“Four Questions on Photography: Ilvy Njiokiktjien in Conversation With…” is a series of events where well-known photographers discuss with Ilvy their responses to the four questions below.
– What is your most important photograph, how did you make it, and what impact do you think it had?
– What is your biggest photo failure; an image you wanted or needed but you messed up somehow?
– What is your dream image or story?
– What advice would you give to your younger self?
For this event, and in this episode, Ilvy is in conversation with Nichole Sobecki.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Thank you PhotoWings and thanks Nicole for being here. Really good seeing you. It’s been a while.
Nichole Sobecki: Too long.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: It’s been too long. I realized when when we saw each other right before logging in, I was like, whoa, I haven’t seen your face for such a long time, especially in real life.
Nichole Sobecki: So great to be here in conversation with you, Ilvy.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, lovely seeing you. So yeah, let’s start. I’m quite curious, before we start to kind of know if it was difficult for you to answer these questions. Sometimes I hear that from photographers, they’re like, wow, I never really thought about.
Nichole Sobecki: Yeah, I think that there, in some ways, it feels like they’re framed to be almost impossible questions. And then, as I was trying to sort of think about what I wanted to say, what felt valuable to sort of add to the conversation, I sort of yeah, it just struck me that that was the point, that actually it just leads us all in sort of different meandering directions. And that’s the sort of gift of having these sort of, you know, impossible to answer open-ended questions. I really enjoyed the process of just having to think through what, yeah, what rose the surface within me.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, that’s beautiful.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Beautifully said too. So yeah, let’s start with the first one, which is a broad kind of—so, the question is, what is your most important photograph? But the word important, of course, can mean different things to different people. So, I’m very curious what it means to you.
Nichole Sobecki: Absolutely. So, I’m going to share my screen here. And this is an image that I photographed in 2016 in western Somaliland. And it was the very beginning of a project that came to be called Where Land Was about the ways in which the climate crisis was intersecting with insecurity and conflict in Somalia and Somaliland. And leading to this sort of negative cycle that was ultimately really ending a way of life for, you know, most people living in Somaliland, this is a primarily pastoral society, people’s ties to the land are incredibly intimate. And so, I was really looking at the ways in which the climate change was reinforcing insecurity and insecurity was reinforcing climate change and leading to sort of cascade effects. But this was at the very beginning of this project. And I was driving through a drought-stricken area in western Somaliland and came across these women who were washing their clothes on the side of the road in a puddle, which was the only water that they could find nearby and sort of sat and talked with them learned a little bit about their life, how they were coping with the drought. They told us about the animals that they’d lost the, you know, challenges that they were facing. And then they you know, they gathered their clothes, and they walked off to go home. And so, this image is actually taken as one of the women that I had been speaking with was sort of walking back to her village. And—
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: I love this image, by the way. I thought I know this image. It’s so beautiful, but I love learning more about it now, like the puddle story. I didn’t even know that that was— because I’ve heard you talk about that once before, it must have been at an AGM or somewhere where we met, we knew it was linked to this. This environment, which looks so harsh. I mean, I just can’t imagine living there. And it’s so dry. And it’s probably even worse now, I’m fearing.
