Photographers For Good ~ Malin Fezehai

We are proud to recognize Malin Fezehai as a Photographer for Good.

View of the island of Abaiang, one of 33 low lying islands of Kiribati. The average height above sea level for the island is less than 3 meters. ©Malin Fezehai

Tell us a little about yourself and your photography.

I started doing photography when I was in high school and I was just taking pictures of my friends. It was the first thing I ever felt that I was good at. When I was 19 years old I packed my bags and went to New York to attend the International Center of Photography. Since then I have traveled and worked in places like Ethiopia, Peru, Sri Lanka, Ghana, and Brazil. My work has focused on marginalized children and the displacement of communities due to poverty, war and climate change. When I go somewhere I try to stay a minimum of two months if possible because I like spending time getting to know the place I am photographing.

What’s in your bag?

My camera bag is always packed with my Canon 7D, two batteries, three lenses, two fixed, one zoom, a sound recorder (Zoom H4n) and a spider tripod. I travel with as little as possible but on my travels I always bring my laptop and a good airplane pillow. I also never leave home without a couple reliable hard drives.

Tell us a bit about your work in Kiribati.
Kiribati is a small island nation of 33 atolls spread out in the South Pacific; the area is the size of Alaska but the amount of land could fit within Manhattan. The average height above sea level is about 2 meters and this makes the island very vulnerable to rising sea levels. During my time there I found many destroyed homes and learned that families had to build makeshift sea walls to protect their houses. As a result of the rising seawater, food crops are much smaller and water wells are being contaminated. At the same time the islanders are dealing with the same issues of globalization as the rest of the world: overpopulation, waste disposal and rising number of diabetes cases due to the increase in consumption of imported foods. A once isolated society is now trying to figure out how to adapt to the new problem of climate change while continuing to grapple with globalization, both of which are transforming the way of life and culture across the region.

Boy jumping in the water from the causeway that separates the lagoon from the ocean on the island of Tarawa. ©Malin Fezehai

Island of Tarawa. A landfill in the village of Nanikai, it’€™s one of two landfills on the island that has been constructed in an attempt to manage the island’s growing garbage disposal problems. The amount of disposable solid waste is increasing as lifestyles and consumption patterns in Tarawa has changed to Western ways, with increasing levels of non-biodegradable materials such as cans, bottles and plastics. The usual methods of disposal are dumping on the seashores result in polluted waterways and lagoons. ©Malin Fezehai

Why is what’s happening in this tiny island nation relevant to folks around the world?

“Climate refugee” is a new term of our time, and there are a growing number of people who are being displaced due to climate change and natural disasters. A report by Oxfam last year predicted that 75 million people in the Asia-Pacific region will be forced to relocate by 2050 if climate change continues unabated. What is specific to the islands in the South Pacific is that the options for migration is very limited, that is why I think their story is so important and should be told. It’s a region of small nations with very little political capital on the world stage. The question that remains unresolved is who takes responsibility for these people. I do think that public awareness about climate change has grown, but I don’t think that people fully understand the mass migration that is underway and that’s why I think the situation in Kiribati is very relevant to rest of the world.

Iataake Totoki is the assisting agriculture officer on the island of Abaiang. He says that he intends to move to either New Zealand or Australia, because of climate change. “€œThe higher we go the better.” He says that most people here don’t want to leave Kiribati but if they know what is going to happen they will want to leave as well. According to him, it’s mostly educated people that fully understand the situation. ©Malin Fezehai

In the village of Eita there used to be a sea wall constructed to protect the village. It has now been destroyed by rising tides and is threatening homes on the island of Tarawa. ©Malin Fezehai

What was it like to be shooting in a place that really might no longer exist in a very short time?

Kiribati by itself is pretty surreal, because when you are standing in Tarawa (the capital) you see the ocean on one side and the lagoon on the other, and I just felt kind amazed at how people have lived on these small plots of land for generations. What you have to keep in mind though, is that the end of Kiribati won’t come as a single engulfing wave. Over a period of decades, the 33 atolls of Kiribati will be rendered uninhabitable by flooding, which will ruin homes and the small patches of arable land, poison drinking water, spread disease and drown the fragile economy. So it’s a gradual process.

Island of Abaiang. Fallen coconut tree — a result of rising seas and lands erosion. ©Malin Fezehai

Mangrove trees in the village of Buota. Mangroves trees can grow in salty coastal habitats in the tropics and subtropics. The planting of mangrove trees is a strategy by the government to try to hold the soil in place. ©Malin Fezehai

What were some of the challenges of photographing in Kiribati?

There weren’t any major challenges, if I would name a few it would be means of communications, like cell phones and internet were not the best, getting ahold of people was a little bit of a challenge, but I would just show up at their doorstep. The roads, when I was there, had been washed away because of the increase of rainfall, many of the buses were just falling apart because they couldn’t handle all the potholes, so getting from place to place was pretty time consuming. On the outer islands the was no electricity with the exception of one generator that was on for two hours, so charging my gear and dumping my cards was a bit tricky.

On the island of Abaiang. A broken seawall in the village of Tebunginako. The government came to the conclusion that they could no€™t sustain the seawall and that relocation would be the better option. ©Malin Fezehai

Island of Abaiang. A village called Tebunginako has had to relocate because of rising seas and land erosion. This is a former fresh water lagoon that is now inundated with sea water which is killing the coconut trees. When a coconut tree dies, the decay starts at the top. First the fruit falls and then the leaves. All that is left is a desiccated trunk, cut off at half-mast. In the front, mangrove trees have been planted as a strategy by the government to try to hold the soil in place. ©Malin Fezehai

Anything else we should know about the island and the people?

One thing I think people should know about people in Kiribati is that they love their island and their way of life. It’s a very family orientated culture and I met very few people that expressed that wanted to leave. A woman I met told me a story about her daughter that was at the American embassy in Fiji to apply for a student visa to Hawaii. She was picked out of the line right away and got her approval, and they said to her “you guys from Kiribati always go back”.

What are you working on now?

I am working on a documentary I shot in Kiribati, but it’s on a slightly different subject matter. It’s about this dance group called “Miss July” comprised of a group of cross-dressing men living on the island. I was so impressed by their courage to express their femininity through dance considering that Kiribati is a very religious society. But because they are better dancers than most women, the majority of people on the island accepted them. When I was there I filmed many of their performances and I promised them I would make a film about them. Lately I have been working on more video projects as well as film editing.

If funding was not a problem and you could work on any project for a year, what would it be?

I would continue photographing in other countries in the South Pacific like Solomon Islands that has become the first country in the Pacific region, and one of four countries in the world, to qualify for a special international fund for projects that help nations gear up for climate-related changes, and in the Marshall Islands that has already lost up to 20 percent of its beachfront. On another note though, there are also several projects I want to do in parts of Africa as well, including a short film I would like to shoot in Massawa Eritrea, in the home country of my father.

A little girl playing in a tree on the island of Tarawa. ©Malin Fezehai

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. I just want to congratulate Malin for doing some great work – this is outstanding photography, and I love to see it harnessed to important causes like this.

  2. Truly inspirational and humanitarian work. Congrats Malin.

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