images exemplify [Eduardo] Cadava’s axiom that “there can be no image that is not about destruction and survival, and this is especially the case in the image of ruin” … Banerjee’s images are “images of ruin” … The uncanniness of landscape identified by [Jean–Luc] Nancy…is exacerbated by Banerjee throughout his oeuvre… Marked by traces, trails, and vestiges of a global ecological history…Banerjee’s uncanny landscapes speak to a project of climate justice… To paraphrase Walter Benjamin’s remark on Eugene Atget—Banerjee photographs every single inch of the Arctic as if it were the scene of a crime.”
—Yates McKee, “Of Survival: Climate Change and Uncanny Landscape in the Photography of Subhankar Banerjee”, in Impasses of the Post–Global: Theory in the Era of Climate Change, Vol. 2, ed. Henry Sussman (Open Humanities Press, 2012)
DESERT…Subhankar has engaged not only with the far—the Arctic, but also the near—the desert, where he lived. From 2006 till 2010, he walked regularly in all seasons, in about a five–mile radius around his home, in northern New Mexico and made photographs to understand the desert ecology and address the massive forest deaths due to recent climate change. 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, which was curated by Jessica May. Select photographs from the desert series were also included, the same year, in a group exhibition, EARTH NOW: AMERICAN PHOTOGRAPHERS AND THE ENVIRONMENT at the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe, curated by Katherine Ware. In 2012 and 2014, photographs from his desert series were shown at the Lannan Foundation Gallery, in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
His photographs have been exhibited in more than fifty museums and galleries around the world, including the 18TH BIENNALE OF SYDNEY: ALL OUR RELATIONS, in Sydney, Australia, in 2012, and the RIGHTS OF NATURE: ART AND ECOLOGY IN THE AMERICAS at the Nottingham Contemporary in the United Kingdom, in 2015. Between 2004 and 2011, four monographs of his photographs were published: The Last Wilderness: Photographs of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by Gerald Peters Gallery (2004), Resource Wars by Sundaram Tagore Gallery (2008), Subhankar Banerjee: Photographs by Dartmouth College (2009), and Where I Live I Hope to Know by the Amon Carter Museum of American Art with essays by Subhankar and curator Dr. Jessica May (2011).
Subhankar’s photographs have also been discussed widely in art historical essays and in art reviews. Some of the journals and magazines include: Third Text, American Art, Art in America, Oxford Art Journal, Journal of Visual Culture, ArtNews, and American Quarterly; and some of the books include: A Keener Perception: Ecocritical Studies in American Art History (2009), Far Fields: Digital Culture, Climate Change, and the Poles (2011), Impasses of the Post-Global: Theory in the Era of Climate Change (2012), Undermining: A Wild Ride Through Land Use, Politics, and Art in the Changing West (2014), Art and Politics Now (2014), Critical Landscapes: Art, Space, Politics (2015), A Companion to American Art (2015), Decolonizing Nature: Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology (2016).
“The [desert] photographs Banerjee made are…the product of a set of given circumstances in terms of the systematic walk, the small camera, and the animating questions. Yet in a real way they follow the methods of the gumshoe, the artist–detective. … They offer the promise that looking closely is a way of learning not just of the marvels of the faraway, but also fine textural details that sustain our everyday relationship to nature. … The Desert Archive not only created a visual record of the destruction of the forests but became a way for Banerjee to piece together the disparate bits of information to understand the ecology of his local landscape. The broad, looping narratives he uncovered were multiple and sometimes contradictory… In the final stages of the project, Banerjee tipped his camera toward the shifting gray skies to remind himself and future viewers that in the end so much depends on rain.”
—Jessica May, “The Detective”, in Subhankar Banerjee: Where I Live I Hope to Know, Amon Carter Museum of American Art, 2011
“The photograph is not straight. The extreme angle is the way the photographer, Subhankar Banerjee wants it displayed… The visually awkward hanging causes you to cant your head this way and that, up and down like a bobble head, constantly attempting to reconcile the extreme angles and heights and make the photographs all upright and straight. It’s a challenge and an irritant, which was the artist’s intent. … He moved in tight and photographed the cycle of life, all with a backdrop of overcast skies. It is the desert dweller’s conundrum—a clear sky portends a sparkling bright day; an overcast one, while depressing, suggests the possibility of rain, which is always needed and is essential for continued existence within that landscape.”
—Gaile Robinson, “Subhankar Banerjee’s photographs angle for your attention”, Fort Worth Star–Telegram art review, 22 May 2011
WRITING…In 2008, while in the midst of the desert photography, Subhankar started writing, for academic publications initially, and later for the public. His public writing largely addresses the rapidly advancing climate change in the Arctic and the southwestern desert of the United States and resource wars in the Arctic. He has written more than two dozen long–form articles, which appeared in numerous progressive Internet publications, including TomDispatch of the Nation Institute, ClimateStoryTellers that he founded (2010-2014), AlterNet, Al Jazeera, Asia Times (Hong Kong), Bill Moyers’ Moyers & Company, Common Dreams, Counterpunch, Countercurrents (India), Dissident Voice, The Ecologist (UK), Energy Post (Belgium), Grist, Guernica, Huffington Post, Juan Cole’s Informed Comment, Le Monde diplomatique, Mother Jones, The Nation, Nation of Change, Peace, Earth and Justice News (Canada), Resilience, Salon, Truthdig, and Truthout. Some of these articles have also been translated into other languages, including French, German and Spanish. He also wrote one book review that appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, and one letter–to–the–editor that appeared in The New York Review of Books.
