Photojournalism - NOMINEE: Lee Hoagland
Death Of The Mekong
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A combination of excessive dams and climate change has upset one of Asia’s largest eco systems, creating a dire situation which is quickly becoming a global environmental crisis. Starting in the plateau of Tibet, the Mekong winds its way through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Once notorious for entrenched warfare the river now suffers from a different type of conflict.
When China began building dams, changing the flow of the Mekong, the four affected downstream countries circulated petitions in hopes of swaying their northern neighbor. After China ignored them, Laos also started building a dam. Cambodia and Thailand plan on doing the same. Because of their policy reversal, these countries are condemning much of the life around the Mekong. With construction continuing, no solution is in sight.
Meanwhile Tibetan glaciers are melting, and sea levels continue to rise. This has caused extreme flooding and droughts, particularly in Cambodia and Vietnam. As a result, rice crops are yielding less than ever before and the fishing industry, which employs millions of people, is grinding to a halt. An uptick of salinity in the river is forcing locals to dig deeper for drinking water. When digging these wells farmers unknowingly hit pockets of chemicals that release arsenic into the river and drinking water, leading to alarmingly high levels of poisoning and cancer.
Dead fish, poisoned by pollution in the river, are another ominous warning of what lies ahead. With a big depletion of river fish, villagers now take their flimsy boats to open seas at great risk for weeks at a time in search of a good catch, often leading to death. On land entire villages are being raised to provide space for dams and the illegal lumbering that happens during the initial phases of construction. This deforestation is having a significant impact on the climate.
This has led to a new reality in the countrysides and urban centers along the Mekong. In rural communities families are being separated as fathers and mothers move to cities in search of employment. Children are being raised by grandparents. Cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City cannot absorb all of these climate refugees and continue to struggle with the consequences of a growing population.
Asian leaders see these new dams as a key to economic development, despite sustainable alternatives. As a result, the Mekong region is suffering. Lakes are disappearing, drinking water is at a premium. Fish have vanished. Soil is becoming saline. Water wells dug too deep are contaminated by natural arsenic poison. What was supposed to be a boon for the economy has become a mortal danger, creating climate refugees and accelerating the deforestation of the area.
This region is in danger, it is imperative to depict the decline of communities that have lived off of this river for thousands of years while also showing the environmental issues threatening life as a whole. There are few regions of the world more beautiful, or more in peril, than the Mekong river valley.
Through portraiture and landscape photography, I have investigated discriminatory labor practices, human rights abuses, and their influence on people. My interests are rooted in exposing, through long term projects, large structural systems of power and oppression. The ability to humanize these concepts through photographic reportage allows the stories to be understood by a larger audience.
Paris was where I completed my first independent series, “CSP75”. The work brought attention to a self organized group of sub Saharan migrants living inside of an unused factory, fending off hunger and the police, in hopes of obtaining working papers. The issue was of particular importance at the time. The Sarkozy administration had begun a national dialogue about what it meant to be “French”. The thinly veiled attempt to paint non white people as undemocratic others was the exact opposite of the homogeneous democracy that was being implemented inside of the factory. It was necessary for the public to see this. Upon completing this project The Telegraph wrote a review of the essay, it was published by multiple news organizations, an image was displayed at the Ian Parry exhibition, the Magenta foundation awarded the work, and I was put into the emerging talent section of Getty reportage.
After moving to the U.A.E. it was clear that the country, and the region, was engaged in federally sanctioned labor and human rights abuses. Traveling across the GCC I documented the system and workers caught in its clutches. Showing the exploitation of these men by various multi national companies and the complicit governments was not enough. To get the full story meant going to India. Photographing the spouses and children of laborers allowed me to humanize this ruthless system. Adding another layer of importance was the ability to interview former laborers in an environment where they did not fear reprisals. The end result was an international, in depth reportage exposing a sophisticated system of exploitation by using the people as conduits of the message behind the work. In addition to media coverage I was a Joop Swart Masterclass finalist.
Victims of war are frequently portrayed as objects rather than human beings. To bring a different perspective and challenge traditional media depictions I built a makeshift studio inside of a hospital to create a new vernacular for victims of the Iraq war. The work was done in a manner more akin to a fashion shoot than a reportage. This approach succeeded in expressing the horror of everyday violence in war zones while also maintaining the subjects respect, dignity and voice. The work is currently being exhibited through the U.S., Canada and the U.K. by the Magenta foundation. It was also used in a global campaign by Doctors Without Borders to raise money for life saving surgeries.
Death of the Mekong, like my other projects, will rely heavily on humanizing issues through those being affected the most. Give me the chance to help.