Environmental Photographer of the Year 2023: Images of flood, drought and plastic pollution


A herd of buffaloes wander parched land amidst a drought, a farmer and his cows wade knee-deep through floodwater, and people walk across a bridge over a multicolored river of trash. All three scenes were among the winning images of the Environmental Photographer of the Year 2023 competition, and all three were taken in Bangladesh.

The country is one of the most vulnerable to climate change in the world, ranking seventh on the latest Global Climate Risk Index, based on data from 2000 to 2019. It’s prone to cyclones, tornadoes and floods, and it is estimated that by 2050, one in every seven people in Bangladesh will be displaced by climate change.

Bangladeshi photographers like Shafiul Islam believe they have a responsibility to highlight these threats. His captivating image of buffalo depicts the droughts that have struck the north of the country in recent decades. Rivers, canals and reservoirs in the area have dried up, crop production is decreasing and local communities are suffering as a result, he says.

When it does rain, it pours – as shown in 18-year-old Solayman Hossain’s photo of a farmer navigating floodwaters during monsoon season in the Kushtia district, in the west of the country. Brought up in a nearby village, Hossain recounts how he has witnessed devastating changes to the environment in his lifetime. “My village has been hit with frequent flooding and cyclones which damage crops and destroy livelihoods,” he tells CNN.

As extreme weather events become more and more frequent so does the damage, displacements, and anxiety around when the next disaster will hit. “Many of us are forced to keep rebuilding our lives, often in the aftermath of each calamity,” he says.

Now in its 16th year, the photo competition – organized by streaming platform WaterBear and the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management and in partnership with Nikon – attracted thousands of submissions from over 159 countries. So it may seem surprising that three of the six category winners hailed from one country.

Sam Sutaria, CEO of WaterBear, believes it’s down to the country’s relationship with climate issues. “Bangladesh is a place where the climate crisis isn’t an abstract concept but a harsh and immediate reality. With frequent flooding, rising sea levels, and extreme weather events, it’s no wonder they’re so engaged in documenting these challenges,” he says.

He adds that this year’s competition saw entries from other regions also severely threatened by climate change, such as India, West Bengal, Antarctica and Argentina. “(It proves) that photographers on the front lines of these crises are using their lenses as a force for change. They’re inspiring awareness and action by showcasing the pressing issues they face daily.”

A bridge in Dhaka, Bangladesh, is surrounded by plastic waste.

Jahid Apu, a professional photographer from Bangladesh, took the drone shot of a bridge in the capital Dhaka surrounded by plastic waste that won the “MPB vision of the future” category. With the image, he wants to communicate the impact of plastic pollution and hopes that when people see it, they might realize the consequence of throwing away plastic and change their behavior.

“I do not take pride in a photo that someone looks at and says, ‘Wow, pretty picture…’ and moves on. For me, success is achieved when I catch the person off guard, drawing consciousness about causes, or when someone comes to me to tell me what the photograph brings to mind,” Apu tells CNN.

Sutaria believes that the winning images from this year’s prize represent a wider shift in environmental photography, away from simply portraying nature as an untouched paradise to images that carry a conservation message.

“They’re showing it in all its raw, vulnerable glory, challenging us to step up and protect it,” he says. “These photographs represent a dynamic new wave in climate storytelling.”

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