A few years ago, the younger brother of photographer Souvid Datta’s close friend was diagnosed with lung cancer. He was 13 and lived in Beijing. The cause: overexposure to small air particle pollutants, which severely exacerbated his existing respiratory problems. After a series of failed treatments, the boy passed away two years later. It was Datta’s first contact with pollution in China and it had a deep impact. Born in India, Datta was studying politics and law in the UK when he discovered photography. This year, as he was finishing college, he took advantage of his Christmas holidays to travel to China thanks to support by The Royal Photographic Society, The Photographic Angle, IdeasTap and Magnum Photos. Inspired by photographer Lu Guang, who has worked on China’s environmental stories for over three decades, Datta spent four weeks exploring some of the country’s so-called cancer villages. He spoke to R&K while on assignment in Afghanistan.
Roads & Kingdoms: What is a cancer village?
Souvid Datta: In China, cancer villages began being referred to around 1997. They’re typically small communities based near chemical, pharmaceutical or power plants, where exposure to resulting pollution has led to cancer rates soaring far above the national average. Children born in the villages of Xingtai, for example, China’s most polluted city in 2013, can be up to 13 times more likely to contract lung cancer due to air pollution from local coal-fired power plants. Current estimates from the Chinese media, NGOs and academics say the country is home to around 490 cancer villages, though new cases seem to emerge monthly.