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Sharbendu De is the Artist the 21st Century Needs

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Sharbendu De is nothing like his photographic inspirations. Now, he even thinks they are problematic. Among them are some of the world’s most historic documentary photographers: Steve McCurry, Raghu Rai, and Sebastião Salgado — artists who turned their lenses toward non-Western narratives.

“What I am trying to call out is this colonial culture of looking at our countries as a premodern, pre-industrialized nation,” De said in an interview with The Harvard Crimson.

According to De, the world needs to alter its visual vocabulary and the way it looks at photography. Luckily, change is nothing new to him. Growing up in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal, De vividly remembers the horrors of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

“My mom and dad were still there, and I had no news if they were alive or not,” he recalled.

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It was only once his father reached a satellite phone and reached his son that he knew they had survived. Since that moment, he has experienced six more natural disasters. “That was a tipping point,” he recalled, after which he knew he needed to work on the subject of climate change.

Potentially his most intimate artistic response to natural disaster is his project “Between Grief and Nothing,” where he highlights the chronically undocumented mental health impacts of natural disasters. “Are you going to Nepal?” he recalled his friend asking when, in April 2015, the nation suffered a devastating earthquake that killed roughly 9,000 people. But De didn’t want to cover it like he knew all of the other photographers he arrived alongside would.

“The world is tired of looking at the same kind of imagery of destruction,” he asserted.

Instead, he chose to paint, over a longer period of time than is typical for most short-stay photojournalists, a picture of the nightmarish reality of survivors of disaster. Heavily saturated and littered with deep reds and oranges, “Between Grief and Nothing”’s dark images transport the viewer into the mind of someone experiencing this trauma that De himself knows all too well. He refers to the phenomenon as “mental violence.”

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While he was in Nepal, De was constantly thinking of his own evacuation plan — constantly asking himself which roof he would jump to in case of emergency. These mental terrors, which De initially only imagined being the subject of his art, became an inescapable reality of his own life, inevitably bleeding into his art.

By working on numerous projects over his long career, De has refined a style that borrows as much from cinema as it does conventional photography. Antithetical to the “decisive moment” philosophy employed by many of the world’s documentary photographers, nearly every inch of De’s latest works is manufactured. From lights to paid actors to a behind-the-scenes crew, his works are carefully calculated to perfectly depict the imagined realities he attempts to articulate.

In his most recent project, “An Elegy for Ecology,” his divergent style comes to a head. Imagining a future where the unchecked destruction of climate change restricts access to breathable air, future humans are depicted indoors, connected to oxygen tanks, and surrounded by plants and animals that remind them of the world they destroyed. Still, the project isn’t fantasy; it is De’s projection of a plausible reality if humans don’t change their ways.

According to De, the images are meant to be esoteric, attempting to make the careful observer rethink their values regarding the climate.

“Why do I have to make everything so simple?” he questioned. “The writing is screaming loudly from the wall. Everything's coming to an end. And we are busy with where to go for a drink tonight and what movies we watch.”

By forcing his viewers not just to ponder climatic issues but also how they think about them — a potentially more pressing problem — De’s art is a marked departure from other depictions of disaster which have become all too familiar. In this way, his art serves to reverse the complacency humans feel about the planet by the most unlikely means.

As a 2022 Visiting Artist Fellow with the Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute, he is currently exhibiting a small body of images from his project “Imagined Homeland,” which aims to highlight Arunachal Pradesh’s remote Lisu people, a Tibeto-Burman indigenous group, and their unadulterated bond with nature. The project, which took De seven years to finish, employs many of the same artistic elements that he utilized in “Between Grief and Nothing,” most notably heavily scripting in natural environments.

Critically, however, De maintained that his work is an “interpretive statement,” or a reflection of his own beliefs regarding the issues at hand, rather than what he coins the “colonial-paternalistic gaze” which so many photographers have used to attain global stardom.

Over 18 years of refining his artistic style, De has evolved his own art to serve humanity’s most pressing needs. Although his inspirations, who were most active in the latter half of the 20th century, helped make documentary photography a universal means of understanding and empathizing with the world, De has reached the height of his artistic influence in a very different time. Now, as humanity faces a collective challenge of unprecedented magnitude, it has outgrown the need for only sympathy and worldliness. Instead, it requires of its 21st-century artists a new means of catalyzing the gravity of every action. The language of art is changing, and Sharbendu De is at the forefront of an evolution.

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