In the villages around Kanpur, in the north of India, an eerie foam moves across water canals, engulfing farmland. Laced with highly toxic and acidic chemicals, the froth comes from the area’s 300 tanneries. Photographer Sean Gallagher has been documenting pollution throughout India thanks to a Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting grant, but nothing had prepared him for what he saw in Kanpur, the country’s leading leather exporter. Beneath the city’s black smoke, he met with the victims of the ecological crisis, many of whom make a living in the very industy that is destroying their health and their environment. He spoke to R&K from his home in Beijing.
Roads & Kingdoms: What is Kanpur like?
Sean Gallagher: Kanpur isn’t one of India’s largest cities—its population is only about 2.5 million people. It’s interesting, however, as it sits right on the banks of the Ganges River, which as most people know is the most sacred in the whole of the country. Even though it’s small, it’s a very busy city with streets full of vehicles and people. But the first thing that strikes you when entering Kanpur is the air pollution, which seems to hang constantly over the city. In many areas, you’ll see smokestacks belching out black smoke. These come from the leather tanneries.