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Messages through the lens: Nigerian youths champion climate awareness using photography

Since the first quarter of 2021, Mayowa Adebo and his team of photographers, have been travelling to different parts of Nigeria to document how climate change is affecting communities – urban and rural.

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A log transporter. Image Title: Fallen (A man arranging logs of wood after a massive deforestation at Luvu community of Nasarawa state.) Credit: Wole Hammond, March 2019 (http://www.wolehammond.com/)

Twenty-nine-year-old Mayowa is the lead photographer at Marquess Studios and the Team Lead of Climagraphy. Through his Climagraphy project – a coinage of climate and photography which is funded by the Urban Movement Innovation (UMI) Fund, an organisation that supports, incubates and accelerates strategic elements of the climate movement for a radical reduction in greenhouse gases by connecting, aligning and strengthening people power, Mayowa has created over 1,000 visual representations of how the changing climate in Nigeria is altering the lives and livelihood of people in local communities.

“Photography has gone beyond just clicking the shutter of your camera,” Mayowa Adebo says. “Recently, a lot of people have come to understand and appreciate photography as an incredible tool to promote various causes – and climate change should not be exempted,”

Mayowa got the initiative to represent climate change through visuals in 2019 when he documented the Youth Climate Innovation Hub, a project sponsored by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). He believes photographs possess more communication power than other tools. “Whether taken with a DSLR camera or phone, every photograph has the power to pass a message. People may not fully remember what they have read but they will recall a picture they have seen. An image can convey emotions – make the audience happy, sober, anxious or depressed,” he explained.

In September 2021, Mayowa and his three- man team visited Ayetoro community in the oil-bearing Ilaje Local Government of Ondo state, one of the communities on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean facing threat of total extinction.

Some of the images captured were that of electric poles in the middle of the ocean, carcasses of houses awash with only a few pillars standing, children wading through waters to access the remains of their house, and tons of plastic waste thrown out from the sea littering the streets.

Beyond images of sea encroachment in Ondo State, Mayowa’s Climagraphy project contains images of deforestation in Ekiti State, train as an alternative means of transportation in Lagos State, young women going the extra mile to fetch water to irrigate farms in Nasarawa State, open grazing in Nigeria’s capital city, Abuja, amongst others.

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Seeing beyond the present

In the Forbes’ article “Why Climate Change Messaging Must Evolve Beyond Noting Record-Breaking Temperatures”, Marshall Shepherd, a leading international expert in weather and climate who is a Forbes contributor noted that “scientists need to work hard to keep their message memorable, meaningful and miniature.” He calls it the “Three M’s of Messaging”. AAAS in a related publication titled “Communication Fundamentals”, explains this further, “successful engagement builds on a foundation of clear, concise communication.”

As postulated by Adebo, the world has reached that stage where only words do not suffice to communicate the impact of climate crises. It is not enough that the phrase “climate change” is recurrently making its way into scientific, health, educational, political, economic, national security, environmental, moral and even religious issues. Many times, the messaging still leaves a lot more people in a state of confusion – not about the reality of climate change but in making a strong connection with how it reflects in their day-to-day lifestyle.

At a time as this, photography is one of the most available communication tools that science – including climate change – can better embrace to help scientists more efficiently achieve desired goals for public engagement.

No doubt, statistics and data from decade-long researches are important, and help to create the background, as well as establish facts of how the climate is changing; however, the best data is of no meaning to the majority of people. There’s been an endless splash of website posts and newspapers headlines along the line of “it’s the warmest year since 1900” or “thousands of species on the brink of extinction,” etc., as strong as these headlines are, they are not “meaningful” to the farmer in Ijebu Ode, Ogun State neither to the chairman of Kajuru Local Government in Kaduna.

Climate change impacts us differently and so does photographs.

Jennifer Uchendu is the Founder of SustyVibes, a youth-led organisation founded in 2016 with a drive to make sustainability actionable and relatable to young people. Her organisation has been championing climate action across Africa through school-based educational programs and empowerment projects.

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“I always like to see images of young people together in spaces they have created to speak about their rights, feelings about the climate crisis and solutions. It doesn’t have to be formal. It always signals hope in the power of the collective, without the overwhelming burden of hope placed on young people to save the planet. It shows the progress that incorporates mindfulness and experimentation,” Jennifer explained.

As a community, we’re committed to driving environmental and social sustainability forward through education and result-driven projects. We champion policy changes in Africa, identify and promote responsibly created products and facilitate eco-feminism and sustainability projects.

Jennifer’s interests lie at the intersections of youth, women and climate action; with SustyVibes, she is helping Nigerian youths contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals through pop-cultural tools like music, photography, movies, etc. Jennifer agrees that images can help make clear connections with the climate crises and corresponding actions.

“There is a need for more and more variations of the story, from all kinds of people in different classes, ages, gender and perspective. Climate change impacts us differently so we must show all those different sides.”

Human-angle images convey climate change messages the most

“Generally, there is a need for more human-interest images that shows the real impact and how it affects the people – agriculture, riverine communities, education, etc.” Oluwole ‘Wole Hammond, another documentary photographer and multimedia storyteller based in Nigeria, whose works explores using visuals to tell human-interest and socio-environmental stories said.

Oluwole, a 27-year-old graduate of Urban and Regional Planning from the Federal University of Technology, Akure (FUTA), has been doing this for over three years.

His works which focuses on rural and peri-urban communities have been published on websites of international organisations including the World Economic Forum, Global Shapers, among other. Many of his images have also gained traction on various social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter.

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“Sharing real-life images online is an effective way to spotlight under-reported stories and I try to make sure I represent people accurately. It is my joy that at the end, they have access to whatever material we’ve been able to create from their reality. For example, student attendance in schools in riverine states decreased during the rainy seasons because of flooded rivers. Since canoe is the only available means of transportation, it is almost impossible for such students to reach the school from their homes,” cited Wole Hammond who is one of Nigeria’s foremost environmental photojournalists.

He said further, “I have documented images that explore deforestation, urban mobility and other social-cultural elements and traditions across the northern parts of Nigeria. My images are usually human-angle, story-based works centered around social and environmental issues. I deliberately lookout for places to go or cases to document. My goal is to make sure the consumer or viewer can grasp the message being passed even without so much explanation.”

Like other environmental photojournalists, Mr. Hammond shares his concerns about the obvious marginalization in disseminating the message to people offline.

“While I believe that photography is a great avenue to tell under-reported stories and raise awareness about societal issues, there is a problem with the reach. It would be more effective if climate-focused images are made more accessible to people outside the internet, by publication on books, public exhibitions, and billboards. That way, it is more effective to advocate for climate change and communicate how people are affected, adaptation means in place, and to share solutions that are globally changing the narratives.”

Currently, Nigeria, as most other African countries, is yet to cover significant aspects of climate change communication approach. These photographers attempt to change the narrative by taking and publishing more climate-focused images and subsequently creating a go-to database for accessibility by an even broader audience.

By ‘Seyifunmi Adebote (Abuja, Nigeria, seyi@seyifunmiadebote.com, +2348130979064)

This report was produced under the NAREP Climate Change Media 2021 Fellowship of the Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism

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