By Jing Ren
Neeta Satam is making a difference in addressing climate change and other environmental issues – both as a photographer and a scientist.
The winner of the first student fellowship from the new Missouri School of Journalism Smith/Patterson Pulitzer partnership, Satam spoke to students in the Science, Health and Environmental Writing class recently about her past and future work.
Satam obtained her first master’s degree in geology in India and her second master’s degree in environmental sciences from Southern Illinois University. She will complete her third master’s degree when she graduates this month with a degree in photojournalism from the University of Missouri.
Prior to pursuing journalism, Satam worked three years as a geologist at TRC Companies and eight years as an environmental scientist in URS Corporation in the United States. In her earlier career, she helped to investigate and clean up Superfund sites, which are some of the most contaminated places in America. The extent of the pollution made her depressed.
“My time working at Superfund sites made me think that human beings are the most selfish and destructive species on planet,” she said. “We always go beyond what we need, and in the process, destroy the planet. I also came to believe that capitalism and consumerism had contributed to the environmental mess we are seeing at a global scale.”
She decided to walk away and travel out West, which led her to her next career. She pursued photography, first as a hobby, and then more seriously. She received a scholarship for a photography workshop at Missouri School of Journalism. Then David Rees, chair of the photojournalism department, encouraged her to apply to the master’s program.
In her time at the Journalism School, Satam thought about how scientific community often fails at communicating issues. “They are well-informed, but they just cannot humanize an issue, or put a face on an issue,” she said. “It’s always about the data.”
Satam set out to communicate science and environmental issues in a way that people could visualize. In order to show what climate change looks like, she photographed in Kumik, a village in Zanskar, Kashmir, in the northernmost part of India.
The village gets all its water from the nearby Sultan Largo glacier, which is receding due to climate change. The Kumikthu stream has turned into a trickle, depriving villagers of water. “Soon after spring sets in, villagers ration water from the pond to irrigate their farms. By summer, the snowfields surrounding Kumik disappear,” Satam said.
Farming has become difficult, and many men have left the village to find work elsewhere. Women work in the fields and their children are sometimes left alone. This is why Satam thinks climate change also exacerbates gender inequity.
Satam first went to the village in 2015 and stayed for six weeks, then she went back in 2016 for two weeks. Because of its location, the village is accessible to the outside of the world only during summer and fall. In the winter, people have to rely on walking on the frozen Zanskar River*.
When Satam went there, the village was in the middle of drought. Also, because the village is at 13,000 feet, the elevation made it difficult for her to shoot.
For her Smith/Patterson fellowship project, Satam will cover the wetland ecosystem of Loktak Lake in India. The Smith/Patterson fellowship grants a $5,000 stipend to cover an underreported science, health and environmental issue anywhere in the world outside the United States.
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong name for the Zanskar River.