Nichole Sobecki: I mean, you know, this is a part of the world where people are incredibly resilient. Drought is not necessarily a new thing. Somalia has experienced drought for hundreds, if not 1000s of years. But, you know, it used to happen much, much less frequently and so what’s happening is as things get hotter and drier, people’s ability to sort of bounce back, their resilience is breaking down. You can recover from a drought if that happens once a decade. But if that happens every year, you know, and particularly in a pastoral society, where you rely on your animals and herding and grazing and being able to find access to grasslands, and pasture and water, you know, and when those things are becoming increasingly rare, it breaks down people’s resilience, and it’s really leading to a end of a way of life. And that’s incredibly, incredibly difficult to bear witness to because, you know, I think one of the things that I think there’s a growing awareness of, but we need to be much more thoughtful about is the fact that the climate crisis is not impacting the world equally. It’s not impacting us all at the same time to the same intensity. And very often, the people who have contributed the least to carbon emissions are actually being the hardest hit the soonest, the earliest. And Somalia is among the most vulnerable countries in the world to the climate crisis, even though they have contributed less than .001, I mean, an utterly negligible amount of carbon. Most people I meet there have never driven in a car, they don’t have a cell phone. They, you know, they’ve never been on an international flight. This is not—and so I think that the sort of terrible irony of that is something that we need to bear in mind as we make choices about our own lives.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: So true. So true. So how, how did you meet? Like, how did this image come about? Was she showing you around in some way, or—
Nichole Sobecki: She was just, she was walking home in this image. So, we’d sort of, you know, we just had stopped, saw these women, stopped the car. I was with the writer, I was working with Laura Heaton, who was my partner on this project. And we just, you know, met briefly, talked about their life, and then she was she was on her way home. And so, the interesting thing is that, you know, when I captured this image, I didn’t really think that much of it. It was just one of other images. At the time, things felt more poignant, or more dramatic, maybe. And it’s actually been a process over time of recognizing that the value of this image is that it’s not speaking about one particular drought, or one particular person, even, you know. This woman, in my mind, at least has sort of come to represent the intimate ties that Somali landers and really all of us have with our land, you know, that we are not somehow separate from the natural world. But actually, humanity is deeply reliant on, completely reliant on it, and deeply intertwined with, our fates are intertwined. And so, when I look at this image, and I see the ways in which the colors of her scarf sort of blend with the landscape as she walks back to her home, which is disappearing, it’s a reminder to me of the ways in which we can’t survive without the natural world and how we need to relearn how to respect that relationship.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: That’s so true. Yeah, that’s really true. And that’s interesting, because of course, with every image on the planet, people interpret images in a different way, or at least they can. But when I saw this image, it’s exactly what you’re now describing is what I felt. It’s like she just blends in. She’s one with her environment, even though it looks like such a tough place, you can tell it’s home to her and that she knows the way well and that. But it’s so hard to see. Or actually, when you now hear the backstory, how harsh it is that it’s a country that doesn’t really add anything to the pollution that we, that they are experiencing the results of. It’s so unfair, and it’s in many places like that. So of course—
Nichole Sobecki: I completely agree with you. And I think getting to your question about sort of why I chose this image as an important image. You know, it’s actually I think, not necessarily one of my more influential images in the sense that it hasn’t won a lot of awards. And it, you know, has never, you know, contributed to war crime tribunals or other sort of very, sort of direct and tangible ways in which I know, you know, images by my colleagues have contributed. But it’s an important image to me. And I think what you talk about, what you said there in terms of emotion, I really agree with, because I think as photographers, we, you know, it’s really our capacity to evoke emotion through images, that allows us to cut through the noise that we’re constantly bombarded with each day. And so, this, you know, well, maybe was not influential, and some of the more traditional definitions of that, was an incredibly important image to me, because you know, what moves each of us is as unique as a fingerprint. It’s completely down to our life experiences and perspectives on the world, what’s going to sort of evoke a certain emotion. And for me, this image really changed the course of my work and my life. You know, it really led me from a career that up until that point had been primarily focused on news and conflict photography, which I still find, you know, critically important and deeply, deeply worthy. But, on a personal level, for me, it was part of the sort of growing understanding of the reckless and unsustainable path that the world was on. And that really shifted my focus away from news to looking at what’s happening below the surface of these crises, and how those currents will shape our collective future.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: And was this? Maybe you mentioned it in the beginning, but was this an assignment? Or was it for a long, longer-term story you worked on?
Nichole Sobecki: This was part of a long-term project that I started researching and reporting in 2015, started photographing in 2016. And it’s never really ended.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: I recognize this, like? Is it finished? No, never.
Nichole Sobecki: It’s, um, I mean, I think that, you know, some stories just become a part of you. And so different chapters of this story have sort of come to a close. But, you know, I think it’s a place and a story I’ll be committed to for the rest of my life.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: That’s beautiful. And a very worthy one, I think, to work on. And it’s going to be as, as we all see, around us even more important in the upcoming 10, 20, 30 years. But even in the upcoming years, the way it’s going now, it’s sad, but true. More reality every day, especially in countries like that. Yeah.
