How This Photographer Is Capturing Climate Change's Impact on Mental Health

Author: Kofi Dotse

Elroy Salam

Africa contributes the least to global warming and carbon emissions, yet it is disproportionately vulnerable to its impacts. Increasing temperatures and sea levels, and extreme weather events are posing a systemic risk to public health and safety, food and water security, and socio-economic development on the continent.

At the same time, a more hidden impact of climate change is how it's affecting people's mental health, both globally and across the African continent.

A study published earlier this year by Cambridge University Press highlighted that the psychological impacts of any form of disaster outnumber physical injuries by 40 to 1; with some of the direct impacts of climate change on mental health including trauma experienced as a result of living through extreme weather and climate-related disasters, like wildfires, droughts, and flooding. There's also evidence, according to the study, that living through extreme heat creates an increased risk of violent behaviour, increased suicide rates and hospital admissions for self-harm.

Meanwhile, the fear and worry over the impacts of climate change, both now and in the future, are creating a spike in a phenomenon widely known as "eco-anxiety" — driven by the need for urgency, with increased warnings that time for action is running out. 

It was an awareness of these issues that drove Ghanaian visual artist Elroy Salam to create a project that demonstrated and amplified the issue of climate change, the need for action, and what climate change is doing to people's mental health, particularly in Ghana and across West Africa. He's part of a movement of young and emerging artists, photographers, filmmakers, and other creatives, who are working to capture the realities of the climate crisis — and the importance of their work has never been greater. 

We caught up with Salam, who's also the founder of a digital production company, to learn more about his latest project — "Extreme Weather" — and why he's using his art to take climate action. 

Image: Elroy Salam

Thanks for speaking with us, Elroy. Can you tell us a bit about yourself? 

I am a photo artist specialising in editorial and conceptual photography. I am the third born in my family, with three female siblings. My dad is a painting contractor, and my mom is an Islamic scholar. Growing up, I have always been that kid who was shy to speak up, and introverted to talk to. I usually stick to a small circle. I was susceptible to the interactions I had with people. It’s always been like that until I discovered photography. It became a medium for me to communicate with others and capture moments and things I found fascinating.

That’s awesome. So how did you transition into photography?

I never saw myself being a photographer, although I’ve always been creative as a kid, sketching and doodling characters from cartoons I watched after school. I discovered photography in 2015, and as a self-taught artist, I gained all my knowledge through YouTube tutorials. A year after, I started going with friends to their shoots, observing and learning until I convinced my Dad to buy me my first DSLR.

My passion for photography skyrocketed after that. I explored various mediums of photography, trying to find myself and my niche. In 2020, I found myself drawn towards exploring my emotions and experiences and interpreting them with images.

Image: Elroy Salam

What are the most significant experiences that taught you a lesson or affected you and your work? 

I’ll say the COVID-19 pandemic. As a lifestyle and commercial photographer at the time, I lost most of my clients and also, being online, seeing the news and announcements about sick people and deaths was overwhelming and mentally draining.

Although many people could channel their panic and fear into creativity, it wasn’t like that for me, even when I tried. I took a step back from anything photography-related, accepted what was going on, and allowed myself to heal. I’ve realised that sometimes it’s okay to get into bad situations when they come, especially when they are beyond your control, and it's ok to let them pass in their own time.

Image: Elroy Salam

Let’s talk about climate change. Why do you take action for the planet?

Climate change is one of the most pervasive and existential threats right now. As the dominant species on earth with a rapidly growing population, we have, over the years, caused a catastrophic impact on the environment through activities like burning fossil fuels, and creating more carbon in the atmosphere.

Our actions in the attempt to survive are endangering our existence. Sea levels, rising temperatures, and intense droughts threaten crops, wildlife, and freshwater supplies. I take climate action because climate change impacts our health, environment, and economy negatively.

We’re living through these images from your most recent project. Tell us a bit about your project, ‘Extreme Weather’.

I came across a study online that said about 25-50% of people exposed to an extreme weather disaster are at risk of adverse mental health effects. It also said that up to 54% of adults and 45% of children experience depression after a natural disaster. I felt the need to undertake this project to raise awareness and tackle climate change with urgency through the use of artistic symbolism and metaphors.

The impacts of climate change are increasingly part of our daily lives, and there is very little dedicated mental health support available. The effects of climate change can be direct or indirect, and certain events can act through mechanisms similar to traumatic stress, leading to signs and symptoms of mental disorders.

I am using photography to highlight the effect of climate change on our mental health and my unique voice to express how I feel, and share my fear for the youth and communities dealing with climate-related hazards. I have always felt the need to bring more meaning to my work and to explore issues and stories that would save or improve the lives of people.

Image: Elroy Salam

How did you get the idea to personify climate change issues with models?

I work in the genre of conceptual photography, so it was only natural for me to use my artistic style to convey my message by using a model and props as allegorical figures.

It’s brilliant — is there a piece from this project you’re most proud of?

I love every image from this project, but if I’m to pick, it will be the pieces with the cloud and rain. It was a bit challenging manipulating the cloud and rain into it.