The 2021 Visual Storytelling Award is currently open for entries and will be judged by award-winning American photographer and member of the prestigious VII photo agency Nichole Sobecki, a masterful purveyor of the documentary style.
Born in New York, Nichole Sobecki was introduced to the medium at an early age through her grandfather, who gifted her the camera which he had used for many years to capture images from the trains on which he worked.
She studied Political Science at Massachusetts’ Tufts University, and upon graduating, traveled to the Middle East (specifically Turkey, Lebanon, and Syria) where she began her career, focusing on issues related to identity, conflict, and human rights.
She subsequently moved to Nairobi, Kenya (where she still lives today) to lead Agence France-Presse’s East Africa video bureau, though would later shift her focus to her documentary practice, motivated by a deep desire to educate and inform, and thus engender positive change.
“In order to change the world, we have to first understand it as it is. Documentary photography is a window into lives, places and experiences beyond ourselves. It can broaden our perspective, inform our choices, and, at its best, act as a bridge to connect us to one another.” – NS
It’s this ethos, underpinned by a deep humanism, that informs her practice, and has generated a wealth of truly astonishing work. From the smugglers who ferry migrants across the Sahara, to the Ebola epidemic in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or her reportage on the ongoing war in Afghanistan, Sobecki’s work is characterised by rare empathy and veracity, invariably centering on the nuanced human stories behind the key issues of our time, in a refreshing divergence from the approach of many western practitioners.
“After years covering conflicts and terrorism in the Middle East and Africa I began to worry that I was focusing on the most dramatic, but perhaps least vital, part of these clashes. The contact, but not the connection. What was happening below the surface of these crises, and how would those currents shape the future?”
These reflexive questions led her to create, ‘A Climate for Conflict’, (alongside journalist Laura Heaton), a thoroughly compelling body-of-work that explores how climate change has dramatically impacted Somalia’s physical, socio-economic and political landscape.
“Somalia is the canary in the coal mine for the rest of us. In a generation parts of the country have gone from being semi-arid to desert, fuelling conflict and pushing communities to the brink.”
“This work tells the stories of people struggling to cope with a changing environment: the camel herder who went to war with neighbors over pasture and water, the elder struggling to adapt as his community’s land erodes around them, the fishermen lured by piracy when they could no longer make a living at sea.
This is one of the places that has contributed the least to global carbon dioxide emissions, and yet its environment is among the most severely impacted, in irreversible ways. I felt a sense of responsibility to highlight that; as well as a need to examine the dynamics between the environment and security, which are poorly understood.”
Comprising portraiture, landscapes, and ‘unposed’ quotidian scenes, the series poignantly imparts the realities of everyday life for those living in an area of the world that is one of the worst affected by the climate crisis. A reminder of the increasingly interconnected essentiality of our planet, and of the need for immediate, radical, change, it exemplifies Sobecki’s profound percipience as well as photography’s unique ability to effectively communicate truth.
“The greatest driving force in my work is humanity’s fraught, intimate, and ultimately unbreakable connection to the natural world. Too often coverage of climate change has been politicised, or it’s been portrayed as something happening to the planet, or polar bears, or glaciers — forgetting that we’re all a part of the same thing.” – NS
“We don’t exist separately from our environment, nor will we survive its destruction (although parts of it may survive ours). Any chance at a future here demands a complete, and rapid rethinking of our priorities, and the creation of a sense of collective humanity that is missing from the short-term, individualistic thinking that has dominated our politics and economy for the last century. I believe that storytelling has a role to play in cultivating these new ideas.”