Nichole Sobecki: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. It’s a painful reality, although I think, you know, one of the things and I’m sure we’ll dive more into some of this and all of the different questions. But, you know, I think that we need to move away from thinking about it as a zero sum game, where we sort of, you know, can beat the climate crisis, or we’ve already lost and really shift to thinking about it, as you know, we need to be doing everything we can in the present moment to make the types of incremental changes that can help avoid the worst case scenarios, that every little bit that we do helps, and we need to be doing so much more. So, that’s not in any way, an excuse to do less, but simply, I think a bulwark against the kind of nihilism that actually stops any, you know, any action at all.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: That’s very true. Yeah, you still have to have the feeling that it’s worthy to do something and government should do, and they do, of course, I mean, there are changes being made. Yeah. But images like this, I’m sure help in this happening, I feel.
Nichole Sobecki: Well, I hope so. I mean, I think, you know, we all question the value of our work or the impact that it has. It’s just kind of a human quality. But I think when I imagine a world in which, you know, the images that we all collectively make don’t exist, that feels profoundly worse to me. So, we keep you know, we keep trying, right?
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah. Yeah, that’s true. Well, thanks for sharing this. I think I need to remind everyone that they can ask questions in the q&a. Feel free to ask anything, don’t put them in the chat because the chat doesn’t work. But it’s more organized if you put them in the q&a box. So please feel free to ask Nicole anything and so, shall we move to the second question, which is kind of the polar opposite. It’s what’s your biggest failure. And I don’t like the word failure. I always mention this, when saying failure because failure is never really a failure, I feel but yeah.
Nichole Sobecki: Yeah, absolutely. So, this is the image that I chose for this. And I thought a lot about it, because in some ways this image has been, it was much more successful than the other, than the first image that I shared. But I think by— I’m going to explain why I chose it. This is an image of a seven-month-old cheetah named Aster, in the back of a Land Cruiser. And I photographed— this was also btaken in Somaliland, several years later, this is taken to 2020. And Aster had been taken from the wild by a pastoral family, passed to a middleman, he was being, on his way to sort of, be sold into a trafficking ring that would have brought him, if he had survived, to the Gulf to be sold as a pet. And instead, he was rescued by a sort of a group of government-led partners in Somaliland that were working to combat cheetah trafficking, which is draining the Horn of Africa and East Africa of its cheetahs and funneling them essentially, to wealthy elites in the Gulf. And cheetahs have been historically used as pets by many, many different cultures around the world. But right now, they’re essentially, you know, the trophies where people are posting photos of them on Instagram, and it’s a sort of a status symbol. And the environmental impacts of that, the impacts on the future of the species are really alarming. And so, this was a moment in that story. And it was a really, it’s an image that when I look at it, and this is, I think, why I chose it as a failure. I look at it, and I think about all of the images that I wasn’t able to capture for this story. And this was my first solo magazine story for National Geographic magazine. So, I was pretty nervous going into it, and then the pandemic hit. So, the story was commissioned in February of 2020. And yes.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Right at the beginning of the pandemic?
Nichole Sobecki: Yes. And then we went into a global pandemic. I was living at and I’m still living in Nairobi, Kenya. Kenya closed down its airspace for six months. So, there were no flights in or out. And throughout that time, these incredibly important bold efforts were taking place in Somaliland. And over a dozen rescue missions happened where these teams of Somalilanders, and with some external support, were going into the field to try to crack down on these trafficking rings. And I knew all of the people there. They wanted me to be with them to be documenting their efforts, and I just couldn’t be. And—
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: How frustrating.
Nichole Sobecki: It was absolutely crushing.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yes. Of course.
Nichole Sobecki: I got— and also, we managed to navigate access to people living in Kuwait, who had bought cheetahs, and were keeping them as pets. And then Kuwait closed down all access to visit. A story where I’m so grateful that we were able to do what we were able to do. But I have struggled to kind of reconcile that with the story that we could have told at a different time and how to sort of navigate the hurdles of telling stories at a time when in a sort of totally altered world. And this was the only rescue mission that I went—I worked on the story for two years and this was the only rescue mission I ever was able to join and the veterinarian, this woman, Asma Bileh, told me that this was the fiercest and most terrified cheetah she had ever seen. You can see it, right?
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: You captured that extremely well because you can really feel it is distressed and yeah.
