Shocking Photographs of Drought in Kenya

"A strong animal like an elephant could be reduced to the status of a dry fruit, completely emptied, which is an image that I carry inside forever."

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Feb 17 2015, 1:00pm

Stefano De Luigi is a documentary photographer from Cologne. To say that his photos are jarring would be an understatement: They grab you by the neck. Stefano won three World Press Photo awards in different categories in 1998, 2008, and 2010 and has been published by magazines from the New Yorker to Time.

In 2009 he shot a series of works based on the Kenyan drought, specifically within the Turkana region in northwest Kenya. "This tragedy, where animals and people were struggling to survive this terrible drought, was a sort of nightmare vision," says Stefano, who uses the drought as a lens through which to examine climate change more widely. "It's about a future which could be waiting for all of us if we don't deeply change our habits, if we don't reconsider our way to share the resources of our planet with more sense of responsibility. This is, I think, the message that these images of suffering carry with them. A warning to consider our way of life differently, out of respect for all kinds of life on earth."

VICE: What made you want to take photographs of the Kenyan drought?
Stefano De Luigi: During that time [2009] I was working on the subject of the "ghost country." These are countries that are not recognized by the international community. I was in Somaliland. The news on Al Jazeera coming from Kenya was getting increasingly dramatic, and the decision was taken quickly to get back on the plane to Ethiopia, and from there, I arranged with a writer and journalist friend an itinerary that would take us to the areas most affected by drought. We have worked with several Kenyan NGOs, who have been fantastic in helping us and put us in a position to reach very isolated regions of the country.

Did you expect it to have such an effect on you?
Although, as I said, the news was quite dramatic, I honestly did not expect to see what I saw. It was an apocalyptic vision, where people and animals were struggling to survive. A strong animal like an elephant could be reduced to the status of a dry fruit, completely emptied, which is an image that I carry inside forever.

Can you describe how the locals reacted to your presence?
The aid for the populations was centered around the town of Lodwar in the northwest of the country near Lake Turkana. We were immediately helped by the local authorities, who allowed us to reach, after about 12 hours in the Jeep, isolated places, where drought was the most affecting. Months of drought had turned this part of the country into a desert of fire. Local people were exhausted and traveling with the heads of regional NGOs, carrying aid, which was like a "shelter" for them. With the locals we had some meetings in which their testimonials only accentuated the feeling of natural disaster that we saw before us.

Did you speak to any of them about what was going on?
During the 15 days that we were there we talked to a lot of people. When we traveled across the country, we collected testimonies of pastors, women, foresters, agronomists, and farmers. All without exception were overwhelmed by the situation. Some of them spoke of climate change, as the reason for that terrible drought, many despaired over the loss of entire herds, like those of the Samburu National Reserve, in the center of the country—an impressive number of elephants, giraffes, buffalos, rhinos, and other animals for which Kenya is world famous. It was a humanitarian and ecological catastrophe.

Did the experience change your perspective on climate change?
Yes, there was a before and an after. This experience, the apocalyptic visions that I carry inside since then, have influenced some of my later choices. I worked on the melting of ice in Antarctica, crossing the Northwest Passage, in 2011, and I'm working on a project that concerns the massive production of inalienable waste. In general since then, I am still much more sensitive, personally, to issues related to pollution, toxic waste, clean power, and to the overexploitation of resources. For a more responsible way of life, we need to try and be conscious of the heritage we leave to future generations. We cannot continue to live and consume as if we were the last men on earth.

Stefano De Luigi is shortlisted for the 2015 Syngenta Photography Award, Open Competition. The Syngenta Photography Award exhibition, Scarcity-Waste, runs from March 11 to April 10 at Somerset House in London.

More photos below.

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