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(above) Decade of Change Single Image winner ©Sonia Bhamra
From environmental anxiety and visions of devastation, to images confronting us with the effects of global warming upon indigenous communities, these images offer an impactful and urgent response to how our world is changing.
The winning images of this year’s Decade of Change bring the climate crisis into hyper-focus. From stories of environmental anxiety and visions of the devastation wrought by industry, to images confronting us with the effects of global warming upon indigenous communities and people with Albinism, they offer an impactful and urgent response to the ways our world is changing.
Now in its second year, Decade of Change is a global photography award and exhibition from 1854 and British Journal of Photography, conceived to harness the universal power of photography to inspire climate action. Split between three categories – series, single images and moving image – the award invited submissions from visual artists across the globe on any aspect of the climate crisis. The winning works will be exhibited at City Quays Gallery as part of Belfast Photo Festival, from 03 June to 04 September 2022.
Ligia Popławska is one of two series winners with her project Fading Senses, which explores ‘Solastalgia’ – a term coined by environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht in 2003 to describe a state of emotional distress produced by climate anxiety. It began during her MA in Photography at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp in 2019. “I had temporarily lost a sense of smell, and this experience transformed my sensory perception, influencing the way I perceived various layers of the photographic medium. I started researching how images can trigger other senses than vision and what happens inside a brain during sensory deprivation. At about the same time, a tornado devastated the beloved forest of my home in Northern Poland and the whole ecosystem in the area perished. Later on, I realised that I was affected by ecological grief.”
With that revelation in mind, Popławska began intuitively photographing moments that would emotionally express her state. She sought out places connected to anthropocentric thinking like zoos, and visited a home for the visually impaired to meet the residents there, making portraits and learning how they experience nature through texture, sound and scent. She wanted everything to appear dreamlike, as if inside the mind of someone experiencing Solastalgia or a loss of senses. “I hope this project will bring attention to the fragility and power of our senses as well as how climate change affects our emotional and mental health,” she says. “It’s a young research subject, but perhaps one of the most challenging for us in the near future.”
Also winning in the series category is Kenyan, Cardiff-based artist Cynthia MaiWa Sitei. Their project – If This is a Human: a great curiosity – illuminates the impact the climate crisis has on people with Albinism, particularly in rural areas of Kenya and Tanzania. The rise in temperature is having a hugely detrimental effect on those with little melanin in their skin, says MaiWa, with “the sun being the silent killer”.
Born in 1992, MaiWa moved to the UK in 2010 and studied psychology before pursuing an MA in documentary photography at the University of South Wales in 2017. Her thesis project, Wundanyi, was about “taking the conversation of rape into the African household,” she says. While making this difficult but important work, MaiWa travelled to Wundanyi, Kenya and stayed with her cousin Felicia, a person with Albinism who founded the organisation Persons with Albinism Taita Taveta Country. “Living and going around with Felicia, and noticing how different people would interact with her, inspired this new project,” MaiWa recalls. Later, she met members of Felicia’s group, learned about their experiences, and began to find ways to visualise what it means to have Albinism in a rapidly heating world. The resulting project blends black and white portraits and landscapes with images that are cast in scorched, pinky hues – a nod towards the misconception that people with Albinism have pink eyes, says MaiWa, when actually it’s just the absence of pigment that exposes blood vessels, making eyes appear reddish. “The same myths still circulate,” she says. “I use the different palettes to highlight the hypocrisy, as well as to magnify the effects.”
Decade of Change 2022 Moving Image Winner ©Louis de Rohan
Louis de Rohan is the moving image winner of Decade of Change. The 51-year-old photographer and climate activist wins with Los Guardianes, a documentary short filmed in 2015 in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Northern Colombia. The film shares the environmental wisdom of two elders from indigenous tribes, the Arhuaco and the Kogis, as they discuss their beliefs. “For them, nature and community are both ruled by the single primitive sacred law of nature, and for thousands of years they have avoided colonisation and their culture has survived,” explains Rohan. “That’s all begun changing in the last 100 years, though, with their civilisations coming under threat from human rights violations, settlers establishing plantations, armed conflict, and climate change altering the conditions in which this agricultural community survives.” He was compelled to create Los Guardianes when travelling with fellow filmmaker and collaborator Eduardo Pedrosa. They shot the film in black and white because it’s “a powerful medium for photojournalism – appropriately intense to carry the weight of the subject matter and show our respect for this moment in history.”