Nichole Sobecki: So, when you see this sort of like Mohawk-like ridge on the back of his neck and eyes and he was in the video, you can see he’s just like, he’s panting and shaking and cheetahs are actually quite fragile. So, they were extremely worried about his health. And so, it was a third rescue mission to get to this place and to get back to the safe house where he was provided with, you know, more extensive health care and where he remains today.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Curious how is he today? Are you in contact with any of the—
Nichole Sobecki: I am. Yeah, yeah, absolutely. So, I had only 10 minutes with him in that entire three days because he was so traumatized. And, you know, this was, this was part of this 10 minutes. So, it’s this moment that we were able to capture, but also just recognizing all of the images that were never made. But Aster is doing much better today. He is at the Cheetah Conservation Fund safe house in Hargeysa. He, you know, there is no long-term wild space for him to be released into it. And that is a constant challenge. But they are a remarkable organization that takes incredibly good care of the cheetah and Aster has actually joined what’s called a coalition, which is a group of male cheetah that bond for life. With four other rescue cheetah, he’s formed a coalition. So, he has his family there and is recovering from the trauma and is healthy. And so, that’s really wonderful to see.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, but I can totally imagine the frustration. I mean, of course, the pandemic was, in many ways, a crazy time. But when you get your first solo, real big assignments from Nat Geo, and then the airspace closes, and then you have all of it just happening like that. And then you have 10 minutes. But you took a beautiful image, I mean, more than one, but this image is beautiful. So, I wouldn’t see this as a failure. But I can imagine it’s more like a photo frustration.
Nichole Sobecki: Well, I think that yeah, I think that’s, I appreciate that. I guess I think about failure as sort of these moments that we learn from. And so, for me, this was one of those challenges that was completely, you know, unexpected. And, and then you have to figure out how to honor the story, right? How to tell the story in the best way that you can with what you have. And so it was, it was a real lesson in that for me. Yeah.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, I can imagine. Well, thanks for taking this image. Because what I feel when seeing this image is such compassion towards him because he looks afraid. And you also see, of course, that hand, which is so amazing, you know. It’s like, you feel it’s a rescue. But you also feel that it’s a scary moment for him, I guess.
Nichole Sobecki: Yeah. I mean, you know, I think one of the things that makes this image feel complex to me as well. And maybe why, another reason why it fit into this question for me was trying to sort of ask myself in the process of telling the story, what success here even looks like. What is the successful story about a, you know, animal that, of which there’s only 7000 wild cheetahs left in the world. Seven thousand.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Oh, that’s so little that’s—
Nichole Sobecki: In the last 100 years, they’ve lost 90% of their natural rangelands. The trajectory for cheetah in most parts of the world is incredibly grim. And of course, this isn’t I mean, it’s a story about cheetah and it’s an investigation into these trafficking networks. But to me, it was really a story about the fact that we’re in this sixth mass extinction. You know, we’re on a, we’re on track to lose more than a million species, you know, in 30, 40 years and their fate is linked with ours, you know. We’re a part of that natural world. And so, you know, we’re looking at cheetah, which are these really sexy animals that we grow up knowing and loving and sort of, you know, pretending to be cheetah and racing around as kids and they’re part of our imagination. But there’s so many other animals and plants that are being lost that we don’t, are not talking about, we might not even know exists that we might not have named. And so, cheetah sort of became, for me this sort of symbol of everything else that we’re sort of, you know—if this can happen to the cheetah, it can happen to everything else.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah. So true. So true. And when was it, when was this story published in the end? Just curious.
Nichole Sobecki: This was published in 2021.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Okay.
Nichole Sobecki: Yeah. Yeah.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, it’s amazing, because that story went everywhere. Everywhere. It’s so amazing. Because it really, I mean, this image could have been with question number one, like, what is your most important photograph in that sense that it made its way out there? Like? Yeah, like crazy, you know, like, it was really well-shared, I think, as well online, and of course, in the magazine, but many people saw this. Many people know this image, I’m sure.
Nichole Sobecki: Yeah, we were really lucky as well. I mean, I think, you know, NatGeo, really threw its full support behind the story, launched a big campaign called, “Think Before You Like,” trying to just really encourage people to recognize that when you see a cheetah on your social media feed, that it has very likely been taken from the wild, because they’re extremely difficult to breed in captivity. And to just to recognize the ways in which each one of us can be complicit in these trades without meaning to be. And so, yeah, and it, you know, it won some awards and did very well in this sort of, you know, I think in terms of raising awareness, and I felt very, very lucky to be a part of making that story for those reasons. But it is interesting how, yeah, how you still always see the challenges? Yeah,
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: That pushes you forward, as well as a photographer. So, in a way, it’s good. And I think it’s screening here, right? Or am I? In Perpignan? Yeah. Visa Pour L’image for anyone who’s here, I think a few of you who are listening in now are here. Which night is the screening?
