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In Newtok village cemetery, the melting of the permafrost means the swampy ground is no longer good for housing. Climate Visuals

In Newtok village cemetery, the melting of the permafrost means the swampy ground is no longer good for housing. Image credit: Vlad Sokhin / Panos Pictures

A meditative approach to climate photography — interview with Vlad Sokhin

June 6 2018

Robert van Waarden

“Nature dictates what is going to happen.  Sometimes you just sit there, nothing happens, and you observe and you think, what can I photograph if nothing happens?”

How do we visualise climate change? Documenting the most visible impacts of a changing climate is often a question of being in the right place at the right time. In a region as big as the Pacific, from Alaska to New Zealand, that can be difficult.

Peia Kararaua, 16, swims in the flooded area of Aberao village. climate visuals

Peia Kararaua, 16, swims in the flooded area of Aberao village. Image credit: Vlad Sokhin / Panos Pictures

For Russian photographer Vlad Sokhin, this simple fact forced him to change his working practice. As a photojournalist, he has flown around the world on the action trail for over a decade and is accustomed to rapid response work. But focusing on climate change in the Pacific region for his project Warm Waters meant he had to take a more meditative approach.

“This project was a philosophical development of my visual language. Spending a day just observing our nature and maybe taking one shot or two. It changed the way that I frame, that I see, it changed the way I press the button,” says Sokhin.

Vlad found success in this storytelling by slowing down and falling back on what he does best, focusing his stories on the humans therein.

In Oktyabrskiy, Sergey and his friend try to tow his car out of a flooded area on the sea front. climate visuals

In Oktyabrskiy, Sergey and his friend try to tow his car out of a flooded area on the sea front. Image credit: Vlad Sokhin / Panos Pictures

“The whole environment is suffering, not only people. But I have been working with people since I became a photographer. For me, people are the most important because I am a human being as well,” says Sokhin.

Grounding his work in personalities has allowed him to focus on new or nuanced stories. Stories which take a little longer to explain or understand, but the character thread encourages the viewer to stay engaged. It is a technique that has seen Warm Waters acknowledged in festivals and publications around the world.

Sokhin speaks with a voice of experience, a voice of someone that has been on the ground, seen it and is exceedingly frustrated by the state of the world.

“These communities have never done anything wrong and they suffer all of these consequences. Big developed countries are doing this, the USA, Russia, China, Brazil, etc. These people in the coastal communities are the first to suffer the effects of climate change. So I wanted to highlight their lives.”

Our conversation further highlights the challenges that face photographers dedicating their time to covering climate change. Money is always an issue, but in Sokhin’s case he says that the logistics of the project were the most difficult.

“The region is huge, it covers half of the planet. It is really hard to get to those remote islands. Sometimes you had to charter a plane, or find a boat or a seaplane. So that was the most difficult for me to get to those places, to find the right people that would take you there and also be there at the right time.”

In Newtok village cemetery, the melting of the permafrost means the swampy ground is no longer good for housing - climate visuals

In Newtok village cemetery, the melting of the permafrost means the swampy ground is no longer good for housing. Image credit: Vlad Sokhin / Panos Pictures

And of course there is the challenge of time. For a four year project Sokhin estimates that he has spent more than half of that planning and editing, not shooting.

Warm Waters has been showcased in a variety of publications and venues, but Sokhin is still editing the project. He is publishing a book that is going to be comprised strictly of beautiful images. It may seem like a step away from his regular photojournalistic style, but it is intentional.

“The majority of people don’t care about climate change.” says Vlad  “They just say ‘ok, this is happening’. So I want to knock on the doors of their hearts and say look, you like beautiful stuff, ok, look at it, but think about what is going on with this.”