“We are at a tipping point,” says Rohan, who began his career as an environmental correspondent for The European Newspaper. “Humanity is paralysed by an existential crisis, indigenous cultures are in rapid decline, and yet, as the global population explodes, threatening the future of the natural world, their vanishing wisdom holds the key to a profound understanding of how humanity can live in balance with it. My vision is to build a body of work that documents that broken connection, using visual storytelling in a time of unprecedented crisis.”
Alongside his film, Rohan also has a photograph in the Decade of Change single image category, which includes 30 winning images by 22 photographers. It depicts two Kogi people, taken on the same trip as Los Guardianes was filmed. Meanwhile, winning images by Sonia Bhamra and Ayesha Jones also speak to the wisdom we might learn from ancient culture.
Elsewhere, Brazilian photographer Rebeca Binda has two winning images, taken from a project exposing the destruction wrought by mining corporations in the artist’s home state of Minas Gerais. “Back in 2015, the mining company Samarco was oblivious towards the issues with one of their tailings dams, and its failure led to its collapse, causing the biggest ecological crime in Brazilian history,” explains Binda. “It decimated an area the size of Portugal, and the community doesn’t exist anymore.” A slew of toxic mine waste covered the area, contaminating water, soil, vegetation and animals. One of Binda’s pictures is of a horse lying dead in a stream; a tragic and truthful visualisation of the consequences.
Among other winning images, the probing of mining history continues in work by William Mark Sommer, while Thomas Byczkowski also presents a photograph of mines taken in Minas Gerais, Brazil. A story of petrochemical pollution and environmental racism is told in two pictures by Tommaso Rada, and the rapidly diminishing resource of water remains a running metaphor in images by James Bannister and Margaret Courtney-Clarke. For Yosando Faizal and Kirsty Larmour, it is gentrification and the changing backdrops of home that have landed them among the winners, while the power of nature is given a place in Diana Buzoianu’s image of a volcano eruption. Further winners include David Ellingsen, who visualises the mounting extinction crisis, duo Elena and Leonidas Toumpanos who explore the impact of commercial development in the Arctic, and Australian aboriginal artist Wayne Quilliam who offers an aerial shot of one of his homeland’s rivers during a drought. Relatedly, Gavin Doran presents an image taken in the ever-drying region of India’s Thar Desert, while Rui Pedro Oliveira and Greig Ness return us once again to the eerie aftermath of dam building.
For winners including Valeria Scrilatti, Clair Robins and Richard John Seymour, questions of science and technology drive their practices. Seymour has three winning images, all from the series Landsat Works. “By using data gathered by satellites such as Landsat 8, even the world’s most pristine wildernesses can be examined from space for potential mineral deposits,” he says, explaining that a false colour image can be constructed using data outside the visible spectrum. “My main motivation came from a deep concern for our environment,” he says. “The idea that these techniques can potentially be used to assess our planet’s surface for suitable exploitation sites is a sign of great human ingenuity, but also unearths questions about who and what this collective ingenuity serves.”
Nick St.Oegger, who has been making work focused on Albania for the past decade, also has two images in the final selection. One of those images is from a long-term project he began in 2017 about the Vjosa – one of the last wild, free flowing rivers in Europe. “I came across this fisherman who had built a shelter in between two fortified communist era bunkers, when suddenly, the wind picked up and dark clouds came in” he says. “It was a quick moment, but I really felt like it captured a strong sense of foreboding.”
As governments across the world repeatedly fail to act on the climate crisis, places like the Vjosa sit on the precipice of history, untouched for now but ever-awaiting destruction. In lieu of that leadership, it is image-makers and activists including these winners who are fighting most urgently for climate action. With photography as their weapon, they hold a mirror to our communities, revealing endless stories of a planet in decline.