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Banerjee’s striking aesthetic compositions, together with his attention to ecological context, reframe the Arctic landscape and question some of the reigning assumptions about the relationship between nature and culture in modern America. His work makes viewers feel closer to the Arctic, not only by offering memorable portrayals of the region, but also by repeatedly reminding them of the ties that bind this distant land to their own lives.
—Finis Dunaway, from his essay in A Keener Perception: Ecocritical Studies in American Art History (The University of Alabama Press, 2009)

As nuanced and forward–looking as his own artistic work is, Banerjee finds his energies increasingly directed toward teaching, fostering critical dialogues, writing (both for scholars and for wider audiences), and working on expansive collaborations addressing what he has dubbed biological annihilation—the massive die–off of species worldwide. ‘I’m not interested in my career as an artist anymore,’ he reiterated. ‘It isn’t about my work anymore. I’m more interested in the intergenerational component now. What will my students do?’ Such intergenerational, interdisciplinary projects that aim for social transformation are all in the name of one of Banerjee’s core values: engagement.
—Maggie Grimason, from “Meet Your Makers,” Southwest Contemporary, 24 May 2019



I’m an Indian–born American photographer, writer, conservationist, and public scholar. Since the turn of this century, my work has and continues to focus on the two most consequential planetary crises of human history, namely BIOLOGICAL ANNIHILATION and CLIMATE BREAKDOWN. Biological annihilation and climate breakdown are two separate but entangled crises as each contributes in significant ways to the escalation of the other. Both crises are human–caused and are intensifying.

My practice is place–based and community–engaged. The places in which my work have been situated so far are—the Arctic in the U.S.–Canada borderlands; the desert in the U.S.–Mexico borderlands; the coastal temperate rainforests and the edge of the sea in the Pacific Northwest; and the tropical forests of India, including the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans in the India–Bangladesh borderlands.

I work closely with Indigenous Gwich’in and Iñupiat community members and environmental organizations to defend important biological nurseries and culturally significant places in Arctic Alaska from oil and gas exploration and development. These places are—the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Teshekpuk Lake wetlands, the Utukok River uplands, the Kasegaluk Lagoon, and the Arctic seas of Alaska—the Beaufort and the Chukchi.

After an independent sixteen–year–long meaningful career (which also came with its fair share of struggles and financial insecurity), and following a six–month–long Visiting Fellow appointment at the Clare Hall College of the University of Cambridge in the UK, in August 2016, I joined the University of New Mexico (UNM) as a professor of Art & Ecology in the Department of Art: Studio, History, Education. I also hold the Lannan Foundation Endowed Chair post, and serve as the founding director of both the UNM CENTER FOR ENVIRONMENTAL ARTS AND HUMANITIES and the SPECIES IN PERIL project at UNM. In April 2020, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, just as cities, states and nations were starting to institute lockdowns to contain the spread of COVID-19, I founded both initiatives to foster conversation, creative production and scholarship to address the biodiversity and the climate crises. An article “Center for Environmental Arts and Humanities finally on its feet after pandemic start” by Mary Beth King, published in UNM NEWSROOM on April 12, 2021, includes my reasoning for establishing the two initiatives:

“First, it’s a recognition that the biodiversity crisis and the climate crisis are the two most consequential and existential planetary challenges of human history. Both are caused by human activity and are intensifying. While the Species in Peril project is focused entirely on addressing the biodiversity crisis that continues to fester from public inattention, the Center’s activities will address both crises through student and faculty engagements, including teaching, research and creative production.

There is [also] a recognition that through the course of the 20th century, academia has become, what I like to call, ‘silos’ and ‘archipelagoes’. Each discipline / department / college functions as a silo, while within each unit, it looks like a collection of archipelagos. Individual excellence, not collective efforts, is rewarded in academia that perpetuates the continuation of damaging divisions. We wanted to build bridges across these academic fragmentations, and also between academia and the communities in which we live and work.”

The work that I do today, as an artist and writer, as a conservationist and public scholar—I did not learn any of it in academia. I learned it instead by being in the Arctic and learning from Indigenous Gwich’in and Iñupiat elders and from field biologists. The Arctic has been and will continue to be my true university, although there are a few other places that are also becoming significant in recent years, notably the Rio Grande / Río Bravo basin in the U.S.–Mexico borderlands and the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans in the India–Bangladesh borderlands.


EARLY   YEARS


Geese and Cranes, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico, United States (photo by Subhankar Banerjee, 1998).

