The Faces of Climate Change

Flooding islands, melting glaciers and dried-up streams: experience the impacts of climate change through the “Conversations with the Earth” exhibition

Posakei Pongap, a Manus islander, in front of a field ruined by salinization.
Posakei Pongap, a Manus islander, in front of a field ruined by salinization. Photo courtesy Conversations with the Earth/Nicolas Villaume

On Manus Island, off the coast of Papua New Guinea, the indigenous community has lived off the sea for generations. But in recent years, unpredictable winds and sudden storms have confounded traditional methods of navigation and threatened their way of life. The fisheries surrounding their island have shrunken precipitously, while rising sea levels and erosion have made farming on Manus more difficult than ever.

In December of 2008, a storm of unprecedented size—they named it “King Tide”—devastated the island, destroying homes and natural habitats. “King Tide comes, and the salt water destroys all the crops and the vegetation and nothing can grow anymore,” said Nicolas Villaume, a photographer who covered this story. “The King Tide also destroyed lots of the coral barrier reef, and if you destroy that, then you destroy the nesting places for fish.” Community leaders are now discussing a mass emigration to the mainland, but despite the slowly rising tide, many elders simply refuse to leave.

The Manus islanders are illustrations of a troubling trend: indigenous groups detrimentally affected by global climate change, a phenomenon they’ve played little part in creating. The new “Conversations with the Earth: Indigenous Voices on Climate Change” exhibition at the Museum of the American Indian powerfully documents the impacts of climate change on 15 of these communities from 13 countries around the world.

During 2009, Villaume traveled the world–visiting communities in Ethiopia, India, the Arctic, Ecuador and Brazil, apart from Manus–in order to capture these stories. As a co-founder of Conversations with the Earth, an international organization that empowers indigenous communities through the use of multimedia, he sought to use photography to help members of scattered communities connect with the world at large. “The most important thing is to understand is that climate change is touching people today, right now,” he says. “And the first people being affected are indigenous populations, in many places of the planet, because they are 100% dependent on their ecosystem.”

Through a variety of media—audio, photo essays, and community-made documentaries—the exhibition depicts their stories in an intensely personal form. The accounts range across every continent, introducing museum goers to communities and cultures they may well have never known about.

But what makes the show special is that it provides an intimate look at the real impacts of an abstract global phenomenon, linking individual stories and faces with a concept so big that it’s often hard for us to imagine. One of the organization’s priorities is to establish local media hubs that provide resources and training so indigenous voices can be heard on a global level. The opportunity to sit down, put on a pair of cushy headphones and hear firsthand the story of John Pondrein—a Manus leader seeking to steer his tiny community through a mounting global crisis—is nothing short of remarkable.

The photography ringing the exhibit is blunt in its impact, but rich enough to lose yourself in. “My experience as a photographer, as a human being, is dealing with emotions. One of the challenges was to make sure those feelings could be transmitted to an audience.” Villaume said. “That’s why I’ve used some close up photography of portraits, to illustrate. Really, it’s a bit like a conversation.”

“Conversations with the Earth: Indigenous Voices on Climate Change” continues at the National Museum of the American Indian through January 2, 2012

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