Nichole Sobecki: It’s the day two, which I believe is tonight.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: I think so too. I just arrived. I’m not sure.
Nichole Sobecki: Um, yeah, I mean, I hope those of you who are able to attend this screening. I really wish I could be there with you all.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, we’ll enjoy it for you. We’ll watch, I’ll make a video so you can see it.
Nichole Sobecki: That would be wonderful.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: In the meantime, there are questions coming in the q&a. Let me just check. A question from Arki, is over the years of reporting from Somalia and Somaliland, I think, right, have you seen the lack of access to basic resources, especially water, contributed to social strife and war?
Nichole Sobecki: Yeah, absolutely. That’s really the foundation of this project, Where Land Was, for me. I think that— it’s really interesting because this intersection between climate and security is something that I have faced so much pushback from, in the course of working on that project and talking about this issue. I had so many— it was one of the most difficult stories I’ve ever published. Because there was a lot of skepticism. Do we really have the science to support these claims. And I’ve struggled with that personally, because I think that we know what drives us into conflict most frequently. And that’s, you know, resources. And so, as you have your basic resources like food and water, your ability to protect your family, to have a basic sense of security, when all of those things are undermined, we are far more likely to go into conflict with one another. And we’re seeing that happen all over the world. And to be honest, it’s the thing that scares me the most about the climate crisis. I think that it’s certainly the ways in which that very, very many parts of the world will be impacted soonest. Because we were facing waters—I mean, Somaliland is facing that in Somalia are facing huge water shortages. There has been a drought for nine out of the last 10 years, there’s a drought right now, there will are very likely to call famine in September. So, people’s lives are being completely up ended. Many people are losing their lives. It is, without a doubt, contributing to increased levels of violence and conflict. But Somaliland is far from alone in that. This is something that’s affecting so many different parts of the world. And it’s going to be, I believe, one of the primary signatures of the effects of the climate crisis that we don’t talk nearly enough about.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, I want to, just wanted to mention that as well. I mean, even though climate stories are getting more attention than ever, I feel it’s definitely at the moment, not enough. I wonder if people realize what’s coming. I mean, it’s coming right our way. And I mean, it is being reported, but it’s not the main topic. It’s not like the opening of the news every night, you know. Maybe it should be for a while for people to yeah, just to wake up. And to know, this is really coming away. What was that movie called? Don’t Look Up, I think.
Nichole Sobecki: Yeah, yeah. It’s a great film.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Too short to explain the whole movie now. But for everyone, please check it out. Don’t Look Up.
Nichole Sobecki: Yeah, highly recommend.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yes, highly recommended. There’s another question from Georgina Smith. I’d like to ask about your research process. How do you go about choosing your topic and to focus on and building the story about them? Sorry, and building the story out from there? So, basically, how do you make these stories? Yeah.
Nichole Sobecki: Yeah, that’s a great question. Um, I guess I would say how I choose the topics that I focus on, tends to be from a much more emotional and intuitive space. I find that I make better work when it’s something that I feel deeply emotionally invested in. And so, I, that doesn’t necessarily always mean that it’s the most important story, but it’s the one where I feel like I can contribute to the conversation, because it matters tremendously to me. So, I’ll often begin the process by thinking about, like, what makes me rage against the world, what makes me you know, what brings me to tears, what moves me so much that I can’t help but try to tell that story. And then, and then begins a very long and much more cerebral process of researching. And, you know, I think when I think about research, there’s all of the sort of traditional methods of understanding the history and politics and language of a place. But I think it’s also important to understand, you know, the cultural references, the music, the film, the literature, you know, I think all— just trying to sort of understand not only the topic itself, but how it’s understood in the place that you might be reporting from. Yeah, so I guess it’s that sort of balance between the intuitive emotional concept, and then the sort of rigorous research that supports your ability to tell that story in a way that’s accurate and fair, but also, you know, authentic to the people who are allowing you into their lives.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Especially that last part.
Nichole Sobecki: Yeah.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: So important and often forgotten as well. Well, less and less so, to be honest. But let’s say a decade ago, that was more the case. And now luckily, we’re moving in the right direction, I feel. Well, thanks.
