Each year toward the end of May, the curving, low-slung land of the Bengal Delta swelters.The soil and the dirt heat up quicker than the northeastern tides of the Indian Ocean, which push up against the shores of West Bengal and Bangladesh. Cold, high-powered winds rise from the water, meeting the acute warmth of the land. The conditions become ideal for cyclones to form. The Delta lands are doubly precarious: subject to intensifying amounts of rainfall and the erratic behavior of a turbulent Indian Ocean swirling unpredictably in the Bay of Bengal. Storm water surges, growing deadlier as tides fluctuate in temperature, carry away livestock, boats, houses, and entire swaths of land.
Against this blustering, shifting scene, Arko Datto moves through the night with his camera. His images are shot through with light, the colors electrified; small drops of water catch the flash, drizzling down his lens. Stray dogs leap off drenched rocks. Families crowd onto boats, feet in the sinking mud. Lone residents grasp at their phones, umbrellas, or sheets of plastic cover, stealing glances across the torn-up terrain. Fights break out. Passenger ships transporting migrant laborers from Southern Bangladesh to the capital, Dhaka, stumble through choppy water. Animated by his effortless instinct to draw out narrative, the sweeping, theatrical topography that Datto surveys is tethered between the onset of total destruction and an urgent, hurried drive to renew what is possible from a fast-drowning existence. Datto shows us how life carries on: crowds at fish markets gather around handfuls of the day’s catch, and on special nights, festive nights, revelers show off their party dresses. Teenagers dance around clutches of windswept trees, their arms held up in abandon.Turbulence marks every image.
Datto intentionally works at nighttime. “The setting sun comes coded with its own signs of terror,” he says. This eroding land sits at the mouths of three intersecting rivers and its residents recount to Datto how they have grown to live alongside the daily sunset’s unpredictability. Water seeps through their villages and homesteads in the dead of night, and some mornings, people wake to nothing but soaked-up land, disappeared family and friends. “Fear propels my sense of urgency and motivation,” Datto responds. For the artist, this crisis is not happening “elsewhere.” It is at his doorstep, speeding through his imagination. As the richly diverse Sunderban forests disappear with every new year, mainland West Bengal and Bangladesh have to face the wrath of the sea, and rain. Comprising thickly knit mangrove trees, the Sunderbans are the last resistance, their roots and foliage keeping the rising tides at bay.Datto’s home city of Kolkata clings desperately on the brink.
Trees are special characters in Datto’s tableaus. Palm trees, banana plants, stalks of bamboo, and the thick mangroves bend and twist against the wind. They are alive, energized—steady sentinels pugnacious in the face of impending disaster. The forest, its canopies, its fledgling new life, all are often absent in the reports of damage from the Delta. Financial loss preoccupies disaster management discourse. Rarely does the thriving range and fortitude of the Bay of Bengal’s ecosystem make its way into policy considerations or legal framework. The trees are indeed an afterthought, despite being primary protectors of the land. Such is the logic of disaster capitalism: centered on safeguarding economies, not environments, nor the people who inhabit and coexist alongside them.
Since the Sunderbans are so close to home, Datto makes several trips a year, leaving and returning, and individual visits accumulate layers of insight and perspective. This water-logged land is constantly evolving, as is Datto’s relationship to it. His survey of this tense landscape has a psychological tightness; he understands that climate is not just physical—it takes over the mind.His language is that of dystopia: not one that is emptied of life, but where life thrives despite its onslaught. Datto makes visible that apocalyptic endings are not “of the future,” but steeped in a continuous present. They are not necessarily endings at all, even after the water repeatedly wipes out the daily scaffolding of millions of lives. Those lives continue to make themselves hybrid—human, plant, and animal—finding tenacious ways to survive. Unfailingly, and seemingly unendingly, the Delta absorbs the assault of climate change.
Each image is its own testimony. Each image is evidence and witness to the violence that presses into the everyday. A violence that is normalized, a violence that is othered. Datto pumps up the colors of every frame: the world that he documents seethes with energy and vibrancy. It’s hyper, it’s real. It’s a place that demands our attention, that resists its own inevitable erasure.
Skye Arundhati ThomasSkye Arundhati Thomas is a writer based in Goa, India. She is editor of The White Review.
Arko Datto lives in Kolkata, India, and completed his residency at Light Work in the fall of 2020. https://east-wing.org