How Fear Curdles the Soul

The Smithsonian Institution has decided to move the exhibit of Subhankar Banerjee’s highly-acclaimed photographs of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from a main floor rotunda to a smaller, lower room and to cut the text out of most of his captions. The photographs are from Banerjee’s book, “Seasons of Life and Land, A Photographic Journey by Subhankar Banerjee,” which, according to the New York Times reporter Timothy Egan, “advocates preservation of the refuge. It features quotations from President Carter, the writer Peter Matthiessen, and the nature poet and essayist Terry Tempest Williams. Some of these quotations were to be in the exhibit; they have all been deleted.”

Interior Secretary Gale Norton has referred to ANWR as “an area of flat white nothingness.” Hardly. During last month’s Senate debate on opening ANWR to drilling, California Senator Barbara Boxer held up some of Banerjee’s photos and urged her colleagues to look at them so they would have an idea what they were arguing about. The drilling bill failed, 52-48, after which Senate Appropriations Committee chair Alaska Senator Ted Stevens promised personal revenge: “People who vote against this today are voting against me. I will not forget it.”

Smithsonian officials say there was no political pressure behind the sudden and unexplained downgrading of what was to have been a major exhibition, that it was just “routine.”

And why were the captions censored? According to Timothy Egan, Smithsonian spokesman Randall Kremer said “Some of the captions bordered on advocacy.”

Banerjee’s caption for a picture of the Romanzof Mountains, for example, “The refuge has the most beautiful landscape I have ever seen and is so remote and untamed that many peaks, valleys and lakes are still without names,” was changed to”Unnamed Peak, Romanzof Mountains.” A caption that included the quotation, “”Here there still remain elements of mystery in the unknown which in themselves have great value in the human perception of wilderness” was changed to”Rock lichens.”

“There was another caption on the buff-breasted sandpiper,” Egan told NPR’s Liane Hansen on Sunday’s

Bruce Jackson’s most recent books are Inside the Wire: Photographs from Texas and Arkansas Prison (University of Texas Press, 2013) and In This Timeless Time Living and Dying on Death Row in America (with Diane Christian, University of North Carolina Press, 2012). He is SUNY Distinguished Professor and James Agee Professor of American Culture at University at Buffalo