In Kanpur, India, along the banks of the holy Ganges, lies an area known as the “chromium fields,” roughly the size of a couple of football fields. When the photographer and filmmaker Sean Gallagher first visited the location in 2013, he spotted giant kilns, used to burn waste products from the local leather tanneries. “The landscape was completely desolate and looked like the landscape of another planet,” he remembers.
“The ground was stained by darkened colors where the waste had been burnt. Workers, some children, would work barefoot in this area without any PPE to protect themselves. It was a scene from a nightmare.” Poisonous smoke then blows through the air and into the villages, while the leather waste products are used as fertilizer and chicken feed.
By the time of Gallagher’s visit, the city of Kanpur was home to 300 leather tanneries, where hides from animals (mostly water buffalo) are treated with dyes and chemicals. From there, the leather is used to make shoes, bags, belts, and clothing, 90% of which is headed into the United States and Europe.
Before the tanneries, farmers in the surrounding villages were known for producing roses. Now, locals told the photographer that crops struggled to grow, and plants turned black in the toxic, foamy wastewater flowing from the tanneries through local farmland and into the Ganges, where people bathe and dogs, cows, and buffalo roam. The roses had gone.
Among tannery workers and village residents, the air and water pollution had created a health crisis, with locals suffering from asthma, tuberculosis, eyesight problems, gastrointestinal issues, and skin discoloration and rashes. In the area of Jajmau, where most of the tanneries are located, Gallagher met a man named Javad Akhter, whose wife had died of asthma just months earlier. Children had been born with severe physical and mental disabilities, believed to be caused by their mothers’ exposure to wastewater from the tanneries.
Gallagher arrived in Kanpur with one contact, a person working at a local NGO called Eco Friends, who then introduced him to members of the community. He stayed in a hotel, about a mile from Jajmau, for about a week and a half, returning to the same locations day by day, getting to know the people he met along the way. “Each day, my assistant and I would take a small tuk-tuk to the tannery area and spend the day working in the area,” he tells me.
“In some of the areas that were most polluted, we would use industrial masks to try to protect ourselves from inhaling anything harmful. The pollutants from the tanneries were mainly in the water, but they also affected the air, which meant we had to protect ourselves as much as possible. We only drank bottled water and limited our diet to avoid eating too much local produce. As we were there for a short period, the risks were relatively low to us, but long-term exposure was evident in the severe health impacts facing many local people.”
While some people declined to be photographed, the photographer found that many were open to sharing their experiences. “The employees of the tanneries who spoke to me did so because they had experienced health impacts,” he says. “They wanted their stories to be heard. Neither they nor I were under any delusions that my work would suddenly change the situation, but at least their stories would be out in the world, and people could learn what was happening there.”
In 2014, Gallagher shared those stories through a photo series and short film, both titled The Toxic Price of Leather. In the intervening years, small steps have been taken to address the problem; this March, 94 tanneries in Jajmau were ordered to close after discharging contaminated water into local sewer lines, polluting the Ganges.
Still, the larger crisis persists. “Sadly, it appears the situation hasn’t changed much in the time since I photographed in Kanpur,” Gallagher says. “The tannery factories still operate and discharge waste into the Ganges. There were plans to move the tanneries, but that appears not to have happened.”
Since his trip to Kanpur, Gallagher has covered urgent health and ecological crises, including deforestation in Cambodia, rising tides in the country of Tuvalu, the exotic pet trade in China, and more, but The Toxic Price of Leather remains at the forefront of his memory. “Personally, this was one of the most difficult stories I have worked on,” he tells me.
“The environmental damage is severe, and the levels of pollution were the worst I have ever seen in my many years covering these types of stories. Working in those types of conditions is challenging and can be difficult after prolonged periods of time. The hardest part, however, was hearing so many stories of how the pollution has affected local people’s health and devastated lives.”