IT’S ONE THING to read about air pollution contributing to more than one million deaths in China, or about how one-third of its rural residents lack access to clean water. But it doesn’t seem quite real until you see the people behind those statistics. Photographer Souvid Datta provides a glimpse of their lives in China: The Human Price of Pollution, revealing the people living in smog-choked cities and drawing water from grimy, polluted rivers.
Datta, who’s only 24, started the project partly for personal reasons. When he was 17, a Chinese friend died of lung cancer, a disease doctors said was exacerbated by the poor air quality in Beijing. The death hit Datta hard and sent him on a journey to help people understand the human cost of filthy air and water.
“Pollution is often an abstract or statistical issue, remote and unsexy for news readers and editors,” he says. “The work had to evoke a sense of genuine empathy and curiosity in readers, something that could nudge them towards productive awareness.”
The photographer found locations using resources like Chinese investigative journalist Deng Fei’s map of “Cancer Villages.” The map pinpoints towns, often adjacent to industrial areas, that have abnormally high cancer rates. Datta also scoured NGO reports that pointed him toward places like Fenghua River, which has been heavily and repeatedly polluted by nearby factories.
On the ground, Datta got to experience what it’s like living in China. When he was in Xingtai the PM2.5 count—a measure of fine particulate matter is in the air—topped 900. That’s akin to living inside one of those smoking rooms you see in airports.
“By the end of the day I was coughing up black sediment and severely wheezing,” he says. “If that’s what happened to me after one day, it’s horrific to imagine the lives of thousands of people who can’t afford masks.”
China has made some efforts to reduce pollution. According to government statistics, last year’s coal consumption was down 2.9 percent, for example. And an outside investigation found that China’s annual emissions of carbon dioxide were down 0.8 percent, the first time in more than a decade. Datta says he’s seen environmental concerns growing and being addressed through grassroots organizing and social media.
The project is ongoing and Datta plans to go back soon. He hopes to address the political side of pollution in China and also wants to use multimedia to dig deeper. He has plans to follow an activist and someone affected by pollution to tell their stories more in-depth. “I’m keen to get my audience involved in people’s stories,” he says. “In order to do that I’ll have to get closer too, both physically and emotionally.”