Federico Borella’s project won the main prize at the Sony World Photography Awards 2019. Here he tells Amy Davies more about the moving story
Climate change is probably the biggest single issue of modern times. Often it is portrayed through abstract concepts. We know that sea levels are rising and the planet is getting hotter, but it can be difficult to understand exactly how these problems will affect the individual.
Federico Borella wanted to show a tragic – and little discussed – consequence of climate change. He discovered a study carried out by Berkeley University researcher Tamma Carleton that seemed to show a correlation between the number of farmers’ suicides and climate data from the past 47 years. The conclusion was that rising temperatures have directly played a role in the decision by thousands of farmers to take their own lives.
The Indian agricultural sector is sensitive to extreme temperature fluctuations. It is estimated that a total of 59,300 farmers’ suicides over the past 30 years are attributable to global warming and climate change – the principal problems being a rise in temperature and a lack of precipitation.
Debt is a huge problem for farmers, who often source loans to invest in production and machinery. Harvests which are damaged by adverse weather and short-sighted water management often mean these debts can’t be repaid, a source of great shame for many.
Speaking to me from his home in Bologna, Italy, Federico says that he spent much time trying to decide how best to represent this sensitive topic. ‘It was very difficult to translate this concept – a concept based on death and absence – without showing graphic pictures of death and mourning.’
He found the subjects seen in the project via a ‘fixer’ and by working with various associations and NGOs that work closely with the widows of farmers who have taken their own lives. Those affected by such cruel circumstances were very happy to have someone there to report on the issue, and show the world what is going on.
Federico describes how the leader of the Farmers Association showed him a document showing how wages have changed in the past five decades. While the annual salary for most professions – including teachers, doctors and the police – have risen, farmers are stuck at the same kind of payments as in the 1960s.
The project, Five Degrees, is so-called because experts are predicting that temperatures in India could increase by a further five degrees by 2050, with more worrying consequences for the agricultural sector. It’s especially concerning for a country where agriculture accounts for 14% of GDP, but it’s clearly an issue which will have far-reaching consequences for us all.
Federico shot these compelling images with a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, choosing to use a square crop. ‘I like to challenge myself – and the viewer – to squeeze everything in a small and ultra-compact format. It’s a way to force my view on a specific element of the picture – it means you don’t have any distraction, you’re forced to see what I want you to see.’
Visibility is the driving factor behind Federico’s work, and the key reason why he decided to become a photojournalist. ‘Winning an award like the Sony World Photography Awards is the best way to reach as many viewers and readers as possible – the audience of this competition is probably one of the biggest,’ he says.
It’s been almost a year since Federico took home the prize. The shortlist for the 2020 Sony WPAs have now been announced, and the winners will be unveiled soon. Unsurprisingly, the shortlist features many more climate change projects and stories. Sadly, this isn’t an issue that is going away – but it is at least heartening to see a cohort of photographers, such as Federico, using their medium to highlight the problems. Visit worldphoto.org to see the shortlist.
Federico Borella is a freelance photojournalist. He has been published in a number of high-profile publications including Newsweek, Time Magazine and National Geeographic. In 2019, he was named as Photographer of the Year at the Sony World Photography Awards. Visit federicoborella.com.