Few photographers manage to capture the human impact that climate change has on communities around the globe with the level of precision and power that Nichole Sobecki does. The visual journalist has shot for the likes of Time, Le Monde, and The Guardian, filing a wide array of investigative photographic reports on a world in crisis, with a keen interest in the human stories behind the headlines.
Neither sneering nor romanticised, Sobecki’s images capture a moment of flux in parts of the world where climate change is more than something that gets mentioned in the papers. Intimate but unobtrusive, she manages to embed herself within settings without being disruptive.
Having spent years covering conflicts and terrorism in Africa and the Middle East, Nichole found herself plagued by doubt. “I began to worry that I was focusing on the most dramatic, but least vital, part of these clashes: the contact, but not the connection.”
That sense of worry led her to embark on A Climate for Conflict, a long-form project with Nairobi-based reporter Laura Heaton. It sees the pair exploring the relationship between the environment and security in Somalia, a nation described by Nichole as “one of the countries on this planet hardest hit by climate change.”
Despite being an incredibly low contributor to global carbon dioxide emission levels, Somalia – “the canary in the coal mine for the rest of us,” as Nichole describes it – has seen its environment dramatically changed for the worse as a direct result of climate change’s indiscriminate march.
“The work tells the stories of people struggling to cope with a changing environment: the camel herder who went to war with neighbours over pasture and water, the elder struggling to adapt as his community’s land erodes around them, the fishermen lured by piracy when they could no longer make a living at sea.”
Nichole is actively involved in The GroundTruth Project, a non-profit organisation that aims to support and inspire a new generation of investigative journalists who want to develop their storytelling abilities. It was a combination of their “tremendous belief” in the project and a grant provided by the Galloway Family Foundation, which allowed Nichole and Laura to conduct the 18-month reporting and shooting process that led to A Climate for Conflict.
“That enabled the in-depth reporting we were able to do on how increased droughts in sub-Saharan African exacerbate migration and conflict in the region,” Nichole says.
Beginning in earnest after the pair discovered the “only existing land survey of Somalia” tucked away somewhere deep in the British countryside since the mid-1980s, the series ended up taking them from Somaliland to the semi-autonomous Somalian state of Puntland and on to the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya.
Talking to It’s Nice That about the discovery of the original survey, Nichole tells us how an intrepid team of scientists working for the National Range Agency – a conservation scheme founded by now-dead former Somalian Marxist-Leninist military leader Siad Barre and based in the nation’s capital of Mogadishu – had “crisscrossed the country by Land Rover and bush plane photographing and studying the environment at more than a thousand sites”.
Having pored over this archival material, Nichole and Laura decided to revisit locations they’d seen in the survey, tracking environmental changes that had occurred over the past three decades. What they found was real and dramatic change.
Somalia’s proximity to the equator means temperatures can exceed 110 degrees Fahrenheit, while incredibly minimal rainfall means some of the nation’s nomadic population subsist on just several inches of precipitation a year. This is a demanding environment by anyone’s standards. Just this month the UN Refugee Agency has issued a warning that climate change-related increases in drought mean that around 5.4 million Somalians will be “food insecure” by July. They also note that since the beginning of 2019, more than 49,000 people have been forced to flee their homes in search of food, water and work in the country’s more urban areas.
Nichole believes that photographers have an important role to play when it comes to showing the wider world the devastating impact of climate change on humans and their environments. “For me, documenting the health of our global environment is the most vital way I can use my time and energy, and I hope that I can, in even the smallest way, contribute to raising consciousness about the collective challenges we face.”
This article is part of Response and Responsibility, a new series of stories about the ongoing climate crisis and what the creative industries can do about it.