UK-based photojournalist Souvid Datta learned about Chinese air pollution at a young age. While at boarding school, a good friend's younger brother died of lung cancer at age 16. The family was Chinese and their doctor theorized that airborne particles known as PM2.5 (meaning they are 2.5 micrometers or smaller) contributed to his death. When inhaled, these tiny and often toxic particles pass through lung membranes and enter the bloodstream. While they don't always cause cancer, they are a ubiquitous byproduct of burning coal. And in China, PM2.5 has become a part of life.
Souvid's lesson in pollution terminology stayed with him, and years later, when he began documenting the problem, he stumbled across another strange term sadly unique to China: Cancer Villages. Souvid subsequently spent months traveling these tragic areas and returned with these photos. We talked to him about pollution, cancer, and hope.
VICE: Can you explain what a "cancer village" is?
Souvid Datta: Cancer villages, by virtue of being surrounded by chemical plants or coal-fired power plants, are villages with soil and water supplies that are contaminated, usually with heavy metals. These are entire villages where every other house contains someone dying of cancer or some sort of respiratory problem.
Bleak. How did you find these places?
I did a lot of research through NGOs and some places I found on local news reports, social media, and Google Maps, but then as soon as I arrived the plan began to change. A lot of the people and NGOs dropped out and I realized just what a big deal it was to speak up.
So what did you do?
Xingtai (in the northeast) was named China's most polluted city in 2013 [pdf] so it was one of the first places I went. I didn't have a fixer or translator. There was just one girl at the hotel who could speak some English and she agreed to walk me around. When we got to the edge of town we found this guy named Zhang Wei crouched by his brother's grave, who'd died from lung cancer and chromium poisoning. Speaking with this man and hearing his story made sense. It just vindicated my reasons for being there. I felt like I had something important that I had to share with the world.
Did the pollution make you sick yourself?
I'd sometimes get hay fever in the summer. But after just a few days in Xingtai, I was coughing up weird stuff. If I looked at my spit it had a brown sediment in it. I can only imagine what it's like to live there.
What did the locals have say about it? Were they open to talking?
Yeah, a lot of people are angry and want their story told. I was actually surprised about this. Before I left, I was told locals wouldn't talk, but as soon as I went out into the rural areas, where these issues are the worst, people are furious. Everyone knows someone affected.
Are there repercussions for speaking out?
Well, people are either faced with intimidation or are just stonewalled, which is kind of characteristic of how the Chinese government has handled this for the past 15 years.
Did you see examples of people being silenced?
I was working with a woman named Wei Dongying who's been campaigning against wastewater dumped in her village for the past 17 years or so. She's kept track of who's got cancer, where they live, and where companies have been dumping waste. She's got evidence—photos and bottles of sampled water that are ridiculous. They're all blue or green in color. So when I went to meet her I got lost on the way. I came up to a fire station thinking they'd be helpful. And they were, initially, but then I mentioned this woman's name and they called out some senior officials who told me she was dead. They told me to leave and if I was found contacting her there'd be trouble. Later I actually found her house. I was there for five minutes when the police arrived and confiscated my equipment.
Let's talk about the photos. Something that I think is unique is that you've focused more on people than the poisoned landscapes. Why is that?
I focused on people because I think very few people my age particularly care about pollution. I think that's because we're bombarded with disaster imagery—babies wearing filter masks, apocalyptic smog, that sort of thing—and that distances us from the story. When I thought about what motivated me to go there, it was the human experience of what happened to my friend. I was more drawn to how people are being treated. That was the story for me.
How have people reacted to these photos?
I think the main reaction has been anger, which I'm quite glad about. This is what it should provoke. When you see these people up against incredibly abstract, corporate forces, which are stripping them of basic rights to drink clean water, people should be angry.
And your friend who lost his brother, what was his reaction?
He was encouraging. He's living in Beijing at the moment and it's affected him deeply but he can't do much about it. But he also comes from the affluent part of China where people live in nice houses with air filters. They don't have cause to find out about what's happening to people in smaller villages. He was glad that I got this info out.
Interview by Julian Morgans. Follow him on Twitter.