In India, many communities are under threat from environmental destruction and air quality-related health issues due to rapid industrialisation, and Ennore, North Chennai, is a particularly egregious example. Home to small fishing communities, it has been disproportionately subjected to a new normal of environmental and health decline due to toxic pollution from coal and petrochemical plants, as well as increasingly onerous streams of heavy vehicles. The community has had to accept hits to its health, homes, and livelihoods in the form of polluted waterways, exposure to fly ash ponds, and particulate pollution. One cannot choose to not breathe, and masks are a common symbol of air quality problems. Unfortunately, they are neither an effective or practical solution, so residents of Ennore were photographed wearing facemasks that dynamically change colour according to live air pollution measurements, illustrating exposure to harmful particulates while emphasising the alien nature of wearing a mask.
Air pollution is driving a global public health crisis. It is responsible for one in nine deaths worldwide, and touches everyone given 92% of the human race live in places that do not meet World Health Organisation guidelines. In Chennai, India, rapid industrialisation is not only taking a heavy toll on the city’s air quality, it is destroying poor communities, such as Ennore, to the North of the city. The area, once home to thriving fishing communities, is a now hotspot of onerous industrial activity that has had a severe impact on the health and livelihoods many local people. Ennore is home to three thermal power plants and a number of petrochemical industries, which make a hefty contribution to deteriorating air quality through their fly ash ponds and petro-chemical emissions. Nearby coal and cargo shipping ports fed by endless and increasing streams of heavy vehicles also make significant contributions to air pollution, while choking communities and forcing many people in long-standing fishing communities along the routes to abandon their homes. In these images, fisherman have no choice by to continue to eke out their daily work in polluted waterways adjacent to coal fired power stations, and communities try to hold on to their lives despite increasing pressure from heavy vehicle traffic and expanding fly ash ponds on their doorsteps. To illustrate the health impacts of PM2.5 particulates for the Unmask My City initiative, local residents were photographed wearing facemasks that dynamically light up according to real-time air pollution measurements of air pollution. Yellow, orange, and red show levels exceeding World Health Organisation standards by two to five times or more. For those trying to hang on to their lives there, the ongoing degradation of the local environment has not only become normalised, but the health impacts that stem from it have too. They are also afforded little in the way of regard or aid from the agencies charged to protect them, which makes it doubly hard for those living in marginalised communities like Ennore to believe that a better, cleaner, healthier future is possible. Both air pollution and the wearing of masks to protect human health are becoming normalised, not only in India but in many places around the world. These masks were created to make this largely invisible threat visible, and to emphasise the how out of place masks should be in everyday life. Clean air should be a universal human right. Unmasking our cities is the best place to start.