Photo series capturing indigenous experience of water shortage in the face of climate change wins prestigious Sony World Photography Award

Renowned photographers, Monty Kaplan and Marisol Mendez, received international recognition for their multi-layered representation ‘Miruku’ of the water crisis impacting the lives of the indigenous Wayuu people of Pesuapa, in Colombia, commissioned by WaterAid and British Journal of Photography.

Announced at an awards ceremony at the Hilton Park Lane Hotel in London on 13 April, ‘Miruku’ was crowned the winning gallery of the competitive Climate-Professional category. As a result, the images went on to be shown as part of the Sony World Photography Awards exhibition at Somerset House, which ran from 14 April – 1 May 2023. 

‘Miruku’ focuses on the Wayuus, Colombia’s largest indigenous group totalling around 300,000 people, who live in the coastal desert region of La Guajira. Prolonged droughts, less frequent rains, and poor maintenance of existing wells are likely to worsen their access to water. The project, commissioned by WaterAid and British Journal of Photography, examines how a combination of climate change issues and human negligence have led to communities experiencing extreme water shortage.  

In November 2021, the storytelling duo Monty Kaplan and Marisol Mendez captured the lives of Wayuu communities and their fight for access to clean, safe water. The duo’s contrasting aesthetics echoed the diverse and delicate realities of the communities they encountered.  

Kaplan and Mendez (originally from Argentina and Bolivia, respectively) spent much of their time in Pesuapa, home to just over 100 Wayuu people. WaterAid Colombia has been working closely with the community to address the ongoing crisis and the photographers explored the water issue, and particularly how the worsening crisis impacts women.  

Upon receiving the Sony World Photography Award, Marisol Mendez said: 

“Monty and I are so incredibly thrilled to have won this award! The recognition for our photography, and this project in particular, means everything to us.  

This award is not only for us, but for those inspirational Wayuu women whose strength and dignity shone through in our images. In the face of extreme climate-driven water scarcity, they’re still so powerful, determined and resilient.” 

Monty Kaplan agreed, and explained the concept of the photo series: 

“It was important for us to frame the story around a female perspective to get a better understanding of how gender inequality and climate vulnerability interrelate. Women have a challenging time managing water for their families – gathering the water, cleaning clothes and cooking.  

We sought to spotlight the strength and resourcefulness of the Wayuu women. We found it inspiring that they were the community leaders, teachers and climate activists; despite living in such extreme conditions. We’d like to thank the Wayuu for allowing us to spend an unforgettable time with them to understand how communities can begin to flourish, once a reliable source of water is available to them.”  

Laura Summerton, Photography Manager at WaterAid said:  

“Monty and Marisol’s project Miruku absolutely deserves this award and the huge recognition that comes with it – we’re delighted for them. This commission is part of our ambition to bring global water stories to the forefront and to demonstrate in diverse and engaging ways how the climate crisis is having an immense impact on millions of lives, especially women and girls. 

By combining their individual approaches, often into diptychs, Kaplan and Mendez intentionally challenge one-dimensional representations of people and situations. Instead, they ask the viewer to consider multiple narratives about their subjects: people are faced with circumstances beyond their control, like drought, and at the same time are active agents of change in their community, protecting and fighting for their right to water.” 

Working closely with local communities, WaterAid installed a filtering system, handwashing and drinking facilities and a place to bathe, providing women and girls with a more private place for menstrual hygiene. Continuing to give a platform to those with lived experience on the frontline of climate change, the leader of the community in Pesuapa, Isolina Silva, who is featured in the photo series, spoke at a WaterAid session during last year’s World Water Week, the leading annual event on global water issues.  

Find out more here.

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