Books: a stunning return to 2009

Reuters has produced its third volume of Our World Now, a perfect companion to two earlier albums of dazzling photojournalism. Maryann Bird pored over the not-to-be-missed images and essays.

Our World Now 3
Thames & Hudson, 2010

“I want my grandchildren to see our land as it is: beautiful, fresh, full of berries and deer,” a 52-year-old Nenets tribeswoman called Valentina tells Denis Sinyakov, a Reuters photographer.

Last August, Sinyakov journeyed 2,000 kilometres from his base in Moscow to Russia’s Yamal peninsula, above the Arctic Circle, to document the reindeer-herding lives of Valentina and other Nenets people. Travelling by plane, ship, motorboat and cross-country vehicle, the photographer arrived among an indigenous tribe that has survived, he says, the age of the tsars, the Bolshevik revolution and the chaos of the 1990s but whose people “now confront their biggest challenge to date”.

“For under the Nenets’ fur-bundled feet lie reserves of 16 trillion cubic metres of gas,” Sinyakov explains in Our World Now 3. The book is the third and newest volume of the Reuters news agency’s remarkable series of photographic albums chronicling “a year in the life of our world”.

Its 348 colourful images help define the planet in 2009, a year in which “pollution, climate change, deforestation and huge population increases brought the leaders of the world together in Copenhagen … in a political fight to find ways to halt environmental degradation without killing off the economic growth that billions still desperately need to rescue them from hunger and poverty”. That challenge remains.

Sinyakov’s photos from Yamal poignantly capture scenes of the animist Nenets catching reindeer with a lasso, tending their herds, preparing fish for cooking over a wood-fired stove, resting and drinking tea in traditional tents, posing for his camera on the flat, marshy tundra. Yamal, he writes in a personal “Witness” report to accompany his pictures, is “a place of endless sunrise and sunset, where plans are forever thwarted by constant changes in the weather”, and where time “has a different quality”.

Yet time and another world are encroaching on the Nenets’ lives. Yamal already accounts for over 90% of the Russian energy giant Gazprom’s gas output, but the government wants to develop the region further by enticing foreign companies to drill there. While the Nenets have welcomed some state benefits, the Russian photographer says, concern is growing that industry and gas-field-related infrastructure — including a railway — will damage and pollute the fragile tundra.

For people whose way of life has barely altered in a millennium, that prospect can be unsettling. “I just pray Gazprom won’t change us,” Valentina says. She might have added a similar hope regarding the tundra itself, in the increasingly warming Arctic.

The year 2009 was a difficult and troubling one for much of the globe. To define those 12 months — as they did for both 2007 and 2008 – Reuters picture editors have sorted through the roughly 1,600 that crossed their desks each day to produce another outstanding volume of photojournalism. These scenes of war and peace, loss and triumph, sadness and joy, solemnity and silliness are compelling in their range and diversity.

Among the photos from China is one of US president Barack Obama on the Great Wall at Badaling, taken just weeks before the UN climate conference in Copenhagen. Along with China and the United States, Russia and the European Union “will likely play the lead roles in averting climate change in the years ahead,” says Reuters, “but it is little countries on the front line that have thus far taken the prize for drawing attention to what is at stake”. Countries like Nepal and the Maldives.

The book’s environment images include the extraordinary sight of Mohamed Nasheed, president of the vulnerable Maldives, dressed in full scuba gear as he conducts the world’s first underwater cabinet meeting. The event was a symbolic cry from a small island state threatened with annihilation by 2100 if sea levels rise in line with UN predictions. Similarly, Nepal’s cabinet is seen gathered at a Mount Everest base camp, oxygen masks at hand, to emphasise the plight of the Himalayan watershed – the “third pole” — where climate change could dry up 10 major Asian rivers over the next five decades.

Stark illustrations bear witness to other environmental and developmental problems: a child’s swing set amid trees destroyed by bushfires in southern Australia; a woman in Hefei stepping out of a makeshift shelter in front of massive modern tower blocks; a man sitting on his bed in one of Hong Kong’s “cage homes”; an Indian woman walking alone through a dry fish pond; a Turkish man awaiting rescue from atop an Istanbul bus marooned by flash-flood waters; Sydney’s iconic Opera House, bathed in dull orange sunlight, amid a huge dust storm that stripped away thousands of tonnes of farm topsoil.

Continuing with an innovation introduced in the 2008 volume, Our World Now 3 includes seven rich “Witness” reports by the photographers themselves, accompanying longer photo essays. In addition to Sinyakov’s Nenets, they deal with conflict in Gaza, displaced people in Afghanistan, home repossessions in California, an ousted Honduran leader’s refuge in his capital’s Brazilian embassy, drug-trade violence in Rio de Janeiro, and the sharply contrasting worlds inhabited by the Mumbai child stars of the blockbuster film Slumdog Millionaire.

Again, the year’s photographic contents are presented nearly chronologically, in quarters of the year, rather than grouped by subject or region. That simple device (along with the absence of an index) forces the reader to pay attention to every page, lest something special – be it perfectly framed, witty, heartbreakingly sad or beautifully uplifting — be missed.

Our World Now 3, like its two predecessors from the British art-book publisher Thames & Hudson, is not to be missed. And like the book, chinadialogue’s slideshow of images from 2009 ends on a hopeful note: the concerned faces of young demonstrators in Copenhagen, a sign behind them reading “Don’t Melt Our Future.”

Maryann Bird is associate editor of chinadialogue