The Indian Islanders Losing their Home and Heritage

In a series of striking portraits, Korean photographer Daesung Lee documents how the heritage of Ghoramara Island in West Bengal is being swallowed by rapidly rising tides.

© Daesung Lee, from the series On the Shore of a Vanishing Island

As many peers committed to reporting on the consequences of climate change, Korean photographer Daesung Lee started with the observation of the current system’s paradox. “Climate change is part of globalisation. By consuming, we have an impact on the environment, but we are addicted to consumption”, he explains.

Over the years, he came across a few findings, such as the discord between Bangladesh and India over some territories in the delta region in West Bengal, which came to an end when the disputed land vanished. Lee started to research the area and realised that other islands may soon suffer the same fate. Since the 1960’s, the shores of Ghoramara Island, for instance, have been washing away, resulting in the loss of 50% of its territory from erosion. Upon realisation of the situation in 2011, Lee went there to bear witness to the disappearance of the island and, with it, its inhabitant’s past. “Exposed roots of plants destroyed by the erosion serve to illustrate the absence of foundation in the lives of these people. The sea is swallowing up their past while their future remains unknown”, he writes.

© Daesung Lee, from the series On the Shore of a Vanishing Island

As the erosion gathers pace, islanders move towards the centre of their 5km wide homeland, while others are resettled on the nearby island of Sagar as part of an evacuation plan orchestrated by the government. “They’re losing their home, and at the same time their memory”, Lee deplores. “They are losing their very specific way of life in the process, while their tradition is an example of a necessary cycle.”

His photographs can be seen as metaphors of the situation. Standing on rocks barely wide enough to fit their feet, islanders pose for him in their everyday outfits. Some handle their fishing net or music instrument, others stand with their cow or goat. The temporary isle in each portrait, at times dangerously shovelled by the erosion, evokes the fragile state of their island. “I aimed for visuals that express everything in one shot”, Lee says.

© Daesung Lee, from the series On the Shore of a Vanishing Island

Beyond individually, his photographs also take on meaning all together. A gallery of several generations of current islanders, it unravels as a possible family album for a people whose physical geography will soon vanish. “One day this island on which they were born will only exist in their memories”, Lee concludes. In a few decades, his portraits may well be the only reminders of their lost territory.

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Daesung Lee is a Korean photographer based in Paris, France. His work follows the theme of globalisation and its impact on the contemporary world. Follow him on PHmuseum.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn focusing on cultural and environmental issues.

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Getting Closer presents photographic works, mainly in a documentary vein, that speak about the causes and consequences of environmental degradation.

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