Early in December, Chennai's famous Marina beach was awash with toxic foam that had been caused by pollutants mixing with sea water. This is a periodic occurrence in Chennai's beaches each year. In the reportage on Chennai’s foam, there are also so many photos of children playing in this foam, as if this is yet another part of the unpredictable charms that the sea brings. If there was ever a poster for dystopian futures, surely these images must be on there. People in Chennai also took selfies of themselves playing in this foam and circulated these on social media. The thick fluffy white clouds of pollutants looked like something out of a supernatural film.This image shows kids who are playing in the middle of this toxic foam. It evokes an affective response from the viewer as one is forced to contend with the experiences of fun in the middle of a polluted dystopian landscape. At the same time we are hyper-aware of visuality of these images, especially selfies where there is a deliberate staging of fun in the middle of the pollution.
This image differs from the global narrative of coastal cities as places of risk in a few ways. The scale of attention is not global, but local. It directs attention not to a geographic reading of the place in terms of elevation from sea-level but in terms of the toxics awash from the sea. It evokes questions about where the toxic foam comes from, but at the same time the image makes one pause an easy reading off the landscape which assumes people experience pollution and toxicity in the same way. As a viewer one is forced to ask, how is it that such perceptible form of pollution can be experienced as play? This is not to say people don't recognize the problem in front of their eyes or a celebration of polluted spaces, but to ask: what structures of social and political life allow for pollution to be experienced as play?
Hindustan Times, "Polluted waters", contributed by Oviya Govindan, Center for Ethnography, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 23 March 2020, accessed 18 May 2022. https://centerforethnography.org/content/polluted-waters