Arete’s Stories: Documenting a changing world; how reporting on the climate crisis impacts journalists’ mental health with Siegfried Modola & Aaron Palabyab

Photo: Siegfried Modola. A girl gestures during torrential rain in Chakmarkul, part of the refugee camp sheltering over 800,000 Rohingya refugees, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Children are the most vulnerable to waterborne diseases, and there are more than 100,000 of them at risk during flooding.

COP26 is coming to Glasgow on the 31st of October, and with it, the eyes of the world as the UN brings together world leaders to discuss and align on climate change action.

Around the world, storms, floods and wildfires are intensifying. Air pollution is affecting the health of tens of millions of people and unpredictable weather Is causing untold damage to homes and livelihoods.

In the lead up to the 26th Conference of the Parties, we sat down with two of our photographers that have spent years documenting natural disasters. We sought to discuss how, as environmentalists, they handle the personal and emotional weight of photographing worsening climate events year after year, how they justify what they do in light of climate grief and journalistic burnout, and more.

We start with Siegfried Modola…

Siegfried Modola is a Kenya raised independent Italian/British photojournalist and documentary photographer focusing on social, humanitarian and geopolitical events worldwide. He is based between Nairobi and Paris.

Siegfried has reported in over a dozen countries across Africa and worked in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and South America, and regularly contributes to news agencies such as Reuters and humanitarian organisations such as UNICEF, UNHCR and others via Arete. His photographs have appeared in some of the most prominent international publications such as Time, the New York Times, L’Express, Le Monde, Liberation, Figaro, Paris Match, Geo, Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.

Siegfried is currently working on a long-term personal project on the impact of air pollution on marginalised communities around the world. You can read Siegfried’s piece on air pollution in Afghanistan here:

Siegfried, can you tell us a little about the environmental disasters or events that you have covered over the years?

“Much of my work over the years has involved climate change-induced events. Being based in East Africa for a while meant that I have covered a lot of droughts. These are not new, but in recent years they have been reoccurring at a higher frequency and with more intensity.

Events that really stick in my mind are the major drought in Somalia in 2011, where thousands and thousands of people died, and the work I did covering the fleeing Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

Photo: Siegfried Modola. Rohingya refugees shield from the rain in Balukhali, Camp 10, part of the refugee camp sheltering over 800,000 Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Bangladesh suffers intense cyclonic storms and some of the heaviest monsoon rains on earth.

This event in Bangladesh, in particular, is where you witness that climate change isn’t necessarily caused solely by industry or the burning of fossil fuels. covered one of the largest refugee camps in the world on the Bangladesh border with Myanmar, which housed almost 1 million people.

This sprawling camp led to complete destruction of the local environment in a country where climate change and rising sea levels have already had a devastating effect. There are no natural barriers left to halt the floodwater, and the refugees have no way to defend themselves; they aren’t even allowed to build any form of concrete structure to protect them from the rising sea levels and flooding.

Photo: Siegfried Modola. A mother gestures in grief as others stand close to the beds of their children suffering from lung infections at a government-run hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan. Doctor Farid Ahmad Andishmond, a paediatrician at the hospital, believes that the spike of cases of pneumonia and other lung infections among children is directly linked to the increase of pollution in the capital and other cities in Afghanistan. Many families in the city cannot afford electricity. Instead, they are left with no other choice but to burn whatever they can find to keep their homes warm, he explains while doing the rounds through the room, between the beds of sick children.

In more recent years, I have been working on a personal project to understand, through photography, how the issues of air pollution are affecting the world’s most marginalised communities. It is often one of the impacts of climate change that can fly under the radar, as it is much more difficult to visualise versus something as dramatic as a flood or hurricane.”

How contributary do you think climate change is to these environmental disasters you have witnessed?

“Certainly, with something like air pollution, it is clear that the burning of fossil fuels and dirty fuel is the cause, and causing an impact, on the climate as a whole. We cannot argue this anymore; we can see world events getting worse every year.

Photo: Siegfried Modola. Coal merchants wait for customers in Kabul, Afghanistan. The capital Kabul, a city of some 6 million, ranks as one of the most polluted cities in the world — contesting amongst other polluted capitals such as India’s New Delhi or China’s Beijing. Many cannot afford electricity and so burn coal, garbage, plastic and rubber in their homes to keep warm during the cold winter months. Old vehicles and generators that run on poor quality fuel release vast amounts of toxins into the city’s air.

In my opinion, the climate has definitely shifted, it has become more violent, and it is the poorest communities around the world that are suffering the most. In East Africa, where I have lived and grown-up, the droughts are getting worse and worse. Crops might not grow because of the lack of rain, and it is the people who depend on these crops to survive who are dying.

Photo: Siegfried Modola. Women herd goats towards one of the few water points in the drought-stricken region of northern Kenya. Malnutrition among children is peaking at dangerous levels, and herders fear that it is a matter of weeks before their cattle start to die.

As a photojournalist it is clear that the climate is changing, I see it everywhere I go.”

How does it make you feel, witnessing these events year on year, while in some places around the world, climate change is touted as a myth?

“I am not a scientist or an expert. I prefer to be a visual narrator. I use the photos and stories I capture to help raise awareness of these issues, to show the world there is a problem, there is an issue — and let them build their own opinion.

