Vlad Sokhin is a peripatetic photographer, videographer and multimedia producer with a penchant for intense stories covering human rights, social and environmental issues. He has worked with many major publications, as well as for the United Nations and various other NGOs.
In between assignments, he would work on his personal, long-term projects. For Crying Meri, Vlad documented cases of violence against women in Papua New Guinea, one of the world’s most dangerous places to be female. Since 2013, he has been working on Warm Waters, a wide-ranging project documenting the effects of climate change on communities from Alaska to New Zealand.
Warm Waters is your long-term project to document the effects of climate change on the Pacific region. What sparked your interest in this issue?
It started when I was working in Papua New Guinea in 2013. I had a few assignments there to document illegal logging and deforestation, which also affects the climate and how people live. Then I went to the Manus Province, which is made up of small islands, and I saw how some of them were going underwater. I spent a bit of time in one small community, and then I decided to check other places. I’ve always been interested in the Pacific countries but never had a reason to go and visit all of them, so this was a good reason. That’s when I started the project.
Which areas are you covering for this project?
I’ve covered a lot of places including Alaska, the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia, Papua New Guinea, Kiribati, Fiji, Guam, Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia among others. I’ve been twice to the Marshall Islands and Kiribati. There are a few more areas that I still need to work on, for example, Australia and New Zealand. Another place I want to go is Antarctica and to finish my journey there.
You recently spent two months in Alaska for the project, can you tell us about that?
I wanted to see how communities in the Arctic, where climate change is visible, live. There are three very visible areas where you can see this change with your own eyes – the Equator zone with the low-lying atolls and islands, Antarctica and the Arctic.
The first place I visited in Alaska was Barrow, the northernmost city in the United States. It is also where the Barrow Global Climate Change Research Facility is located, which I got access to. I worked a bit with the scientists, they were doing their work and I was documenting it. It was interesting to speak to the scientists and the local communities. Everyone was saying that changes are happening, and it’s happening really fast.
Can you give us a few examples of these changes?
In the tundra, the scientists have been conducting several tests. One of it is measuring how much methane and CO2 are being released into the atmosphere from permafrost. They’ve been doing it for the past three years, and say that it’s been increasing rapidly during this time. Another team of botanists working there have built open top chambers, like mini greenhouses in the tundra. The plastic walls of the chambers heat up the study area by 2 degrees F, to predict what will happen in this area when that happens. You can see from the study area that flowers and plants are blooming. This will affect rodents, birds and all animals along the food chain.
Scientists also told me that there’s not enough ice for polar bears to hunt seals and walruses out at sea so they are coming onshore and attacking birds. They’ve had to build bear-proof boxes so that the birds can hatch their eggs. Also because of climate change, scientists have seen that the birds now lay eggs twice during the short summer season as opposed to just once a year.
As for the local communities, hunters told me that because there’s not so much ice, it’s difficult to hunt whales. They still use the traditional skin boats called umiaks and kill the whales with harpoons. Without ice sheets, they have no place to put the whale out at sea and to butcher it.
From covering this issue of climate change, what is your personal outlook for its impact on the planet?
I think we have already past the point of no return. The scientists whom I’ve talked to are pretty pessimistic about the situation. It’s a stern warning that some countries will need to take hard measures to adapt. It’s already happening. Every year, you see stronger and bigger and more continuous super storms and floods. I was born and grew up in Russia. Winters was -30 degrees. We always had snow on Christmas and New Year. But by the end of the 1990s, I remember the first New Year without snow and now that’s pretty much the norm.
Your project takes you to some fairly inaccessible and remote places. Logistically, what are the challenges that you’ve faced?
There are a lot of challenges. First of all, you can’t travel by land to most of these places. You’ll have to fly or go by boat. Flying is easier but more expensive. Boats are not reliable. You can have lots of time and less money, but also even if you have money, you still need time. And patience. For example, UNICEF sent me to Tuvalu. I was supposed to visit some northern islands that were affected by the cyclone in 2014. I arrived at the capital Funafuti and was told that the boats were postponed indefinitely. I waited for more than a week and my boss told me if I didn’t leave by the next day, I’d have to fly back. At the very last minute, there was a boat and I left for the islands.
Seeing that this is a personal project, how do you keep it going, especially financially?
