Drowning World

A photographer concerned about climate change depicts flooded-out lives across the globe.

This story appears in the February 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Extreme weather, sometimes related to climate change, seems to be everywhere these days. And yet it can be hard to see the impact on individual lives. I began documenting that impact in 2007, when I photographed two floods that occurred within weeks of each other, one in the U.K. and the other in India. I was deeply struck by the contrasting effects of these floods and the shared vulnerability that seemed to unite their victims.

Since then I have visited flood zones around the world, traveling to Haiti, Pakistan, Australia, Thailand, Nigeria, Germany, the Philippines, and the U.K. again. In flooded landscapes, life is suddenly turned upside down, and normality is suspended.

Portraits rest at the heart of this project. I often follow my subjects as they return home through deep waters, and work with them to create an intimate image in their flooded homes. Though their poses may be conventional, their environment is disconcertingly altered. Often they’re angry about their circumstances or the inadequate response from the authorities. Many want their plight to be witnessed and want the world to know what has happened to them.

I shoot on film with old Rolleiflex cameras. Digital would be easier, but the texture of film has a particular quality for me, and the process of using an old camera adds formality and gravitas to the situation.

The flood is an ancient metaphor in many cultures, a destructive force that renders humans powerless. As weather becomes more extreme, the biblical is becoming literal.