Photo: Siegfried Modola. Sadi, starts to prepare food in her kitchen’s home in Malkoruqua village, northeastern Kenya.

I find it hard not to be a pessimist in all this when you know that during the course of the world’s history that the industrialisation of society has led to a huge amount of fossil fuels being removed from the earth and spewed into the atmosphere.

I feel obligated to cover the effects of climate change, despite how much these stories weigh on my conscience. To approach a story, you need to dive deep into people’s lives. You realise how vital the local climate is to them; when the next rain falls, how their homes would be washed away if a flood were to hit.

On the one hand, it is upsetting covering these stories. You feel that you are always chasing your own tail. Going around covering the same issues, with the same root cause and not enough real action being implemented.

On the other side, I can see that awareness is rising, particularly in the younger generations. We are moving in the right direction. It might still take years, but do we have those years?

Photo: Siegfried Modola. Women and children wait to be registered prior to a food distribution carried out by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) in Thonyor, Leer County, South Sudan

If it is too late, what will this mean? How many more people will I document being affected by these issues? How many more people will die? Now we are witnessing that it doesn’t just affect the farmer in India; it affects almost everyone in their homes, cities in Europe, and America. I am hopeful that this will act as a catalyst for the world to act collectively and make a change for good.”

Next, we spoke with Aaron Palabyab…

Aaron shooting in Dinapigue, Isabela, an isolated coastal town in northeastern Philippines.

Aaron Palabyab is a filmmaker and a photographer specialising in travel-oriented content. He also works as a cameraman/videographer around the Philippines and the world.

Based in Metro Manila, in the Philippines, Aaron has won multiple awards for his film and photography and works for organisations including Fujifilm Philippines, Uniqlo, DHL International, the United Nations World Food Programme, GRID Magazine, UNESCO, Arete, and more.

Can you start by telling us a little about the environmental disasters or events that you have covered over the years?

“Living in the Philippines, I have mainly covered the aftermath of typhoons and a volcanic eruption. In the last four years, I have covered at least seven typhoons. Ketsana was the one that really sticks in my memory.

Photo: Aaron Palabyab. Marisa during clean-up operations in her subdivision, which was deluged with mud during major floods during Typhoon Ketsana in 2009.

The eastern side of the Philippines is more affected by severe weather, and the capital Manila is usually insulated from the worst of the weather. But typhoon Ketsana ripped through the capital city. Non-stop driving rain for days, areas of the city buried in mud, and a complete breakdown of social structure — people stuck on roofs, looting, etc. It was an unprecedented disaster, and it has been a very long time since a typhoon of this intensity has affected the capital city.”

How contributary do you think climate change is to these environmental disasters you have witnessed?

“There can be no doubt that the climate has changed dramatically in the Philippines since I was growing up. I remember a strong typhoon in 2009, and even then, it felt like it was a warning; it felt like it was a taste of things to come — and many of us felt that way.

In the Philippines, we have felt for a while it is not a question of if a huge disaster will hit Manila, but when. With each and every Typhoon that hits, you hear that it is record-breaking, more severe than the last. I don’t think it is a coincidence that as issues of climate change are becoming more pronounced, typhoons in my home country are getting more & more intense.”

Photo: Aaron Palabyab. A house by the coast destroyed during Typhoon Kammuri in Pilar, Sorsogon.

How does it make you feel, witnessing these events year on year, while elsewhere in the world, bad practices are continuing?

“In a place like the Philippines, a regard for the environment is just part of your everyday thinking for the most part. We are kind of on the front lines of climate change, next to the Pacific Islands. It is not just typhoons but also extremely hot summers and droughts.

I feel if we don’t all take care of this, if we are not all environmentalists, then we are not taking care of ourselves. In a developing country, priorities can be more about economics than the environment so it is difficult, and I understand that. But at what cost?

We don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing to believe in environmentalism. Climate change isn’t a political debate here. There aren’t people saying this isn’t real. But it is definitely something that can be more emphasised.

It is upsetting when you see people arguing climate change isn’t real. When you see the debates happening around the world about whether it is worth attention. I do get angry; it is a matter of privilege to not be impacted by this.

I think that is why the work we do as photographers is so important because we need to do what we can to make it feel as real as possible to people who have the luxury of being insulated from all of this. It is very frustrating to feel that this can still be a political debate when it is so real.

Photo: Aaron Palabyab. Villagers calmly wait under cover as a thunderstorm passes in Surigao province in the Philippines

When I go out to the provinces to document the after-effects of the typhoons, it is a wake-up call. In Manila, we are quite insulated, but when I see the devastating effects first-hand, it is unimaginable what people are going through.

It really prompts a lot of reflection and gives a lot of perspective. It prompts you to be extremely humble to have not been touched, but also a huge sense of compassion, I know I am just a photographer, but I want to do what I can to help, to contribute to the solution.

I have discovered on recent assignments, particularly with Arete, when the people you have travelled to help and document see you and see you with a camera. It means a lot to them; they want you to tell their story; they believe it will help them get the support they need.

So if my photos and stories can help get assistance for people, if my photos can make a difference. Then that helps me feel like I have made an impact and certainly helps balance out the sadness and stress of documenting these climate change events year on year.”

Photo: Aaron Palabyab. Aerial view of Taal Volcano in June 2021. The volcano is the most active in the country and one of the most active in the world.

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