I was born in 1967 in Berhampore, a small town near Kolkata, India. My childhood experiences in tropical rural Bengal helped foster a lifelong interest in the value of taking care of land and protecting varieties of kinship that exist among human and nonhuman beings who live in those lands. My parents introduced me to the work of their friend, the late–great writer and activist Mahasweta Devi who wrote tirelessly in defense of tribal rights. Devi’s work and life will forever serve as a key source of inspiration for me. During my teen years, I started watching the cinemas of Ritwik Ghatak, Satyajit Ray, and Mrinal Sen. I loved their films and found the visual explorations of everyday life and larger social issues immensely inspiring. My great uncle Bimal Mookerjee, a painter, taught me how to paint. I created portraits and detailed rural scenes but knew from growing up with two siblings in a modest middle–income family—that it would be impossible for me to pursue a career in the arts. I instead chose the practical path of studying engineering at Jadavpur University in Kolkata from where I received a degree in Electrical Engineering in 1989. The following year, I came to Las Cruces in New Mexico to pursue graduate education at the New Mexico State University. In 1994, I received two graduate degrees, one in physics and the other in computer science.

In 2008, the Institute of Physics in London published an interview with me, ONCE A PHYSICIST.

In the New Mexican desert, I fell in love with the open spaces of the Southwest. I hiked and backpacked frequently in New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah. I also bought a 35mm Minolta SLR camera with which I started making photographs. After finishing graduate study, I worked in New Mexico for two years. I then moved to Seattle, Washington, to take up a corporate job. Living in the Pacific Northwest, my commitment to photography grew. I photographed extensively during many outdoor trips in Washington, Oregon, Montana, Wyoming, California, New Hampshire, Vermont, Florida, British Columbia, Alberta and Manitoba.

In 2000, I left the security of the corporate career and began a long–term photography project in the Arctic. The project received early sponsorship from the Seattle–based non–profit organization Blue Earth Alliance whose mission is to support “visual storytelling on critical environmental and social issues through direct assistance to photographers and a collaborative community of professionals.”


JOURNEY   TO   THE   ARCTIC


Caribou Migration I (detail), Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska, United States (photo by Subhankar Banerjee, 2002).

It was late October in 2000. In one early morning, I was standing on the deck of a “tundra buggy” near the town of Churchill in Manitoba, Canada. A tundra buggy is essentially a big bus with large tires that provides high clearance from which tourists can safely view polar bears. I had hoped to see dancing polar bears similar to the ones I had seen in coffee–table books. But instead before me was an unusual scene that I will never forget: one polar bear was eating another. I made a photograph.

That morning I did not understand what I was looking at and was unaware of the science behind the scene. But I know now that the ghastly photograph could serve as a visual evidence of both climate crisis and the biodiversity crisis. It is a more authentic marker of our time than dancing polar bears of the past century. I was horrified and enthralled at the same time and wanted to know more about the Arctic.

Shortly after returning home I reached out to a federal biologist at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge office in Fairbanks, Alaska. The scientist generously shared information with me and put me in touch with Kaktovik resident Robert Thompson, an Iñupiaq conservationist. Kaktovik is a small town of about 250 residents situated on Barter Island at the northern edge of the Arctic Refuge. After four months of frequent phone conversations with Robert and close reading of the 392–page scientific assessment “Final Report: Baseline Study of the Fish, Wildlife, and their Habitats,” which was published by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in December 1986—I arrived in Kaktovik on March 19, 2001.

I spent fourteen months in the Arctic Refuge, spread almost equally over 2001 and 2002. Bookended by Canning River in the west and Turner River in the east, Robert and I traversed up and down almost every river that begins its journey in the Brooks Range Mountains and flows north through the Coastal Plain to the Beaufort Sea: Tamayariyak, Katakturuk, Sadlerochit, Hulahula, Okpilak, Jago, Aichilik, Igaksrak and Kongakut. We saw polar bear mother play with her cubs; herd of muskoxen traveling with a calf who was a day or two old; caribou mother nursing her newborn calf; and thousands upon thousands of birds whose songs and cacophony made getting enough sleep a real challenge. I was witnessing and documenting in photographs what I had read in the 392–page scientific assessment. I learned first hand that the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is indeed a biological nursery of global significance.

But when I would ask Robert how he might describe the Coastal Plain, he would simply say: “It’s home. To us it’s home.”

And, to the Indigenous Gwich’in people, the Coastal Plain is “Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit” (The Sacred Place Where Life Begins). The Coastal Plain is the calving and nursing grounds of the Porcupine River Caribou herd. The Gwich’in people have relied upon the caribou for thousands of years to meet their nutritional, cultural and spiritual needs. I also spent significant time in Arctic Village, a Gwich’in community of about 150 residents, and on the land with Charlie Swaney and Jimmy John of Arctic Village. We traveled on the East Fork of the Chandalar River.

