“Shunyo Rajas (Kings of a Bereft Land),” Arko Datto’s solo exhibition at the Light Work Gallery, focuses on people living on the frontline of climate change. His photos depict inhabitants of the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna Delta, one of the most fertile areas in the world. It’s home to an estimated 280 million people.
The delta, which stretches from Bangladesh across the province of West Bengal, India, is dominated by water and small islands. There are few bridges from island to island, and it’s necessary to travel by boat. Most people make their living by farming or fishing.
Datto notes that residents’ day-to-day lives are affected by rising sea levels and swelling rivers, soil erosion and depletion of mangroves, water that is more and more salty, threatening the catch of fish.
He centers his show on people living in the delta, taking pains to tell their stories in depth. To do that, he’s created a large exhibit, one that’s mounted both in the main Kathleen O. Ellis gallery and in the hallway gallery right next to it. The show is divided into three, interconnected segments.
The first selection, shot in color during the day, displays vignettes of people going about their lives. Thus, there’s a photo of a young man carrying his grandmother; they live in an area where wheelchairs or motor transportation are rare indeed.
A second image shows a man carrying a bag full of household items. It seems likely that his house was flooded, leading to a move.
In addition, Datto documents the work people do just to maintain life. In one photo, a woman pumps water by hand.
Elsewhere, a woman carries a plate of food for a household member. As she leaves the house, she walks on bricks to avoid stepping in water that’s spilled over the land.
There’s also a straight-up photo of a family — two adults and three children.
Those portraits set the stage for a second, integral part of the exhibition, a group of 44 images titled “Final Wave.” That wording springs from a resident’s plaintive question: What happens when the final wave hits?
The photos, shot entirely at night, are dark, intense, manic, full of people dealing with the aftermath of monsoon waves and other surges of water.
In one shot, two woman carry small concrete blocks on their heads. They are coming from a building torn apart by waves.
That’s only one example of the vulnerability of people living in the delta. Another photo portrays a house almost covered by water; the upper section of a chimney is all that juts out of the wave. And there’s an image of a large, storm-damaged boat beached along a coastline.
Several photos demonstrate Datto’s ability to document people adapting to weather-related changes. Three men who got off a ship float on sand bags as they search for shore. A man uses a flashlight to find his way on land that’s severely eroded. On an open ship, two people huddle under blankets as they seek warmth on a stormy night.
One of the best images portrays a crowd of people standing on shore and waiting for medical services on a ship. Some of them had waited an entire day for the chance to see a doctor or nurse. In remote areas, healthcare is scarce at best.
In the Hallway Gallery, the third segment consists of eight large photographs shot with infrared color, resulting in magenta and pink tones. The images depict various scenes, including a man on an overturned boxcar, a house up on stilts, four people standing in the midst of a pile of sacks and under a roiled sky.
The color scheme transforms the people into faint, fleeting figures whose presence seems almost ghost-like and whose future is uncertain.
Datto has commented on the brutal irony of climate change’s severe impact on the people of the delta. Their patterns of consumption are very modest, and they did little to cause the crisis. Yet they are dealing directly with global warming and its effects.
“Shunto Rajas” is just one of Datto’s projects. He has photographed mass migration, techno-fascism, the Diwali Festival of Lights, a Hindu celebration, and other subjects.
He has received several awards including recognition from Greenpeace, Inc., in 2018 and an international prize for his coverage of the Gujarat riots in India in 2002. During three days of violence, over 1,000 people were killed, most of them Muslims. The police and other authorities did very little to quell the violence. Datto’s prize-winning photo depicted a man begging for his life.
The current exhibit is on display through Aug. 4 at Light Work, 316 Waverly Ave. on the Syracuse University campus. There’s no admission to the gallery, which is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. For more information, call 315-443-1300 or access www.lightwork.org.
Carl Mellor covered visual arts for the Syracuse New Times from 1994 through 2019. He continues to write about exhibitions and artists in the Syracuse area.