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My Climate Change Conversation

My Climate Change Conversation

I am on a plane flying from Bangkok to London, and despite my personal carbon emissions, want to announce my full conversion to the climate change cause.   Let me explain how this came about. I was commissioned by Oxfam to visit rural central Vietnam to photograph around Quan Tri province, an area very prone to flooding. The flooding has got worse in the last decade, after the serious cyclone of 1999, and the situation continues to deteriorate.

My brief was to photograph poor farmers who are losing their traditional rice harvests to the floods and to show the mezzanines that they have to climb onto when the water starts lapping around the floors of their houses. I photographed people holding the objects that they and their families would prioritise to save when they have to climb up or evacuate their homes. The portraits showing them holding a framed photo or some valuable papers were often taken in front of colourful curtains that are a feature of these houses, hanging just behind the main table.

Getting serious documentary images into the mainstream press  today is increasingly difficult as our frothy lifestyle/celebrity concerns become the prevalent content for the weekend supplements. However, as with all tendencies, there is always something that bucks the trend, and the one topic that currently is as hip as it gets is … yes, you guessed: climate change. So this set of images should do quite well, especially as we are about a month away from the Copenhagen summit of 2009.

But here’s the rub: I can now see how nearly all the images that I have recently taken and produced are indirectly related to climate change.  For example, my recent book entitled “ Luxury” is an exploration of how the wealthy go about parading themselves at horse racing events, art fairs or fashion shows. I photograph wealth in the same spirit as has traditionally been associated with photographing poverty, an updated version of the “concerned photographer” but disguised as entertainment. For surely, what is the main indirect cause of our increasing carbon emissions, but the increasing wealth of our planet?  Other recent subjects, such as an arms fair in the middle east or tourism in Machu Picchu all have a link to climate change. Perhaps a more tenuous link would be with a fashion shoot, but we will not explore this too closely. So from now on I am just interpreting the serious issue of climate change in as many creative and lateral ways possible.

Back to Vietnam and the many moving stories emerged during my week there. An elderly couple tied their bed, bought on their wedding day 40 years ago, to a tree to ensure it was not swept away. I interviewed another couple in their mezzanine where they had lived for 5 days waiting for the water below to subside. I met a rice farmer who, after the severe typhoon in 1999 which destroyed his entire crop, decided to take up searching for old scrap metal left after the Vietnam war, to subsidise his farming income.

Finally on our last day of shooting I ended up in a much wealthier house, whose owners had started a successful pig farm. Their new house has two floors so it was a simple task to take everything up stairs to save it from flooding. Because they owned so many objects and gadgets they never got to move up 1.5 tons of stored rice and fertiliser, and this was destroyed in the flood. Finally, the family lost a lot more cash than replacing their objects would have entailed. So even money cannot exempt you from this problem.

As I travel the world and witness more and more pollution, population explosions and the general decline of our planet, it is very difficult to imagine that sustainability will ever be possible.

Of course the irony has not been lost on me, that I earn a good income accumulating a critique around these topics. I also recognise my own personal hypocrisy, and that of the wealthy first world, but can now argue it is all in the name of climate change documentation.

Nov 2009

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