My first book Seasons of Life and Land: Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was published by the Mountaineers Books in Seattle in 2003. On March 19, 2003, Senator Barbara Boxer held up the book on the Senate floor and showed some of the photographs from the book enlarged in poster–size while arguing to defeat a legislative attempt to open up the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge to oil and gas exploration and development. Her passionate plea resulted in a 52–48 votes win for the Indigenous and environmental defenders that day. Subsequent to Senator Boxer’s speech and the win, however, my soon–to–open exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History was censored, which resulted in major outcry from the national press and media. There was also a Senate hearing on the issue, and eventually a Senate investigation.

The story of the Smithsonian controversy is detailed in an article “The Smithsonian's Big Chill” by late art critic Ingrid Sischy first published in Vanity Fair in December 2003, and subsequently reprinted in the book, Nothing Is Lost: Selected Essays of Ingrid Sischy (Alfred A. Knopf, 2018); and in the scholarly essay “Reframing the Last Frontier: Subhankar Banerjee and the Visual Politics of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge” by historian Finis Dunaway, which is included in the book A Keener Perception: Ecocritical Studies in American Art History (University of Alabama Press, 2009).

With generous support from the Lannan Foundation, we also launched a national Arctic Refuge public outreach campaign using the Seasons of Life and Land book and the accompanying exhibitions (see the BOOKS and the OUTREACH pages on this site for more information).


IN   THE   DESERT


Dead Piñon Where Birds Gather in Autumn (detail), New Mexico, United States (photo by Subhankar Banerjee, 2009).

I engaged not only with the far—the Arctic, but also the near—the desert.

It was March 2006. We started renting a house at the northeastern edge of Santa Fe in New Mexico. Within a couple of days of moving into the house, I found a songbird, a male house finch that had hit one of the large glass windows in the house and died. I photographed the bird with a six–megapixel camera and named the picture Dead Bird: Tribute to Ryder after the famous painting of the same subject by the 19th century American painter Albert Pinkham Ryder. In the United States, hundreds of millions of birds die each year by crashing against windows, a key contributor to population decline among wild birds.

I speak about the experience of coming upon the dead house finch as a turning point in my life in a short (under four minutes) video interview “From Aesthetic Shock to Ethical Awakening: How an Environmental Artist and Activist Found Purpose” that I gave in April 2019 to the National Humanities Center as part of their Humanities Moments project (watch the interview on the VIDEOS page of this site).

I also found that each day when I would drive from my home into town—all along the way I would see vast numbers of dead piñon, New Mexico’s state tree, on both sides of the road. Between 2001 and 2005, aerial surveys were conducted over 6.4 million acres of land in New Mexico, which revealed that Ips confusus, a tiny bark beetle killed an estimated 54.5 million piñon—New Mexico’s state tree. In many areas of northern New Mexico, about 90 percent of mature piñons perished. Prolonged drought combined with rapid warming led to the mass die–off of piñon.

Imagine you live in New York City, and one fine morning you awake to the realization that 90 percent of all the buildings that were more than five stories tall have been destroyed. You will hardly have the words to talk about this devastation, but I’m sure you will walk around the rubble to make sense of it all. That is what I did. From 2006 through 2010, I walked almost every day around my home and made photographs to make sense of the peril of piñon and to understand the entangled and inter–dependent ecology of the desert—from avian creatures to underground dwellers with plants on the ground connecting the two ecological spaces. Finding the dead bird and seeing the dead piñons resulted in a desire—I wanted to know where I live.

A selection of photographs I made during those walks were shown in the exhibition WHERE I LIVE I HOPE TO KNOW at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas, which was curated by Dr. Jessica May (28 March — 28 August 2011).


LONG   ENVIRONMENTALISM   for   MULTISPECIES   JUSTICE


Long Environmentalism in the Sundarbans (detail), West Bengal, India (photo by Subhankar Banerjee, 2019).

My engagement with the Arctic and the desert, its peoples and nonhuman beings did not end with one book or one exhibition. My commitment to both places only grew over time. But as the years progressed, I began to lose interest in pursuing my own career as an artist. I also lost interest in the “art world” but not in the potential that art and visual culture hold for advancing social transformation.

I started to write, for scholarly publications initially, and later also for the public. I’m first and foremost a visual person, writing did not come easy for me. It was a struggle but I stayed with the practice. I also became more interested in collective efforts—what we can accomplish together, not individually.

