Sébastien Leban
Tangier, the Lost Island

The American island of Tangier is a metaphor for the absurd. The ocean that has fed inhabitants for generations is consuming the island metre by metre. But most of the 460 conservative, religious islanders, who have long been a symbol of climate change on the American continent, reject the theory of global warming. Since the first cartographic drawings were prepared in 1850, Tangier has lost two-thirds of its surface. At the same time, the marshlands are spreading. In the Chesapeake Bay, sea levels are rising five millimetres a year – nearly twice the average. Washington is only 160 kilometres away; if politicians do not propose a timely solution, the myth of Atlantis could become reality. Without dikes, this small island in the state of Virginia will completely disappear into the water, making the inhabitants of Tangier the USA’s first climate refugees.

  • Climate
  • Religion
  • Trump
  • USA

»Our house is burning and we are looking somewhere else.«

Jacques Chirac
Sébastien Leban in conversation with Anne Speltz
Hello Sébastien, you have been documenting the consequences of climate change since 2018. When and where did you first see the impact of climate change on other people's lives and how was your reaction?

I have been following climate topics for a long time, reading the news, essays, watching documentaries and movies. I think the first memory I have about the impact of climate change on people’s lives was a story about Bangladesh and people moving from the “Char” region, where the river has destroyed their houses, to the slums of Dhaka, the capital city. The country has been facing climate migration for many years and is still in the frontline. Bangladesh is of course not the only situation. According to a 2018 World Bank report, more than 143 million people will be climate refugees by 2050. It is almost two times the population of Germany—this is insane!
So, I quickly felt concerned by this topic and wanted to go see things with my own eyes as I usually do and meet the people directly impacted, to document it. As many stories focus on “poor” areas, I wanted to start my project with Tangier to show that a rich and powerful country like the U.S. is also directly impacted. When you arrive on the island you can’t miss it: huge tides several times a month that flood the streets, almost one meter high; many swamps forming on the island, eroding coastline. It’s here and it’s very obvious. A few days after I arrived, I took a boat to go to Canaan, the part of Tangier that is no longer inhabited because it’s completely flooded. People of Tangier go there now and then to pick up tombstones that have been washed away by the ocean or personal items that were left there by their ancestors. When you go to this place, it’s like jumping into Tangier’s future 50 years from now. And it’s just one example, on a very small scale. This situation is happening in many places all around the world. It’s really scary because it’s happening so fast.

In your work Tangier Island, you are portraying the islanders in a very neutral and sympathetic way. Did you also sometimes feel anger or incomprehension towards them and their relation to politics and belief?

Of course it can be frustrating to talk to someone who is a climate sceptic or who thinks that the island is disappearing because of some holy punishment, but I have to step aside and try not to interfere so as to keep an objective look at my subject. However, I don’t forbid myself to share my perception of the situation and most importantly, scientific facts about it. I also have to keep in mind that this community and their beliefs are a social and economic construction, there are many determinisms that brought these people to think the way they do and it’s part of my job to take that into consideration when I’m telling their story. I don’t think that I’m portraying them in a sympathetic way. I’m just using several elements of their daily life like their relation toward religion or politics in order to emphasize their paradoxes and sometimes the absurdity of the situation. When I portray Tommy, wearing a shirt that says “Trump 2020”, I’m trying to understand why he is ready to put his future in the hands of Donald Trump. But I’m trying to stick to my position as an observer and a documentary photographer. I’m not coming to Tangier to judge these people or to lecture them about climate change. My goal is to understand how they are apprehending the situation that is threatening their island and their future.

Climate change is a well discussed subject, but there is not much visible political change. How do you think photography can play a role in raising awareness about climate change? What other media could be important for political change?

Former French President Jacques Chirac used these words in 2002 while addressing the Earth Summit in Johannesburg: “Our house is burning and we are looking somewhere else”. I think the role of photography is to avoid looking somewhere else, to encourage people to look at things that are happening right here, right now. However, I do not delude myself regarding photography’s capacity to stimulate action on a political level. I don’t want to be pessimistic but the impact of photography is and will stay limited. You have to take it for what it is: an excellent thought-provoking medium, a way to deliver a message or some information. I think of several recent examples of pictures that contributed to raising awareness, such as this photograph of a father and his daughter from Salvador found dead in the Rio Grande while trying to reach the USA in 2019, or the one with this little Syrian kid found dead on a Turkish beach in 2015. Both pictures became strong symbols, but have they brought any concrete change to the migration crisis in Europe or in the U.S.? Climate change consequences are already posing a very dangerous, immediate and visible threat to our survival, in many places around the world. Nevertheless, I haven’t seen any major political move. And Tangier is a good example of lack of interest and negligence from the U.S. government. Photography does and will play a major role on a more personal level. If a story about climate change impact can induce someone to change his or her behaviour regarding food, travel, or consumption, then it’s a win.