Subhankar has also written more than a dozen scholarly essays (many of which are peer–reviewed) that appeared in books and journals, including The Scholar and Feminist webjournal special issue “Gender on Ice”; Alaska Native Reader: History, Culture, Politics (Duke University Press); Third Text journal special issue “Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology” (Routledge); World Policy Journal special issue “Climate’s Cliff” (World Policy Institute); Social Text journal Periscope dossier “Radical Materialism” (online), the 18th Biennale of Sydney exhibition catalogue all our relations; and Photography Changes Everything (Aperture and Smithsonian Institution). His forthcoming essays will appear in Ecocriticism and Indigenous Studies: Conversations from Earth to Cosmos (Routledge Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Literature, August 2016), Routledge Handbook of Religion and Ecology (Routledge International Handbooks, August 2016), and Living in the Anthropocene: Humanity in the Age of Humans (Smithsonian Books, 2017).
From July 2010 till June 2012, he edited 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 in the Department of Art History and Music at Fordham University in New York, and a generous grant from the Alaska Wilderness League—on 3 July 2012, ARCTIC VOICES: RESISTANCE AT THE TIPPING POINT was published by Seven Stories Press in New York. An updated paperback edition was published with a new conversation between Dr. James Hansen and Subhankar, on 22 September 2013. With thirty–nine essays and testimonies by indigenous cultural activists, scientists, and writers, and photographs and drawings contributed by sixteen artists, the book depicts the Arctic, not as a remote place, but intimately connected to the rest of the Earth.
The book received supportive reviews from both sides of the Atlantic. “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,” Ian Frazier wrote in The New York Review of Books. “Arctic Voices is itself an important contribution to the struggle for environmental justice in the far North,” Reinhard Hennig wrote in Ecozon@: European Journal of Literature, Culture and Environment.
Subhankar’s art, writing and visual activism have become instrumental in the conservation efforts of several ecoculturally significant areas of the American Arctic, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Teshekpuk Lake wetlands, Utukok River uplands, and the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. He works closely with the Gwich’in and Iñupiat indigenous communities of the North American Arctic, and with the environmental organization Alaska Wilderness League.
FOREST…In 2014, Subhankar started a new photography project, small pictures of paradise, in the Olympic Peninsula, in Washington State, where he was living then. Briefly stated, small pictures of paradise was sparked by the 2015 “Paradise Fire” in the Olympic National Park, the largest fire in recorded history in the western coastal temperate rainforests of the Park. The photography, however, is not a record of the fire, or its impact, since almost no one in the general public saw the fire, but about invisibility of social-environmental violence in our time of anthropogenic climate change. He wrote a long–form article PARADISE BURNING for TomDispatch of the Nation Institute in New York, which was subsequently published widely around the world and was translated into Spanish.
Smoke from the Paradise Fire, Elwha River Valley, Olympic National Park (Photo: Subhankar Banerjee, 2015)
“Once the fire began, I just couldn’t keep away. On a rainy July 10th, for instance, listening to James Taylor’s Fire and Rain, I drove toward the Queets River Valley to learn more about the Paradise Fire so that I could ‘talk about things to come.’ … ‘This is not an anthropogenic fire,’ the ranger I spoke with at the Hoh visitor center insisted. In the most literal sense, that’s true. In late May, lightning struck a tree in the Queets Valley and started the fire, which then smoldered and slowly spread across the north bank of the river. It was finally detected in mid–June and firefighters were called in. That such a lightning strike disqualifies the Paradise Fire from being ‘anthropogenic’—human–caused—would once have been a given, but in a world being heated by the burning of fossil fuels, such definitions have to be reconsidered.”—from “Paradise Burning”, TomDispatch, 30 July 2015
The aesthetic strategies employed in the three projects—the Arctic, desert, and the forest—varies widely, leading to distinctly different visual depictions of the three geographies. Yet these are not disconnected efforts but are different braids of the same river—an effort to apprehend the significance of art and ecology in our time of unprecedented ecological crises.
