The first pictures that surfaced after daredevil BASE jumper Felix Baumgartner made his historic, jaw-dropping 39 km jump from space came from the lens of Balazs Gardi, a Hungarian freelance photographer. If you carefully scan the video of Baumgartner landing you will see Gardi darting around wearing a black tee shirt, capturing images of a beaming, triumphant Baumgartner. Gardi regularly works for Red Bull, the energy drink giant, which bankrolled Baumgartner’s world-record jump. Other than the Red Bull gig, he makes a living traveling the world taking photographs of athletes doing extreme sports. Gardi’s also a well-known war photographer, and has won many awards and recognitions for his war imagery, the latest of which was being selected as an INK Fellow for 2013 (the Indian equivalent of TED).
More than just war and extreme sports
While most photographers would be happy with the adrenalin rush and glamor associated with photographing extreme sports and capturing the vagaries of war, Gardi inspired by a stray incident developed a passion for water, which has since become a full-blown obsession. It happened in early November, 2004. Gardi was embedded in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, near the Pakistan border, with a hundred US Marines unit of the US army who were looking for insurgents and gathering information about Osama bin Laden. The unit, which had spent many days out in the open, were waiting for food and water, when the resupplies were dropped off by Chinook, it came only came a day prior to our departure.
“We were already heading back when the supplies arrived and we had lot of water, but we couldn’t carry it because it was too heavy. Remember this is one of the most dangerous frontlines, many helicopters used to get gunned down in this area. We couldn’t leave the water behind, as it would fall into enemy hands. The marines just blew it up. That incident got me thinking about deeply about water. With such a simple thing as water, how complex is our relationship with it- where does it come from and how much does it cost?” reminiscences Gardi.
‘Facing Water Crisis’
That single incident got Gardi involved with water and trying to understand the importance of water in people’s lives. He has spent most the last decade to understand water and the various political, social and economic ramifications of its use through a project called ‘Facing Water Crisis.’ Gardi photographed floods and droughts and tried to understand how it leads to social tension, then becomes a minor conflict and eventually ends in war. In India, he has photographed the Kosi floods in Bihar, droughts in Bundelkhand and the slums of Mumbai’s Dharavi. “I saw people starve, where farmers had become so poor that they had no alternative but commit suicide. In Dharavi the slum-dwellers don’t know the importance of sanitation. Waterborne diseases kill more people than war. The sad part is that we can prevent it,” points Gardi.
Water is the potential source of many conflicts. After going around world photographing, patterns began to emerge as Gardi began to connect these dots. While some were too big to fix others are easy and he thinks the reason that we don’t think about it is because of the vested interests of the water marketing companies.
“Story of water is complex. But its all about people,” remark Gardi. He has been following the story of water for close to ten years now, and since 2003 all his projects have been financed by him personally, including all the war coverage.
Gardi never thought of becoming a photographer, until his grandmother told him instead of going to college that he should study photography. He listened to her and at 18 years, soon after he finished with high school he went to study photography in school. “I did not learn anything about photography, then I went to daily newspaper in 1996 called Nepszabadsag, it’s the biggest political daily, this is where I learned everything about technology, how to look at things, how to be observant and philosophy. I met amazing people including Ferenc Redei, the director of photography who became my father figure and helped to space out the advancement,” adds Gardi.
He spent the next 7 years covering everything from sports, political handshakes and war. They weren’t the greatest assignments, but it was a good base, and prepared him for the future. After 2001, he was sent to Pakistan and Afghanistan, this was real war, nothing compared to the regional conflicts, like the Yugoslaivian conflict, which Gardi has experienced earlier.
Water is his main project. He’s drawn to water because he feels that traditional media has failed to write stories that matters. “The stories are not in-depth. I felt that I needed to create my own publication. I couldn’t wait for my next assignment in Afghanistan to do a story on water. The frustration that the message doesn’t go through got me to create my own online publication called azdarya.com,” remarks Gardi.
Gardi understands that the subject of water is complex and fairly comprehensive, therefore Azdarya does not try and cover everything. Users can navigate content by geography or by subject (like ground pollution and fracking). His goal is to open this up and create a platform to bring like-minded people like artists and culture and present the water crisis in a way that’s not all doom and gloom.
Read more about his project here.