It was hard to earn the trust of the community that is waiting to be relocated. The community of Shishmaref in Alaska is situated on a barrier island no wider than 400 meters, and 5 kilometres in length. An island that’s being swallowed by the sea.
Waiting to Move shows the everyday life of a modern Inupiaq Eskimo community that has found itself in the path of climate change. The island lies in the Chukchi Sea that stretches from Alaska to Siberia. The island is threatened by erosion, storms and inclement weather, as well as by the thawing of permafrost, which lies below a thin layer of soil.
A couple of years ago, Shishmaref became the focal point of global media attention with the publication of photos of storms, erosion and houses sinking into the sea. It made a public impression as a concrete example of the dramatic effects of climate change. Al Gore referred to the people of Shishmaref as the first climate refugees and asked how the community of 650 would survive the following years.
I was in Shishmaref for almost a month, working on an assignment from the Geo Germany magazine together with journalist Michael Stührenberg. Our goal was to see what has become of the media attention and the hordes of journalists 10 years ago. The photo series documents the daily life in the community as it is today and the disappearing traditional ways in a village facing an uncertain future.
The great challenge we faced in the first few days was how to gain the people’s trust, as many had negative experience with journalists and thus shut their doors on us and didn’t want to talk. As the island’s inhabitants voted in a referendum in 2002 to relocate the village to the nearby continent, the media termed them the first climate change refugees. However, nothing much has happened since then. People are waiting and waiting. The government has yet to provide the funds necessary to move the village.
Life in Shishmaref is not easy at all, and there is a deep divide between the old hunters and fishermen who live in accordance with their centuries-old traditions on one side and young people on the other, who play videogames on their iPads and Playstations and dream about leaving the island where there are no jobs and little to look forward to.
Waiting to Move won Leica Oskar Barnack Award 2013.