I edited the book Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point, which includes contributions by more than fifty artists, writers, scholars, scientists, activists and conservationists—many of them are Indigenous. During this time, I also founded and ran an online blog site, ClimateStoryTellers: a gathering place for stories on all things global warming. The site presented stories on Arctic, desert, forests, and oceans by writers, scientists, scholars and activists from the Arctic to Australia.

All that I had learned in the Arctic and in the desert, and the experiences I had gained from working in a collaborative mode—led me to articulate and introduce the concept of LONG ENVIRONMENTALISM. My essay “Long Environmentalism: After the Listening Session” was included in the book Ecocriticism and Indigenous Studies: Conversations from Earth to Cosmos, which was edited by Salma Monani and Joni Adamson and published by Routledge in 2016 (see BOOKS).

“When an environmental engagement has lasted for a while—say a quarter–century, or more—it creates a culture of its own, has its own history. Such a multiple–decades–long engagement gives rise to its own distinct form of environmentalism, or what I will call in this chapter “long environmentalism.” The two principal tenets of long environmentalism include: collaboration among unlikely allies through the act of sincere listening, giving rise to radical hope; and a period of time that is long enough to enable what was once considered marginal (like a human community or an idea) to become significant and essential. The unlikely allies could be historical adversaries or groups of people who come from different cultures, races, classes, and geographies.”

But why should we engage in long environmentalism?

To advocate for MULTISPECIES JUSTICE. I like to think of “multispecies justice” as what we do—it is action, and not merely theory or analysis. Multispecies justice “brings concerns and conservation of biotic life and habitats into alignment with environmental justice and Indigenous rights,” I wrote in an essay “Resisting the War on Alaska’s Arctic with Multispecies Justice,” which was included in the Social Text online special issue “Beyond the Extractive View,” which was edited by Macarena Gómez–Barris and published on June 7, 2018 (see ARTICLES).

Shortly after entering academia, I increasingly became interested in how to build bridges across varieties of differences—across disciplinary silos that exist in academia and, between academia and the communities in which we live and work. To build such bridges, I convened two national conferences in Albuquerque, New Mexico: Decolonizing Nature in 2017 and the last oil in 2018 (see OUTREACH). On April 3, 2019, I gave a keynote address “Building Bridges and Connecting Dots: Apprehending Multispecies Futures” for the Beyond Despair: Theory and Practice in Environmental Humanities conference at the National Humanities Center (see VIDEOS).

The following month, the United Nations issued a grim warning: 1 million plant and animal species face extinction due to human activity.

Alarmed by the intensifying biodiversity crisis, in Fall 2019, 516 ARTS in Albuquerque and UNM Art & Ecology, in partnership with a number of academic and cultural institutions from across the Rio Grande / Río Bravo watershed in the U.S.–Mexico borderlands, organized the SPECIES IN PERIL ALONG THE RIO GRANDE exhibition and extensive public programming that took place in northern Mexico, west Texas, New Mexico, and southern Colorado. I co–curated the exhibition with Dr. Josie Lopez, Curator of Art at the Albuquerque Museum.

The following Spring, the coronavirus pandemic arrived.

Upon realizing that the root causes of the pandemic are situated in the intensifying biodiversity crisis, in April 2020, I founded the SPECIES IN PERIL project at UNM. In Fall of that year, the Species in Peril project, in partnership with the Office of then U.S. Senator Tom Udall, Office of then Congresswoman (now Madame Secretary of the Interior) Deb Haaland, New Mexico BioPark Society, Southwest Environmental Center, and the Indigenous Design + Planning Institute at UNM, presented the UNM BIODIVERSITY WEBINAR SERIES that launched on September 14 and concluded on December 3. I had the honor to co–host the series with Senator Tom Udall, and am grateful for the support we received then from the now Madame Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland.

In 2019, I also started work in India, the country of my birth, making a full circle. I’m now learning about long environmentalism for multispecies justice in India. On January 28, 2021, I gave a lecture “Visualizing Global Biodiversity: Toward an Understanding of Sacred Places and Relations” at Yale University, which was presented by the Yale Institute of Sacred Music in partnership with the Yale McMillan Center South Asian Studies Council. In that talk (which was delivered online due to the pandemic), I shared, for the first time, some stories, photographs and analysis from my India work (see VIDEOS).

On 26 February 2021, Routledge Companion to Contemporary Art, Visual Culture, and Climate Change was published, which I co–edited with art historians T.J. Demos and Emily Eliza Scott. The 466–page book includes forty chapters written by nearly fifty scholars and artists from around the world. It also includes a main Introduction and six section introductions written by the editors, including a section “Multispecies Justice” (see BOOKS). And, on 21 June 2021, I delivered a KEYNOTE LECTURE “Have You Seen a Species Go Extinct?” at the International Environmental Communication Association’s 16th Conference on Communication and Environment, Re–Mediating the Wild (see VIDEOS).


