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Subhankar Banerjee, passionate photographer

Subhankar Banerjee, passionate photographer

Subhankar Banerjee, from Kolkata, (renamed ‘The City of Joy’ from Calcutta in 2001) originally a computer programmer became physicist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico and Boeing, Seattle. He developed an interest in photography

He decided to change his life, left his ‘comfortable job’ at Boeing, using his life savings and cashing in his retirement pay to spend four seasons documenting life in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, focusing on the area where drilling for oil and gas was proposed.

Subhankar Banerjee, Polar Bear, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska

In an interview, Banerjee admits, ‘I thought I had prepared myself, but the first day it was 40 degrees below zero. Robert Thompson (now a good friend) said: ‘Let’s go for a walk.’ Then, in the evening we went to Erie Island, a small Barrier Island. The wind starting blowing at 30, 40, 50 miles per hour and the wind chill dropped to 90, then 100 below zero. And I was like, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ I thought I had really gotten myself in over my head. I couldn’t see three feet in front of me, and I was contemplating going back to Seattle. I wasn’t prepared for the harshness. My friend said, ‘Don’t worry. Things will get much worse, but you will survive’.

All of my cameras are completely mechanical; there isn’t even a light meter in the camera. These are really old, mechanical medium-format cameras, so you still get a very large shot. I have a light meter that stays inside my parka so it can operate. There is no battery or anything to deal with because in such cold weather these things don’t work. The only technical challenge then becomes that film becomes very brittle in such conditions. Anytime it goes 50 below or colder, it snaps very quickly. [1]

His show at the Smithsonian ran into trouble from the politics of conservation vs oil and gas. It was moved from the main floor rotunda to a lower-level room, and captions were deleted and truncated.

For a picture of the Romanzof Mountains, the caption, ‘The refuge has the most beautiful landscape I have ever seen and is so remote and untamed that many peaks, valleys and lakes are still without names’, was changed to ‘Unnamed Peak, Romanzof Mountains’.

‘We do not engage in advocacy,’ said Randall Kremer, a museum spokesman. ‘And some of the captions bordered on advocacy.’[2]

Subhankar Banerjee, Caribou Migration, detail

He is now a professor in warmer climes at the University of New Mexico but is still working with the Gwich’in and Iñupiat communities to defend Arctic Alaska from oil and gas development.

The good news is that President Joe Biden imposed a temporary moratorium on all oil and gas leasing activities in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge shortly after taking office on Wednesday (20 Jan, 2021), citing alleged legal deficiencies and the inadequacy of a required environmental review.


[1] Alexandra Tursi, ‘The Eco-Critical Photographer: An Interview With Subhankar Banerjee’, Identity Theory, April 12, 2010.

[2] Quotes from Timothy Egan, ’Smithsonian Is No Safe Haven for Exhibit on Arctic Wildlife Refuge’, New York Times, May 2, 2003.

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