When photographer Sushavan Nandy first visited India’s Sundarbans region, where entire islands are disappearing, he found that many people in the area were unaware of terms like “sea-level rise” and “climate change”. What they were sure of is that the pain of losing your home isn’t limited to the physical destruction of the roof over your head. It goes much deeper.
Photographer Sushavan Nandy was only a child when he experienced the devastating effects of regular flooding while living in the Jalpaiguri district of North Bengal, India. Eventually his family relocated to Kolkata, but the ordeal stayed with him. Decades later, Sushavan found himself on assignment for a news piece about recurring flooding in the Sundarbans region and was immediately drawn in by the stories of the people living there and how their current struggles mirrored his childhood.
Spanning across several low-lying islands, tidal waterways and mudflats between the Bay of Bengal in India and Bangladesh, the Sundarbans region constantly suffers from flooding due to increasingly rising waters as a result of the climate crisis. Many people in the area have lost their homes or land but it’s not just the tangible destruction that has affected them. Fear and loss have far-reaching consequences that touch every part of your life and identity, which is exactly what Sushanvan hopes to convey with his long-term series on the area: Ebbing away of identity with the tides.
“If the whole locality gets washed away into the sea, what identity will remain there?”
The ongoing work currently focuses on Mousuni, Ghoramara and Sagar islands. Sushavan has already spent three years making repeated trips to the area to ensure that his images will be more than just another collection of disaster photographs. “For me, taking a photo is a small part of my project,” Sushavan explains. “I went there for an assignment the first time, but afterwards I kept visiting [the] islands and started talking to more local people … through their stories I started contemplating and found a connection between my own life experience.”
“My intention was not only to show the rising water level and how [the local people’s] houses are washing away with the floodwater. I also wanted to convey their life experiences and their emotions through my images. I needed to talk to them and explain what I am trying to achieve… The people who live in Mousuni, Ghoramara and Sagar, most of them are not educated enough to get acquainted with the word ‘climate change’, but losing your home and land again and again is frustrating, it is like the worst nightmare.”
The connection to subject and attention to detail in the series are elements of documentary photography that Sushavan has always wanted to express through his work. However, Sushavan found that once he became a freelance news photographer the job was not as fulfilling as he expected. Many of the experiences and stories that impacted him the most were reduced to captions or single images that didn’t reflect the complexities of each situation. Not one to stray from his intentions, Sushavan decided to pursue long term projects instead, sticking to his belief that “time brings depth to a story and with depth comes empathy from an audience”.
Ebbing away of identity with the tides is an incredible representation of this sentiment. From hazy landscapes that seem as if they might vanish if you look too closely to poignant portraits of people with their backs to the camera or their faces obscured, each image is like a chapter in an overall narrative that depicts the far-reaching impact of losing your home and land. The underlying message is clear: identity is the invisible victim.
“Home is not just a structure, it has a lot of memories and stories attached to it”
“In India when we [refer to] someone in our locality we used to say something like ‘the uncle from that red house or the brother from the house next to us’ – I grew up in this culture. Now if one day the whole house or the whole locality gets washed away into the sea, what identity will remain there? Because home is not just a structure, it has a lot of memories and stories attached to it. In my project I have shown these stories, sometimes directly and sometimes using metaphors,” Sushavan says.
“Time brings depth to a story and with depth comes empathy from an audience.”
In one image, he captures a few tomatoes adrift in the water. The photograph is washed out and the tomatoes look as if all the life has been sucked out of them. For Sushavan, this is a metaphor for a farmer who has lost their land and crops due to the flood. “In this way, they are losing both their land and job. They are then forced to go outside of the village searching for another way of earning,” He explains. In another, Sushvan depicts a woman seated, brushing out long dark hair that covers her face. There’s a deep feeling of isolation to it, but also endurance.
“The woman shared a personal story with me. Due to the flood, her husband lost his cultivation land and crops so he set out in search of other jobs in a different city, but he never came back to her again. He married some other woman there and left his previous wife alone. Now she has to spend the rest of her life alone on that island.”
Through his collection of these oral stories, Sushavan reveals “how this change of climate is affecting the personal lives of people directly and indirectly”. Rather than claiming the series as a personal project, he views it as a “collaboration with the local people of each island that aims to bring their struggles to mainstream consciousness” and admits that although it has been three years he’s still unsure of how he’ll be able to finish documenting these underrepresented issues.