Nichole Sobecki: Yeah.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Thanks for sharing and really good question. So, talking about stories and new stories, what would be your dream story or image to work on? But it doesn’t necessarily have to be a real story. This could be like, anything even something that’s impossible.
Yeah. I’m curious.
Nichole Sobecki: Um, so I hope this answer doesn’t sound too naive. But I tried to answer it really, honestly. And I think that to me, like the story that I would want to tell, that I don’t know how to tell, or that I’m constantly working towards figuring out how to tell, is a story that would drive the kind of change that is necessary at the speed that is necessary to mitigate the worst effects of the climate crisis. You know, that is the driving force of most of my work. And it’s, you know, not a task that any one of us, you know, achieves individually. It’s not a task that we’ve really even been very successful at, you know, collectively, despite the fact that we have all of the information that we need in front of us as to why this is so vital. I mean, and completely existential. But you know, I think that, you know, if I were to kind of move into that dream world, and think about what I would want to accomplish, that that would be it, you know, to raise an alarm to impact the choices that people make in the present, to build a sense of urgency. Because I think that when we look at the tragedy of global warming, it is a tragedy of greed, in many ways, but it’s also a tragedy of our inability, as human beings to understand and care about deep time to think in the long term to recognize that our choices today have profound implications for the future. And, you know, we’re just, we’re not necessarily built as a species to adapt as quickly and as urgently as we need to. And so, I would love, my dream would be to find a story that could somehow break through the limitations of ourselves, to help us get out of our own way. And expand the limits of our empathy to challenge the ideas of sort of human dominance over the natural world. And I really believe that storytelling has a critical role to play in that, but it feels overwhelming. It’s a hard nut to crack to figure out how to actually, how to how to drive the type of change that we so deeply need.
Nichole Sobecki: Yes.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yes, very true. And it can be quite frustrating of course. It is a beautiful dream, I wish, you know, there was a way and I think we have seen some collective—it’s a crazy example and it definitely wasn’t a perfect example. In many ways, it was quite bad. The word example is not the right word here, but if you remember the whole Kony story from 2012.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: There was a lot of wrong with this. But what works, just one thing out of this, so this for people don’t know, was basically if a YouTube video that went viral, and the crazy thing about it for me was, besides all the things that were wrong about it is how it made people from around the world take action. I always think back on this video where basically people around the world were asked to print out a poster and to hang it in front of their window or around their cities. And people did it. And of course, hanging posters, you think, ah, it doesn’t it help? Maybe it doesn’t. But I’ve always kept that YouTube video in my mind, because I’ve always felt, see, there is a possibility to somehow trigger people in a way to do something, even though this was a small example. But then there are other times where I realize maybe it’s not even possible, like the way you’re mentioning it now as well. It’s like almost an impossible dream. Not impossible, but it’s how are we going to motivate people in time, that the things that we do now matter for futures to come? I mean, it’s—
Nichole Sobecki: It’s really difficult. There are a lot of really brilliant people trying to answer that question right now and it’s challenging. I mean, we, I think that this conversation often goes back to this idea of hope, right. You know, Rebecca Solnit has this wonderful way of talking about this where she says hope is a verb, right? So, hope is not a naive action. Because I think hope can, you know, hope is just a word, it’s what we attach to it that matters. So, I think I have seen, I’ve seen hope used in ways that feel really unproductive, you know. Well, I hope that this will happen, which is just the other side of the coin from despair and lack of action and being paralyzed. But I like this idea of hope as a verb and hope is something that motivates us. And for me, personally, I think that, you know, we need to understand the ways in which we are making some really positive changes, and that that is driving things in a better generation. I think we see that, particularly with younger people, the generation coming up who are so much more engaged. And but, you know, I also think, you know, that needs to be paired with the, the sort of harsh reality that we’re living in and a sense of urgency. Too often we kind of lean too heavily into one side of that, or the other. And I think, you know, trying to strike that balance is one of the challenges of photographers focusing on the environment today.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, luckily, there are many, and I think all together, and maybe as a collective actually, it will be very important to keep shining a light on these kinds of topics. Yeah, note to self as well. Definitely. It’s interesting, what you just mentioned as well, is that I spoke, I was doing research for a climate project last year, and I spoke to a few climate researchers within Europe, mainly. And all of them said that somehow people are programmed in a way that we can make changes now. But we hardly, somehow can’t make changes if we think of the future. So basically, the Netherlands, which is all below sea level, we now currently this year, and the upcoming five years have to make changes that will result into a better world in the Netherlands in 100 years from now. But it’s very difficult for people to think, Oh, I’m going to change my lifestyle today so people 100 years from now can have a better life. And they all are struggling with this exact issue.
