Maurizio Di Pietro
I see more and more the effects of climate change. The average annual temperature on earth has increased, the oceans have warmed, snow and ice caps have diminished, and sea levels have risen, but still today there is not a scientific consensus that climate change is occurring and is due to human activity. The effects are devastating directly on human life, primarily the communities already vulnerable due to poverty and difficult environmental conditions.
Today Turkana County is home to a rapidly growing population that is among the poorest in Kenya, the population is predominately indigenous Turkana people, and pastoral, relying on livestock herding. Some Turkana fish in the waters of Lake Turkana, while others reside in the county’s towns. Their traditional reliance on natural resources for food and livelihood, the historic marginalization of the region, and the lack of infrastructure make them especially vulnerable to any changes in the environment.
In Turkana county air temperature have increased by about 3 degrees between 1967 and today, the long rainy season has become shorter and dryer and the short rainy season has become longer and wetter, while overall annual rainfall remains at low levels.
During these droughts, the Turkana ethnic group who were mostly pastoralist were pushed closer to the lake. They gradually adapted their lifestyles to depend upon fishing, despite it previously being a livelihood looked down upon. Now the lives of the people in this area depend directly on fish or fishing. Fishing now forms a core part of local livelihoods, and fish are sold regionally – among other places, in Nairobi, the Rift Valley, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Uganda.
Hydropower and irrigation developments underway on the Omo River, upstream in Ethiopia, portend ecological collapse of the lake and fisheries, and threaten the delicate survival means of already resource-scarce communities.
When and how did you get started in photography?
I started taking pictures when I was very young, thanks to a darkroom course, but it was only later I realized that the photography was a real passion for me.
What did photography give you?
Photography pushes me to get to know other people and their stories. This also helps me to get to know myself. Only photography gives me the courage to do this.
What is it that you try to achieve with photography?
Being able to arouse a strong emotion from those who look at my project is the best reward I receive from photography.
What do you think makes a truly great image?
A truly great image is a photo that communicates and tells. I am not fascinated by the beauty itself of an image. I think it’s really difficult to achieve a story with individual images, this is also the reason why I love reportage.
Who were your early influences and where do you get your inspiration from today?
I need to get inspired while I am taking pictures from what I see, from the light, from gestures and words, always keeping in mind the goal of my project.
I’m not very good at imagining the photo I want to shoot.
I can’t really say what my influences are, but I can say that I loved and love the work of Larry Towel, Alex Webb, Francesco Zizola, James Nachtwey, Jessica Dimmock, Francesca Woodman, and Darcy Padilla.
What drew you to pursue a project on this subject? How did the idea come about?
I love nature in all its forms, so the arrogance of man destroying it makes me mad, also because they are damaging themselves. This is a very important topic for me, so I wanted to give my contribution.
Despite the tragedy that is coming down on Turkana, the people are reacting with force and dignity. I hope that my shots show that.
How do you build relationships with your subjects prior to photographing them?
I don’t have one set rule but I always invest all my energy in giving to the people everything I am capable of (energy, time, trust) in order to build a relationship, hoping they will feel the same way.
To build this relationship is not something very easy for me, as I am a really shy and introverted person, but what I realized is that often my shyness helped me in building a sense of trust.
Do you feel that a sense of trust between photographer and subject is imperative to the success of a documentary photography story? How do you stay sensitive and empathetic to your subjects while pursuing striking and thought-provoking images?
I think that it is crucial; it’s very hard to make a good work without building a sense of trust.
If the story that you are working on is based on sensations and emotions then I think that building a trusting relationship is mandatory to get to a deep level of intimacy.
In fact, I can get good shots, only when I feel empathic with subject.
It can take minutes or days for this empathy to arise, but it is necessary. At the same time, you have to remember, that you are working. So, it is also important to find the right emotional distance.
How did your project develop and change between your start and end dates? What challenges did you face in the making of this project?
When I started the project, my aim was to show the climate change through the Turkana County. It’s only later on, when I was on site that I discovered that many fishermen many years ago changed their lifestyle from pastoralism to fishing, and I thought it was very important to include this topic into the project.
It was very hard to work on site, with temperatures above 40 degrees Celcius, and to communicate with the local people as the majority of them speak only Turkana.
My last trip was also affected by a cholera epidemic which made everything even more difficult.
What do you enjoy most about documentary photography? What are the drawbacks?
I like to tell stories but I’m not very good at writing so I try to do it through my passion. One of the downside is that unfortunately I spend only a small amount of time actually taking pictures, 90% of the time is dedicated to studying, understanding the topic, finding contacts for logistic and to establish relationships, etc.
So sometime, I’d like to dedicate more time taking pictures.
Has winning the Lucie Scholarship impacted your career, and if yes, how?
Yes, it has been very important to me. Firstly, It was an injection of self-confidence but also the economic contribution was really helpful to continue a project that I consider very important to me.