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Picturing Pollution: Rendering Atmospheric Crisis Sensible through Delhi’s Media Urbanism

Authors: D. Asher Ghertner*, Rutgers University
Topics: Urban Geography, Cultural and Political Ecology
Keywords: pollution, atmosphere, waste, colonialism, Anthropocene, India
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


This presentation interrogates three competing visualities that have emerged in the wake of Delhi’s “airpocalypse,” extreme air pollution events that have occurred annually since 2014. It shows how these visualities differently render im/perceptible India’s bourgeois environmental order, a regime that distributes blame for environmental disamenities on those most exposed to them. The first visuality becomes evident through the city’s air quality index (AQI), a color-coded rendering of atmospheric conditions circulated in newspapers, street-level displays, and mobile apps that pictures air pollution as a quantifiable, controllable, and centrally experienced environmental externality. State and activist uses of the AQI align with what Mirzoeff (2014) calls an Anthropocene visuality, a capitalist visual order that anaesthetizes the perception of industrial pollution despite visible damage to the biosphere. The second visuality, advanced by environmental activists, renders pollution an effect of ignorance or technological backwardness, counterposing the terror of ecological crisis with the beauty of a technological sublime. Focus here centers on two popular pictorial types: street-level photographs identifying culprits of pollution and promotional images selling modern environmental technology as a fix to atmospheric disorder. The third (counter-)visuality emerges through rogue images of atmospheric death—including a medical-cum-art installation of human lungs and photographs of smog-induced human and non-human injury—that show pollution’s refusal to abide the citizen/non-citizen divide that has long-framed environmental action in urban India. Taken together, these visualities indicate the still-terrestrial vision of environmental activism and the challenge of capturing atmospheric life as it ebbs, flows, and diffuses.

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