Reporting on global climate change requires you to travel to different continents of the world. How do you justify the fact that you are reporting on climate change and at the same time are traveling by plane to far located regions? Does your research about climate change have an impact on your personal lifestyle?

I understand that it might seem odd to document climate change consequences while traveling overseas. It’s almost a philosophical question. My carbon balance is something I definitely really care about, although I also know that it is impossible to tell the stories I want to tell (sometimes in remote areas) without going there physically and I cannot afford to do it somehow differently. I’ve come to the conclusion that travelling to do my work and tell stories about climate change is worth the paradox, at least for now. However, I try to be very careful regarding many aspects of my personal life. Over the last few years, I’ve changed the way I eat for instance: I try to buy more local and organic products and I almost cut off meat from my diet. I’m biking for my daily commutes and I don’t fly overseas for my holidays. This is the same dilemma as the impact of photography. It is a matter of moral and conscience. I know that these tiny behaviours won’t be as efficient as a major political decision but I just have to do it.

During lockdown, journalism is reduced to regional reporting. Which role will climate change play in the media during these times?

The Covid-19 crisis already has consequences for the media industry. The first one is a lack of space for other topics. During this two-month period of confinement, media was full of Covid stories, which is pretty logical. The way the pandemic will evolve in the coming weeks will for sure redefine editorial lines of our media outlets. In my opinion, there will be two possible outcomes regarding climate change in the news.  First of all, due to the pandemic, many news outlets will be economically weakened and I think it’s going to be more and more complicated to get a budget to report and publish a story about climate change. I can see it from my own experience: I was supposed to work on “the sea of ice” in the French Alps for a news magazine and it has been cancelled. The second outcome is more positive: maybe this crisis is going to be like a wakeup call for some publications and they will decide to focus more on climate issues. Let’s hope this will happen. Either way, we will have to keep on struggling to bring important and meaningful stories to the frontpage. 

Tangier Island 1994 and 2015 (by moving the vertical line, the coast erosion within two decades is visible). According to a study the island loses up to 4 meters of coastline annually.

»I think the role of photography is [...] to encourage people to look at things that are happening right here, right now.«

Sébastien Leban
3 Questions
1. The door opener: Can you describe a formative moment in your career as a visual journalist?

The project about Tangier was a formative moment actually. This was probably the first time in my career that I felt comfortable enough, in my photography, to work on a more documentary approach. I took more liberty to step away from a strictly “reportage style” that I’m used to in various assignments, to reach what I really wanted to photograph, the way I wanted to photograph it.

2. The decisive moment: When did you first encounter your topic and why did you decide to cover it photographically?

I’ve discovered Tangier by listening to one of the New Yorker’s podcasts. I was really excited about it because it includes all the features of a good story: human perspective on a global problem, politics, religion with a twist of climate change denial. This was a great opportunity to report about consequences of climate change and to offer people a way to identify themselves with this situation. Also, I’m attracted to islands and water. I love the fact that my work is limited by its territory. Photography was clearly the right medium to show direct effects of climate change on the island: erosion, floods, swamps, and tides.

3. The future: What could the visual journalism of the future be like?

I’m not worried about the future of visual journalism even though the crisis we’re going through nowadays will impact us economically. I think it’s our responsibility to keep on looking for good stories and to tell them to people in many ways. We have to use everything that is possible to do so: photographs in various techniques, sound, video, data. I believe that visual journalism will also be a key player in forthcoming crises, especially climate. We will have to keep raising awareness about the dreadful consequences of climate change.

Curated by Anne Speltz

© for all photos by the photographers
© for all videos Lumix Festival Hanover, if not indicated otherwise.

*28 May 1987 in Florange, France
Sébastien Leban started out as an autodidact in photography and currently works as a freelancer for various media, including Le Monde, NEON and National Geographic France. In 2013, he moved to Israel, where he spent two years documenting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At this time, he is working more intensely on the topic of the consequences of climate change and the changing living conditions experienced by societies already affected by it.


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