Nichole Sobecki: This is exactly what I what I meant in saying that, you know, we’re really unable as a species, as a society to understand deep time, to sort of be motivated enough by the future that we won’t live to see, or that is at least far enough away, that it’s not terrifying us to change make the changes that we need. I do, I completely agree. I think it has, we have to, you know, that seems unlikely to change. And so we have to engage the present. And we have to make the changes from that mindset. And I, you know, I think that we can, I think that we can change dramatically and in deeply positive ways. But we’re not doing enough. So, you know, how do we, how do we move in that direction, more and more and more at the speed in which we need to be moving?
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, great answer. Thanks, Nichole. I’m going to the q&a because I see a question kind of popping up. Also, really good question from Una. If, I hopefully pronounced that right. The question is, how much has spending time in Somalia, Somaliland and witnessing climate change firsthand affected your life?
Nichole Sobecki: Oh, I mean, profoundly. You know, I think the greatest, the best part of being a photographer is sort of the gift of being changed by the people you meet and the stories that you’re able to tell. And I’m forever grateful to the people that I met in the process of telling that story, many of whom are still very close friends, who are, you know, moving on, and building lives and trying to shake things up and create change in the face of, you know, what, from the outside or from far away seems like a pretty impossible situation. And so, yeah, I think that that’s actually one of the spaces that I draw hope from, you know. If they can be that resilient, then it’s really not very fair for me to give up hope, right. And then I think, I mean, just on a practical level, you know, I try to live in a way that’s more sustainable. I have tried to sort of adapt the ways that I eat and shop and travel, although that’s honestly one of the more challenging ones as a photographer and just, you know, exist in the economy that we’re in, and the society that we’re in, in a way that tries to match the values that I have in the hope, the sort of future that I would like to see for us and for generations beyond us. You know, we are—I think I’ve tried to shift my thinking into a way from ideas around ownership or, you know, consuming and really thinking about ourselves as custodians of this space. And recognizing the way in which all of our fates are intertwined. And I think I learned a lot of that there, so.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Beautiful, right? How the people you meet, change your life in small or big ways every time you’re working on a story or an assignment. There are so many amazing people in the world. It’s crazy.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: There are so many nice people it’s unbelievable. They’re everywhere. There’s so much it’s just—I always love it when you go to a story, especially on assignments, where sometimes there’s less time to prepare, when you know less about the place you’re going to. I mean, I love being super well prepared, but sometimes I love it when you don’t know as much and people just kind of embrace you and the story. The stories they are telling you are so from the heart. It’s, I love this job. I couldn’t do anything else. But I also wouldn’t want to. It’s—
Nichole Sobecki: Yeah.
Nichole Sobecki: I know. It’s humbling to sort of be faced with that kind of generosity, right?
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, so humbling. It’s, yeah. And like I said, you meet great people everywhere. The first question a lot of people asked me, and you might get that as well a lot when traveling this much also as a woman, blah, blah, blah. Isn’t it dangerous? Like, some of these countries we go to? The first question is always, isn’t it dangerous? And of course, the job has parts of it that can be dangerous, but to be very honest, 99.9% you just meet amazing people who will teach you things about their life, who share stories and experiences.
Nichole Sobecki: Yeah, I think it’s that sort of understandable, but, you know, not acceptable bias that we have towards things that we just haven’t experienced ourselves, and why storytelling can be important as a bridge to connect us because we do tend to fear things that we just that we don’t know.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: That’s true.
Nichole Sobecki: And, yeah, I mean, I mean, I feel like I’ve faced far more prejudice as a woman in the sort of Western capitals, where a lot of the companies I work for are based, than in the parts of the world that people are usually asking me about.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Exactly. Same here. So, it’s the same experience.
Nichole Sobecki: Yeah. Yeah, well, yep.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: There’s another question coming from Arki. It’s the last question from the q&a, because otherwise, I think we’re gonna run out of time, because I still have one question for you as well. Otherwise, we can’t call this Four Questions on Photography.
