Horrifyingly Beautiful Photos Show The Human Cost Of China’s Massive Pollution Problem

Gritty, detailed scenes from some of China’s most polluted places will make you grateful for the air you breathe.

Horrifyingly Beautiful Photos Show The Human Cost Of China’s Massive Pollution Problem
[Illustration: Samolevsky/iStock]

Editor’s note: Photographer Souvid Datta, who took these photos, has admitted to doctoring much of his work. Creating these photos of Chinese victims of pollution, in particular, involved stitching together multiple photos into single frames, making their journalistic value minimal. As such, we’ve removed the photos from this post.


Headlines about China’s record-breaking pollution are usually accompanied by hazy photos of the Beijing skyline and statistics so large they seem abstract: 1.2 million Chinese people die because of air pollution each year, and water pollution kills another 70,000 people.

In a new series, U.K. photographer Souvid Datta takes a different perspective on the problem, telling the everyday story of the people living with the pollution and showing detailed shots of murky water or air rather than distant cityscapes.

“At the core was my aversion to the pruned, cliched, and general stories of China and its environmental crises that we are most commonly exposed to: the ‘smog apocalypse,’ ’emerging-market’ arguments and statistics, or photos of pedestrian crowds donning air-filter masks,” says Datta.

“These only served to distance and over-simplify a nuanced reality, and the last thing I wanted to do was add to that narrative. The work had to evoke a sense of genuine empathy and curiosity in readers, something that could nudge them towards productive awareness.”

For four weeks, Datta traveled to some of the most polluted places in Tianjin, Heibei, Jiangsu, and Zheijang provinces, along with mega-cities like Beijing and Shanghai. Inspired by the loss of a friend’s younger brother to lung cancer in Beijing, he wanted to document how decades of corruption and censorship had worsened pollution and affected millions.

He also wanted to show the current state of pollution in China as things slowly begin to change–in the last couple of years, the government has finally started to acknowledge the extent of the challenge and taken some first steps in response, like allowing lawsuits against companies that pollute.


The changes have been driven by public anger at the situation. “2013 saw protests against pollution multiply as people have become more concerned about the heavy ecological cost of economic development,” Datta says. “And where once the firm hand of the Chinese communist party effectively controlled public conversations and restricted opposition, young people are now aware that the fight against pollution is a personal right.”

In the future, Datta will return again to document more. “China’s environmental crises definitely arise on a scale as epic and sweeping as the country itself,” he says. “Four weeks was nowhere near enough.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.