Unyielding Floods – Photographing the Devastation in South Sudan
Photography as a Force for Good
Occasionally as photographers, opportunities are presented to us to embark on projects that can have a real positive impact on the world.
Award-winning photographer Peter Caton is no stranger to taking on the most challenging locations and circumstances, using his imagery as a force for positive change in the world. Starting in 2020, Peter's latest project was made possible by the amazing work done by the international charity Action Against Hunger. The project presents a bold and arresting series of portraits documenting the devastation caused by natural disasters, food insecurity and the loss of dignified living in South Sudan.
Despite the bleak conditions, the resilience on show in Peter’s imagery displays a sense of restored hope, where communities who have done little to contribute to global climate change are disproportionally affected by its destruction.
We were lucky enough to spend some time with Peter at his recent exhibition in London, where we had the opportunity to interview him on the whats, whys and hows involved in undertaking such a challenging project.
Interview with Award-Winning Activism Photographer, Peter Caton
Q. Peter, to set the scene, please could you give us some detail about the situation in South Sudan and why it’s so important to bring attention to this climate crisis?
For three years in a row, unyielding floods have swept away whole villages in South Sudan, destroying crops and drowning livestock. Right now, an estimated 6.4 million people in South Sudan face acute food insecurity, more than half of the country’s population. About 1.3 million children suffer from acute malnutrition, the deadliest form of hunger, exacerbated by the spread of malaria and unsafe drinking water connected to the floods.
Many of these images were taken in the isolated area of Old Fangak, cut off by the flood water and dependent on assistance delivered on a sinking airstrip; without humanitarian assistance, it will starve.
To find out more about the situation, Susan Martinez has an in-depth report in Geographical that makes for an eye-opening read (available here).
Q. What was your inspiration to embark on this challenging project?
I got asked to visit the floods by the aid organisation Action Against Hunger, who had previously seen the flooding and pulled me out of another assignment with them to travel immediately to South Sudan. I had no idea at the time that it would become a 3-year project, but the floods refuse to recede, and it is only getting worse. I felt invested in the story and had a responsibility to give those affected a voice.
Q. How much and what kind of planning went into the project?
When you affiliate yourself with an aid organisation, you often have their vital help with logistics. Getting to the floods is not easy as permits are needed, and we also have to bring all our food and supplies on a small 5-seater aeroplane, which lands in a local cow field; it is quite a bumpy landing!
Once on location, I rely on my team, which consists of villagers who know the unfolding situation and guide you around the swamps and destruction. We have a meeting at the beginning and end of every day, where I try to ensure that every member is valued and knows their worth. I also like to stay in touch with the community throughout the year to be informed of the situation on the ground. This is vital when planning and maintaining relationships with the community.
Q. What are the challenges of working in such an extreme environment, and how did you overcome them?
There are many challenges not just for me but also for my photography gear. The mosquitoes in South Sudan are the worst I have seen in over two decades of working in the tropics. It is hell on earth! Sometimes you're unable to work due to the insects covering your face and hands. We designed and made a mosquito suit from mosquito netting!
Working in 40°C+ heat, in extreme flood conditions, with over 50kg of gear is certainly a challenge. However, I have seen a vast improvement in my work since moving onto Elinchrom lighting (from speedlights). It was tough adding extra gear to my luggage, but it has been well worth it to improve my work.
Q. Photographing people in a moment of such difficulty must require a sensitive approach when taking their picture. How do you make your subjects feel at ease, and how open were they to have the photo taken?
It is not difficult to get cooperation as everyone wants to be involved and photographed. People know you are trying to document the situation, so they want their plight and story to be told. The greatest skill in my line of photography is not the execution of the photograph but all the personal dynamics you share with your subject. Respect is paramount, so having a good team from the community in the background to explain my mission helps a lot. I always shoot my subject with dignity, and that is communicated to them.
Q. What details do you believe lead to great portrait photography? Are there any tips and tricks you can share for capturing a story in a portrait so well?
Try to have the interview with the subject first; this helps the subject grasp what you are doing and has the potential to relax them. It also gives you ideas on how you should portray them. My main aim is to portray strength and dignity, which is always going through my mind when I press the shutter.
Q. When you are in the field, what equipment is a must-have for you, and how does it help your work?
I could not successfully shoot in South Sudan without fill in flash lighting as I am often only allowed to shoot in the middle of the day when it is safer. I use flash to balance that harsh midday light and the beautiful but very dark skin tones of my subjects. I use the Elinchrom ELB 500 TTL system to achieve that balance, which is a game changer; however, using the equipment comes with its own challenges, as we have to carefully carry it through deep flood water. Fortunately, my two assistants are almost 7 feet tall and walk through the flood water with ease!
Q. What photographers have influenced or inspired your work and why?
Q. What advice would you give to other photographers embarking on a project in such a challenging environment?
You have to be committed! I have lived my last 17 years out of a suitcase and without a home. I have sacrificed everything to live my dreams and embed myself in climate hotspots. All home comforts are removed; it is a lonely existence, but there can be no half-measures. You need to live, eat and breathe the story!
Q. Finally, tell us more about Action Against Hunger; how and why did you get involved with this amazing charity?
They are one of the best aid organisations for realising the power of photography, and we share the same vision. I often witness them working in places where others don’t go, and that inspires me.
About Action Against Hunger
Action Against Hunger’s research drives a forward understanding of how to predict, prevent and treat life-threatening hunger. As the floodwater in South Sudan failed to subside, Action Against Hunger helped local communities clear debris from flooded areas. This created waterways to transport food, goods and medical assistance.
Of Peter’s recent exhibition, Jean-Michel Grand, Executive Director of Action Against Hunger UK, said, “This exhibition is a stark reminder of the link between the climate crisis and life-threatening hunger. Climate change is only getting worse, with droughts and floods becoming more commonplace in East Africa. Whilst immediate humanitarian relief is essential, we also need to look at longer term projects to help local communities adapt and thrive despite future climate emergencies.”
“Our work in collaboration with local communities in South Sudan is testament to exactly that. The UK government has a duty to act now, fund the humanitarian response, and invest in anticipatory action to save lives and prevent future famine.” continued Jean-Michel.
To make a donation and help support their life-saving work please visit https://www.uk.givergy.com/unyieldingfloods, where all proceeds go to Action Against Hunger.
Peter Caton's Photography Gear:
- Elinchrom ELB 500 TTL Dual To Go Set
- Elinchrom Q-Mount to EL Mount Adapter MkII
- Elinchrom Rotalux Squarebox 70cm Softbox
- Elinchrom Skyport Transmitter Plus
- Elinchrom Hand Held Boom Arm 63-156cm
- Tenba Roadie Roller 24 Black
- Think Tank Emergency Rain Cover Medium
- Phottix Varos Pro Mini Multi-Function Flash Shoe Umbrella Holder
See More of Peter's Work:
Facebook: Peter Caton Photography