FEW   FRUITS   &   THE   JOURNEY   CONTINUES


Snow Geese over Coastal Plain (detail), Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska, United States (photo by Subhankar Banerjee, 2002).

I’d be remiss if I fail to mention a few fruits that came my way (along with a lot of struggles) in the twenty–plus–year–long journey so far.

For my conservation efforts, I have been recognized with a few awards, including an inaugural Greenleaf Artist Award from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 2005; an inaugural Cultural Freedom Fellowship in 2003 and a Cultural Freedom Award in 2012 from the Lannan Foundation; a National Conservation Achievement Award from the National Wildlife Federation and a Special Achievement Award from the Sierra Club in 2003; a Housberg Award from the Alaska Conservation Foundation in 2002; and was named an Arctic Hero by the Alaska Wilderness League in 2010.

For academic contributions, I have been recognized with a few honors and appointments also, including a Distinguished Alumnus Award from my alma mater New Mexico State University in 2011; Visiting Scholar in the graduate program in Environmental Humanities at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City during 2006–2008; Artist–in–Residence at Dartmouth College in 2009; Director’s Visitor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and Visiting Fellow at the Forbes College of Princeton University in 2011; Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Department of Art History and Music at Fordham University in New York in 2012; Visiting Fellow at Clare Hall College of the University of Cambridge in 2016 where I’m now a card–carrying Life Member; and Bacca Artist–in–Residence at Davidson College in 2020.


Slow Down! Wildlife on Road, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, United States (photo by Subhankar Banerjee, August 2021).

As summer is coming to a close and fall is just around the corner, I look forward to participating as a panelist at the GLOBAL PHOTOGRAPHY: TEMPORALITIES AND SPATIAL LOGICS symposium, co–organized by the University of New Mexico Art Museum and the School of Art and Design and the Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois–Urbana Champagne (9–10 September 2021). I also look forward to moderating a panel on identity and nature as part of the 17TH ANNUAL GILA RIVER FESTIVAL (Re)Connect with the River, organized by the Gila Conservation Coalition (16–19 September 2021). In October, I will be participating in the VICE CREATORS SUMMIT: COMMON GROUND, organized by VICE Media in partnership with the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Just a few days ago, the Defenders of Wildlife launched a bi–lingual (English/Spanish) NATIONAL BIODIVERSITY STRATEGY student letter and campaign that opens with an illustration by my student, Latinx artist Alexandria Zuniga de Dóchas. To know more about that youth–led national campaign and other efforts by our students, I encourage you to read our latest E–DISPATCH.

As I look back on the past five years, since I joined the faculty at the University of New Mexico in August 2016, I mention here a few significant events that we have been able to organize together to address the biodiversity and the climate crises: DECOLONIZING NATURE conference and public forum in April 2017 (convener); THE LAST OIL: A MULTISPECIES JUSTICE SYMPOSIUM in February 2018 (convener); SPECIES IN PERIL ALONG THE RIO GRANDE exhibition and public programming in Fall 2019 (co–curator with Dr. Josie Lopez); establishing both the SPECIES IN PERIL project at UNM and the UNM CENTER FOR ENVIRONMENTAL ARTS AND HUMANITIES in April 2020 (founder and director); the UNM BIODIVERSITY WEBINAR SERIES in Fall 2020 (co–convener with U.S. Senator Tom Udall); and finally, in 2021, the Routledge Companion to Contemporary Art, Visual Culture, and Climate Change was published (co–editor with T.J. Demos and Emily Eliza Scott) and, the Center for Environmental Arts and Humanities hosted Chicano storyteller and cartoonist Zeke Peña as the Center’s inaugural Art & Ecology Artist–in–Residence during 2020–2021. I feel a deep sense of gratitude to students, faculty, and staff at UNM, and to colleagues in academic, conservation and cultural institutions in New Mexico, across the United States, and in Canada and Mexico, who made all these possible. Without you none of these would have happened. We did all these together. Thank you!

The photograph of one polar bear eating another that I made at the turn of this century from a “tundra buggy” in Canada and which I later understood could serve as a visual evidence of both climate crisis and the biodiversity crisis—had marked my own journey into long environmentalism. I do not yet satisfy the minimum quarter–century criterion but I’m getting closer.

I hope that the content that you will find on this site prove somewhat useful as you chart your own journey or contemplate a new chapter.

Best wishes and be well,

—Subhankar Banerjee, 8 September 2021




On M. B. Sundari in the Sundarban Tiger Reserve, West Bengal, India (photo by Subhankar Banerjee, August 2019).