LECTURES…To raise public awareness about the significance of protecting the Arctic National Wildlife from oil and gas development, Subhankar gave more than thirty lectures between 2003 and 2005. Some of the venues included, California Academy of Sciences, Princeton University Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Harvard University Museum of Natural History, Columbia University Earth Institute, University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, University of Pennsylvania, University of New Mexico, University of Washington, University of Alaska in Fairbanks, and a Lannan Foundation Readings & Conversations event with writer Peter Matthiessen and Gwich’in elder Sarah James, which he remembers with much fondness. Since then, Subhankar has given over one hundred invited lectures, and participated in numerous panels, across the United States and Europe. Some of his significant lectures include, the inaugural lecture of a yearlong series, The Environmental Humanities–A Public Forum, at the University of Texas–Austin (2015), Environmental Photography and Humanities international symposium at the Valand Academy, University of Gothenburg, in partnership with the Hasselblad Foundation, Gothenburg, Sweden (2015), Rights of Nature international conference at the Nottingham Contemporary, Nottingham, United Kingdom (2015), Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Visiting Artist Lecture at the University of New Mexico–Albuquerque (2015), Conflict Shorelines: History, Politics, and Climate Change symposium at the Princeton University (2015), keynote speech “Long Environmentalism” at the Society for Literature, Science and the Arts annual conference PostNatural at the University of Notre Dame (2013), artist lecture at Where Are We Going, Walt Whitman? annual series at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie of Fine Arts and Design in Amsterdam (2013), keynote speech at the Next North Symposium at the Anchorage Museum (2012), lecture at the Stanford University Environmental Humanities Project (2012), keynote speech at the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment biennial conference Species, Space and the Imagination of the Global at the Indiana University (2011), the Annual Rapaport Lecture in Contemporary Art at Amherst College (2011), and lectures at the Themester: sustain·ability: Thriving on a Small Planet series at the Indiana University (2010), Critical Encounters—Human|Nature annual series at the Columbia College in Chicago (2009) and the Annual Lyceum II Lecture with Peter Matthiessen at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City (2008); and an event "Wilderness and the Imagination" with David Allen Sibley and Terry Tempest Williams at the Benaroya Symphony Hall hosted by the Seattle Arts and Lectures that was attended by 2500 people (2005). In 2013, in a Lannan Foundation In Pursuit of Cultural Freedom lecture by Dr. James Hansen, Subhankar introduced Dr. Hansen and and then engaged him in a conversation after the talk (2013). In 2014, Subhankar facilitated the concluding workshop, “The Process of Writing and Using Images,” at the Humanities for the Environment symposium at the Arizona State University, hosted by the ASU’s Institute of Humanities Research (2014).
The Rights of Nature international conference, Nottingham Contemporary, UK, 24 January 2015
Click to view the conference lectures (YouTube)
Subhankar’s lecture, “Rights of Nature—Says Who?” begins at 2:15:01 and ends at 2:40:39
Some of Subhankar’s panel participations include, the Art and Activism panel at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College, co–hosted by the Hood Museum and the Institute of Arctic Studies in the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding (2014), the Eco-aesthetics: Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology conference at the University College London (2013), The Anthropocene: Planet Earth in the Age of Humans—a Smithsonian Grand Challenges Symposium at the Smithsonian Institution (2012), The Art of Sustainability panel at Princeton University (2011), Art+Environment conference at the Nevada Museum of Art (2011), Gender on Ice conference at the Barnard College (2008), Unlearning Intolerance: Art Changing Attitudes Toward the Environment symposium at the United Nations Headquarters in New York (2008), and an United Nations Environment Programme Climate Change symposium at the Palais des Beaux–Arts in Brussels (2007).
In 2016, he will be giving lectures at the Center for the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) at the University of Cambridge (UK), Clare Hall College at the University of Cambridge (UK), De Montfort University (UK), Center for Creative Ecologies at the University of California–Santa Cruz, Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies (LENS) at the University of California–Los Angeles, and will participate as a panelist at the American Studies Association annual conference in Denver, Home/Not Home: Centering American Studies Where We Are.
MEDIA…Subhankar’s many media interviews include, Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez (2012), The Real News Network with Jaisal Noor (2013), Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman and Narmeen Shaikh (2015), The Real News Network with Sharmini Peries (2015), 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 in Copenhagen during the UN COP15 climate change conference (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 LinkTV’s “Refuge at Risk” (2003), Pittsburgh’s WQED “Arctic Warrior” (2007), and 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—in Pratidin by Nabaneeta Dev Sen (in Bengali READ ONLINE 2007), Vanity Fair by Ingrid Sischy (DECEMBER 2003), The Seattle Times Sunday Magazine by Lynda V. Mapes (21 MARCH 2004), Seattle Post–Intelligencer by Regina Hackett (25 JUNE 2005), livemint:The Wall Street Journal, India, by Ananda Banerjee (5 AUGUST 2012), The Telegraph, Kolkata, India, by G. S. Mudur (14 APRIL 2013), and the India Abroad by Monali Sarkar (30 AUGUST 2013).
AWARDS…Subhankar has received several awards for his art, writing and activism, including an inaugural Cultural Freedom Fellowship from Lannan Foundation (2003), an inaugural Greenleaf Artist Award from the 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 Subhankar was awarded a DISTINGUISHED ALUMNUS AWARD by the New Mexico State University, and in 2012, a CULTURAL FREEDOM AWARD by the Lannan Foundation.
Conversation during teatime in the Common Room, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton (Photo: Andrea Kane, 2011)
Subhankar’s academic appointments have included, visiting scholar (2006–2008) 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. He will be spending the first half of 2016 as a Visiting Fellow at Clare Hall, University of Cambridge.
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