When U.S. photojournalist Peter Essick visited India and China for the first time, he was struck by how different life there was compared with American cities. But when he returned almost two decades later, he found the changes “staggering.” Bangalore now reminds him of the Silicon Valley, and Beijing and New Delhi are smoggier than anything he had ever encountered at home.
“Development and a high standard of living – which most people around the world view as desirable – come at a cost,” he said.
An award-winning frequent contributor to National Geographic, Essick spent 25 years traveling around the world, documenting environmental threats portrayed in his book, Our Beautiful, Fragile World.
In this slideshow of photographs hand-picked for EHN, Essick portrays the wide variety of environmental health problems that have afflicted people and ecosystems from Ho Chi Minh City to Lake Erie.
One of his biggest challenges was to find ways to illustrate health problems that are often internal: People are exposed to a variety of pollutants and chemicals that can build up in their bodies, their food and their environment. “Overall, I believe we are going to find out that the chemicals in products that we all use every day are a factor in many of the documented increases in health problems,” he said.
Essick, who lives in a suburb of Atlanta, worked with experts and environmental groups to locate the best places to photograph lead exposure, pesticide spraying, e-waste, urban runoff and many other issues. He said he gets many of his ideas from EHN’s daily roundups of environmental news from around the world.
“The problem of lead poisoning is one environmental health problem that I believe is much larger than most people realize. It is also tragic because it most affects children,” he said.
Of all the places he’s traveled on all seven continents, Essick is most concerned about the health of people exposed to severe air and water pollution in China and India.
“I have returned to both countries recently and the changes are staggering. It seems that it is unchecked, rapid economic development that causes the most harm to the environment,” he said.
He first traveled to India in the mid 1990s, then returned recently to photograph an e-waste recycler for a National Geographic article, High Tech Trash.
“My first trip to India I went to rural area in Punjab where they play a lot of field hockey. Maybe it was because I was living in Brooklyn at the time, but the trip felt like an escape from the rat race. I really liked the villages, the people and the food," he said. “On the trip 20 years later I still liked the people and the food, but I felt that the pace of life had changed to almost completely the opposite from what I had fondly remembered. The smog in New Delhi was terrible and Bangalore was much like visiting a large American city. The pace of life was fast and everything was very expensive. I see why Bangalore is compared to Silicon Valley.”
Essick recently traveled to China for National Geographic's Fertilized World, published last year. During his first trip there, in 2000, he shot photos for a piece on freshwater threats.
“When I went back it seemed that there was much more water and air pollution. Even in rural areas there was lots of construction going on. In the larger cities like Beijing and Shanghai there were fewer Chinese riding bicycles, and many more American companies and western amenities available,” he said.
The pace of economic and environmental change in China is unprecedented; it recently surpassed Japan as the world’s second largest economy, and could outgrow the United States by 2028. Its pollution reminds Essick of images he’s seen of U.S. steel mills and smelters, which arose during the Industrial Age of the mid-1800s.
“Why would anyone want to live in a city where you have to wear a mask to go outside and you can't drink the water? It is hard for me to fathom, but the USA also went through a period of development where you grow fast and clean up later,” Essick said.
“I have seen the photos of the steel mills in Pittsburgh a hundred years ago, and I'm sure there was no pollution control on the stacks then. But the development going on now in China and India is unprecedented and I'm sure is having serious health effects on their citizens.”
Peter Essick has produced 40 feature articles for National Geographic. He recently was named by Outdoor Photography magazine as one of the world's most influential nature photographers. Learn more about Essick’s work at his website. Read a review of Our Beautiful, Fragile World here.
This article originally ran at Environmental Health News, a news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.