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Did One Photograph Change the Fate of the Arctic Wildlife Refuge?

What the political fight over a photo teaches us about the power of art, grassroots activism and images.
Polar bear walking through puddles and melting ice.

Subhankar Banerjee

On March 18, 2003, 20 years ago this month, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) stood on the Senate floor and showed her colleagues a picture of a polar bear. “Cast your eyes on this,” Boxer implored, gesturing toward the photograph behind her. A clear blue sky delineates the top of the image, while below a polar bear lumbers across the ice, its large white figure strikingly reflected in the water.

Made by Subhankar Banerjee in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the photograph, Boxer claimed, offered powerful visual evidence as to why oil drilling should not take place in this remote Alaskan landscape. She urged her fellow senators to vote against fossil fuel development in the Arctic Refuge — a plan being pushed by George W. Bush’s administration as part of a Republican budget bill. The next day Boxer again displayed this photo and emphasized that the United States should not allow drilling in “a pristine area that has wildlife that looks like this.” Drilling proponents had frequently denigrated the area as a frozen, lifeless wasteland, with Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton only a week before dismissing it as a “flat, white nothingness.” Boxer recommended that everyone visit an exhibition of Banerjee’s “breathtaking” images of the Arctic Refuge, soon to open at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

Much to the dismay of the Bush administration, the Senate narrowly approved Boxer’s amendment by a vote of 52 to 48, forestalling, at least temporarily, plans to drill in the refuge.

Yet strange reports began to surface a few blocks away, as Smithsonian officials decided, only a few weeks before the debut of Banerjee’s show, to eviscerate the captions and relegate the exhibit to an obscure location. Soon, the photographer found himself at the center of a major art controversy that would reverberate far beyond Washington. While the Smithsonian controversy received extensive media coverage, the larger significance of this saga has been overlooked — both then and now.

The story is not simply one of a photograph shaping public policy or of a museum censoring an artist. Instead, it indicates the surprising ways that images act in the world, including how they help build political movements. It also reveals how the Arctic Refuge is not nearly as remote and isolated as many may believe.

Until 2003, Banerjee had never exhibited or published a photograph. Born in India in 1967, he moved to the United States for graduate school, earning master’s degrees in computer science and physics, then worked as a computer engineer, while pursuing nature photography as a hobby.

Banerjee became increasingly fascinated by Northern landscapes — and after learning about the incredible biodiversity of the Arctic Refuge, quit his job, liquidated his retirement account and launched an ambitious photography project. In 2001 and 2002, Banerjee spent a total of 14 months in the Arctic Refuge documenting the region’s wildlife and scenic beauty during all four seasons. These photos not only landed him a book contract from Mountaineers Books, a leading conservation publisher, but also the offer of a solo exhibition at the Smithsonian. And the museum promised him a coveted spot: just off the main rotunda where the 13-foot-tall taxidermy elephant greets visitors.

These plans changed dramatically, however, after the Senate voted against oil drilling. The museum informed Banerjee that the show would be moved from its prime venue on the main floor to a narrow corridor downstairs behind an escalator and near a freight elevator. Museum officials also stripped down the captions, removing context to offer only the most basic information. Captions that originally contained several sentences were scaled to back to one or two phrases that merely identified the scenes, such as “McCall Glacier: Brooks Range.” By way of explanation, all the Smithsonian told Banerjee was that “Senator Boxer showing your work has made things difficult.”

Yet the Smithsonian’s decision to banish the exhibit backfired. Journalists and citizens across the country rallied to Banerjee’s defense, condemning the museum for what they considered a blatant act of censorship. Some likened it to the actions of a totalitarian government. One critic lambasted the decision as “part of a relentless assault on free speech, free thought and dissent that has spread like a cancer since the 2000 election.” Banerjee soon became a cause celebre, and his photographs undoubtedly gained more attention than they would have without the uproar.

This reaction pointed to the power of Banerjee’s polar bear photograph, which had appeared to be decisive for Boxer’s anti-drilling amendment.

This explanation followed familiar assumptions about how images shape politics. Pictures, we are told, change the minds of the powerful. In this case, Boxer showed Banerjee’s photograph, and a few fence-sitting senators were swayed.

But what everyone missed was the vital work done by images before Boxer displayed the polar bear picture. Images don’t just suddenly sway the powerful. They circulate at the grass-roots level over time, to galvanize public concern and make political change.

For decades, environmental activists had been organizing slide-show tours, documentary film screenings and other events held in college lecture halls, public libraries and church basements to build grass roots support for Arctic Refuge protection. These events usually ended with a call to action — such as writing letters to elected officials or the local newspaper — to demonstrate citizen opposition to Arctic drilling.

Rather than crediting one polar bear shown on the Senate floor as the decisive image, it was these images, shared in a plethora of settings over many years, that helped build public support to protect this land. In the weeks leading up to the vote on Boxer’s amendment, refuge defenders organized multiple slide-show tours, film screenings and other grass roots events, targeting states with senators whose support they desperately needed to win.

These events were part of a much longer history of activism that helped turn the tide, including during the George W. Bush years, when it seemed that drilling proponents would prevail.

This was the lesson that Banerjee himself soon learned. Following the Smithsonian debacle, museum officials at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, angered by the way Banerjee had been treated, worked to revive his Arctic exhibit, with the full captions restored. The exhibit toured the United States for the next two years.

Meanwhile, Banerjee followed a path charted by previous refuge activists: He began doing slide-show tours. He later explained that this outreach was far more significant than Boxer showing his photograph, because it allowed him to connect with grass-roots audiences and encourage public action to defend the refuge.

The other thing about images is that it is important to look closely to consider what they really show. When Boxer displayed the polar bear photograph, she emphasized the “pristine” qualities of the land, implying that the Arctic was an untouched wilderness, completely disconnected from human society.

But the photograph shows something else: The bear is walking toward the bones of a bowhead whale, left by the Iñupiat from a hunt the previous autumn. The whale hunt connects the nearby Iñupiat community of Kaktovik to polar bears — and to grizzlies, foxes and gulls that also consume the bowhead remains. This information, included in Banerjee’s original caption, was cut by the Smithsonian, which made it difficult for viewers to understand the long history of Indigenous stewardship of Arctic lands and waters.

From 2003 to 2005, as Banerjee gave slide-show presentations across the United States, he was almost always joined by an Indigenous spokesperson — either Gwich’in or Iñupiat — who explained how fossil fuel development threatened their culture, spirituality and food security. Their testimony deepened grass roots support for refuge protection by emphasizing the human rights issues at stake and turning the drilling debate into a fight for environmental justice.

A single photograph did not save the Arctic Refuge. But by showing the picture of the polar bear, Boxer set in motion a chain of events that had unintended consequences — generating an art controversy, thrusting a photographer into the political fray and building a broader coalition to fight Bush’s drilling plans. Without the involvement of countless people who lent their voices to this struggle, key congressional votes could have turned out differently. And today the Arctic Refuge might be an industrialized oil field.