Nichole Sobecki: It will change the name.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Let me see, the question from Arki is, how do you transform your passion project into a commercial assignment with a magazine? It is really hard to get your foot in the door if you are the first, if you are a first-time contributor.
Nichole Sobecki: Yeah. Yeah. It’s really, really hard. There’s no, there’s no easy answer there. I mean, I think that the best answer to that is to not give up. I mean, the people I know who are successful today have all faced tremendous barriers, failures, roadblocks, gatekeepers. And the people who are successful are in some ways, just simply the ones who kept going, who just who didn’t give up. Because there’s no, you know, it takes time and it’s really hard and very few people fall into the category of just like getting that lucky break. You know, usually, it just comes down to kind of doing the work, getting better at your craft, continuing to pitch, continuing to build, you know, you communities and networks that allow you the access to pitch your stories, to get them in front of the people that have the, are in a position to publish them. You know, applying for grants. There are so many different pieces to that puzzle. But, you know, I think it’s really, it really just comes down to persistence and hard work and having the confidence to believe that your ideas are worthy, which is something I’ve definitely struggled with at times. I think probably most of us have. I, yeah. It’s you just, you have to trust in your own vision and then just do the work to get there and recognize that it’s going to be a journey? And none, it doesn’t happen overnight for anyone.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Hmm, yeah. And also know, well, you kind of mentioned that now as well. But know that a lot of the people that are now successful have had editors tell them no, maybe three or four times to a story or to a pitch or to the same pitch or two different pitches, just like you mentioned. I think, yeah, I think that’s forgotten many times, how many nos I’ve gotten, I’ve gotten for stories. There are many. And you just, yeah, maybe you change the pitch, or you change the person you go to? Or you change your way of working or, but you just kind of keep going, I guess.
Nichole Sobecki: I mean, I’ve never had a major project that wasn’t rejected many, many times, in many, many ways. It’s just, it’s part of it. Yeah.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Thank you Nicole. One more question from me. What advice would you give yourself, but your younger self? So younger Nicole.
Nichole Sobecki: Um, so I guess I would say, do the work of learning yourself. Because, and that is a lifelong journey. That’s not something that happens overnight. But I think inspiration is wonderful. Understanding the context of your industry and how to be in conversation with what’s happened before you, where you know what questions need to be raised. That’s so important. But the only thing that any of us can truly contribute that is of enduring value is our ourselves and our own worldview. And it just, it’s really, everything else is temporal, it’s imitation, it’s, you know, and so I think, engaging as soon as you can in that difficult work of figuring out who you are, and recognizing that your personhood and your identity is something that you carry into every story that you tell. And trusting that, even though that’s a process, and it’s not that you ever sort of, you know, become evolved or anything. Or maybe you know, Buddha did, but I don’t have those expectations for myself. But even though it’s imperfect, trusting that, like, the best idea that you have right now is enough. And it’s better than trying to be someone you’re not, and then doing the work to make that idea better through the act of creating, right, so just start trusting that seed and then do watering it, fertilize, you know, doing the work to actually allow it to grow and to become better than it was at first. And that and having that confidence to say that that’s enough. And just leave nothing on the table.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: In which way? What do you mean, just leave nothing on the table.
Nichole Sobecki: I mean, when you are, I mean, I think this is a way to think about your work every day on a daily basis, but also in a long-term project. Just leave feeling like whether this succeeds or fails, depending, you know, however you define that, that you have taken all of the risks that you needed to, that you have trusted in your, the value of your own voice, that you have done, you know, you’ve rolled up your sleeves and lost sleep and done all of the hard work. And that it’s the best thing that you can do right then and that maybe tomorrow you’ll do better, but that like you’ve left nothing on the table that day, on that project, on that story.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Beautiful. That’s good advice to me as well and to everyone watching probably. That’s good advice for all of us. And a good reminder, as well, I think for all photographers and people in general out there. Thank you so much, Nichole.
Nichole Sobecki: It’s so great to talk with you again. And thanks everyone for tuning in.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, thanks so much for making time for this and for all the really wise words that you’ve shared with us. And yeah, have fun in New York with the family. Very important. And thanks everyone for for watching this episode. And please check out the VII Insider website for the upcoming events. And thanks that you were all here. Thanks, Nikki.
Nichole Sobecki: Thanks so much.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Bye. Bye-Bye.