The life of the Ganges

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Giulio Di Sturco’s decade-long project Ganga Ma documents the effects of pollution on India’s holiest river

Shot along the banks of India’s largest river, cast in the pink glow of a low sun, Giulio Di Sturco’s images are calming and hazy. In one of them, a worker from Delhi hoses down piles of white foam, so much of it that at first glance the image is rather surreal. But as with all of his photographs, hidden under this dream-like filter is a devastating story, about the effects of climate change and pollution on the country’s holiest river.

The foam is in fact toxic chemical waste, dumped by factories along the river’s tributaries. The Ganges provides water to around 40 percent of India’s population, and bathing in it is said to purify the soul – an important part of Hindu pilgrimage. But now, rising pollution levels from industrial waste and sewage are threatening not only this holy tradition, but the lives of 500 million people who rely on the river as a life source.

Di Sturco, a trained photojournalist, started photographing the Ganges 10 years ago, when he was on assignment in north India for an Italian magazine. It was right when he was thinking of moving away from photojournalism, and he was looking for a bigger story to focus on. “I was starting to feel a little bit caged, and I wanted to see if I could do something different,” he says. From then, he began travelling to different parts of the river bank, photographing toxic foam, melting glaciers, and the communities that attempt to live off this dying river.

In July 2017, the Indian Supreme Court overruled an order made by the High Court four months earlier, which declared the Ganges a living entity with the same legal status as a human being. It was an attempt to put a stop to pollution, but was deemed impractical and legally unsustainable.

A worker with a water hose tries to tame an iceberg of foam created by the chemical waste dumped by the factories along the Yamuna river, Delhi, 2015 © Giulio Di Sturco
Along the Ganges, India, 2014 © Giulio Di Sturco

In light of this news, Di Sturco decided to approach the Ganges as if it were a person, mapping the river from its clear and icy source in the Indian Himalayas to the toxic and sludgy delta, in the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh. The resulting images will be published by GOST in a book titled Ganga Ma – the goddess of the Ganges river – this month.

‘For me, this is like a transition project,” says Di Sturco, explaining how the two texts in the book were chosen reflect the shift he was making from photojournalism into more conceptual photography. The first is by Vandana Shiva, a renowned Indian environmentalist, and the other is by Eimear Martin, a curator of contemporary art.

It was important for him to approach the project with a different aesthetic to traditional documentary project. He used a mixture of analogue and digital, shooting either in the early mornings or late evenings to achieve a soporific effect. “For me, we are a bit saturated by images in the press. If you are able to talk about any issue in a different way, I think it has more impact,” he says.

Ganga Ma by Giulio Di Sturco is published by GOST, available to purchase from June for £35

Marigold Warner

Deputy Editor

Marigold Warner worked as an editor at BJP between 2018 and 2023. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Elephant, Gal-dem, The Face, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.