Warm Waters is a book reexamining the ways in which climate change affects indigenous populations
After five years, Vlad Sokhin’s expansive project depicts an illuminating photographic journey into disaster.
- Joey Levenson
- 11 November 2021
“Warm Waters began in Papua New Guinea in 2013 when I was covering a story about illegal logging and deforestation,” Russian-Portugese photographer Vlad Sokhin tells us on his latest breathtaking book. The long-term photographic project documents the effect of climate change across the Pacific and Arctic oceans and, most importantly, shows the uphill fight climate migrants have been facing – and must face in years to come. It’s a thoroughly researched, detailed, and stirring book that speaks to Vlad’s abilities as a necessary photographer in today’s climate discourse. “Photography happened naturally for me,” says Vlad. “I first started writing travel stories as I began travelling around the world, then I started to accompany my stories with images.” From there, Vlad became captivated by using photography more as a skill to tell the stories of reality, rather than to simply document a travelling expedition. “I was attracted to photography by the fact that everything I can see, I can transmit to other people and this image could make people stop and think, maybe even realise something, or come to a solution,” he explains.
After covering post-war Kosovo, Vlad set his sights on illegal logging and deforestation in Papua New Guinea, which is where the idea for Warm Waters came from. “Slowly, I started expanding the coverage of environmental issues caused by human activities and climate change and decided to try to cover the whole Pacific Region from Alaska to New Zealand,” Vlad says. “I had no idea how to find funding for such a big project, but I just thought that if I started doing that, the money would come.” And so he was right. After five years of work, and 18 countries and territories visited, Vlad was able to bring his photo series to life. Nonetheless, it was a long process in changing idea, intention, message, and scenery. “At first, I only wanted to visually show the negative consequences of climate change,” Vlad says. “For the first two or three years I was looking for destruction, flooded villages, towns destroyed by super cyclones, bleached corals, landslides and all this doom and gloom, but then I saw that the story is unbalanced.” Eventually, the photographer began to look at the “resilience of people, the daily life of those who live on a such unstable ground, people who have to adapt and hope for the best,” in an attempt to pay more of a fitting tribute and documentation of those effected the most. “Warm Waters became a window into a world that many people don’t have access to,” Vlad adds.
Two images which particularly stand out to Vlad is one in Kiribati, wherein a young man swims amongst a flooded area. “I went to Kiribati for the first time in 2014, and it was during high tide and I saw one area of Tarawa Atoll was completely flooded with ocean water,” Vlad describes. “Kiribati doesn’t have a lot of land where people can live and grow their food because it’s a tiny strip of land in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and now with climate change even that tiny strip is threatened.” The other image is from Kamchatka in Russia, picturing a two-story building on the shore of the sea of Okhotsk. “You can see that the building is right on shore, so close to the water, and is partly destroyed,” Vlad points out to us. “When you look at this image you realise people don’t build houses so close to the water…and what I learned was that a couple of decades ago there were two more streets down and the shore line was far away from where it is now.” With changing weather and mild winters, ice was no longer setting, and waves were coming closer into the shore to the buildings. “Many houses were destroyed, and people of Oktyabrsky Settlement had to relocate,” Vlad says. “Many people had to leave this place.”
During the project, Vlad learned tenfold about the state of the planet. “I learned how resilient humans are and how we can adapt to any situation,” he says. “And many other things that really changed not only the way I photograph, but the way I operate as a human being.” It’s an effect that will surely resonate with the viewer: changing not just the way we look at photographs, but how we operate as human beings. “The viewers have freedom to interpret these images the way they want,” Vlad concurs. “I only hope that we all understand that what is happening now is not a problem of some tiny countries in the middle of the ocean, but it’s a problem of all humanity that can threaten our existence on Earth.”
Now, Vlad moves forward with an important focal point in learning more about the climate crisis. “I try to understand the knowledge that indigenous communities have, that help them to adapt or help them to avoid certain consequences of climate change and natural disasters,” he says. From his years of travels and documentation, it’s a conclusion Vlad can’t help but draw. “During my trips to the Pacific Region, Asia and Africa I met many wise people that live a natural way of life and I was amazed by the depths of their knowledge, how deeply they know and understand nature, how they can read the signs about upcoming natural events, and how the signs, together with this knowledge, supported them for thousands of years.” It’s why he’s working to dispel negative stereotypes around indigenous peoples and cultures as ‘primitive’, and refocus the importance of their way of life and how it can lead the way. “They know how to be in balance with their environment and be happy, how to live in peace with nature without destroying it. I hope we can remember this.”
GalleryVlad Sokhin: Warm Waters (Copyright © Vlad Sokhin/Panos Pictures/Schilt Publishing, 2021)
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Vlad Sokhin: Warm Waters (Copyright © Vlad Sokhin/Panos Pictures/Schilt Publishing, 2021)