You need to have different sources of financing unless you were working with a really big media company like National Geographic. If you approach someone with a long-term project like this, that is documenting climate change from Alaska to New Zealand, they probably wouldn’t give you any money. But if you show that you are personally tied to the project and that you’ve been doing the work for some time with good results, you should be able to find the money to finance it. I’ve tried applying for grants, wasn’t really lucky with those. I work with the United Nations, and that has helped with access and with assignments. Sometimes I work with magazines or sell my stories to them. It’s a bit of a juggling act.
How would you like to present the project once it’s completed?
I hope it will be a book. The way I’ve been photographing and the way I’ve been thinking about these stories, it’s a book project. I also would like to do a series of exhibitions around the world. It would be great to do a small underwater exhibition to support a bigger exhibition on land. In the meantime, organisations like UNICEF, Oxfam Australia and The World Bank have used my photographs for their programmes on climate change and its impact on this part of the world.
Do you think photography can be an instrument of change?
I don’t think photography alone can change the world but it can help to change policies. But the main thing that photography can change are the lives of some people and I’ve seen this happen. Some of the people that I’ve photographed have gotten the help they need. I am happy that photographs from my previous project Crying Meri were used to protest violence against women in Papua New Guinea; people were using them as they marched in protest, they were used in international campaigns. The photographs alone didn’t change anything, but they helped to affect some change. It was a collaborative effort.
How did you first get interested in photography?
The first time I got really interested in photography was when I travelled in Kosovo by myself in 2005. I travelled from the Serbian side to the Kosovo side. It was just after the war, so there was a big UN presence there. I heard shootings, there were tanks and soldiers on the streets. I just wanted to see the situation for myself. I had a digital camera with me and I was taking pictures of everything. I even wrote my travel impressions of that time. I cold-emailed the story to publishers. One editor replied saying it was pretty good and if I had photos to go with the story. I sent him the whole unedited folder of photos to him. He replied after a few days saying that this was not what they wanted. The story was never published but it made me think, what is photography?
I started getting more interested, bought a better camera and enrolled in a few photography courses. There wasn’t a day when I didn’t do something that had to do with photography. Every day I’d be reading books, watching documentaries, meeting people, attending workshops, and going to exhibitions on photography. I was like a sponge, absorbing all this information. I started to think and see differently. I then enrolled in a two-year photography course in Lisbon, where I already started working a bit as a photojournalist. Even now I see my style changing, the way I see things is also changing. I look at things differently.
What are you trying to capture with your photography?
I want to go to the places that have not been very much explored or photographed. I’m not looking for lost tribes. I’m more interested in transitions, the clash of cultures. We live in very interesting times and we can see now how things are changing rapidly. The world is speeding up all the time. However, there are still communities living in the past but they are already receiving things from the future. I’ve seen people for the first time stepping on the escalator. In 2014, Kiribati had its first shopping mall in Tarawa, which had an escalator. They had to place a guard there to stop people playing on it. It was like a tourist attraction for the people and broke down pretty quickly. It’s interesting to see this from an anthropological point of view how these communities are affected by modernity.
Sometimes it would have a negative impact. For example, I’ve spoken to scientists and anthropologists about access to cheap DVD films, smartphones and the Internet in a place like Papua New Guinea. Without proper education and proper understanding, access to modern information like pornography, for example, has led to issues like increased violence towards women.
You’re a traveller at heart and you’re always on the road. How do you deal with that?
The best thing is not to think that you are on the road and you adapt to it. There was a year when I had about 200 flights, sometimes three a day. I spent a lot of time travelling and living in hotels or someone else’s place or the airport. I got a bit tired and I’m now taking it a bit easy but I’m still travelling a lot.
Can you give us a little insight into your life on the field?
When it is an emergency, you work 20 hours a day and you hardly sleep for ten to 15 days in a row. There is the physical tiredness and the emotional side of it too, especially when you cover a natural disaster like an earthquake or cyclone. And at the end of the day, you can’t just go back and sleep. You have to choose, edit and caption the photographs before sending them to the agency or publishers, and sometimes the Internet is tricky. Sure, it’s nice sometimes to stay in a resort when on assignment. I was put up in a resort once in Vanuatu. It had an amazing pool that I never got to use during the week I was there because I was so busy.
What qualities do you need to succeed as a photographer?
You need a lot of drive. You also need to know how to take your time and disconnect from your previous work, to think about what you want to do and want to achieve. Sometimes you need to go to a quiet place and think about things.
The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.