A little girl climbing the tree of life: Luis Tato’s best photograph

‘She climbed to the top unaided, to collect leaves for her family’s dinner. The tastiest ones are usually higher up’

The vast Zinder region in Niger, west Africa, is the most populated part of the country. Its people live mostly in traditional villages, their lives relatively unchanged for decades. Yet they are now being profoundly affected by climate change. I was there in 2019, working on stories about the crisis, reforestation and resilience projects. Most of the region’s inhabitants make their living through cattle. Global warming isn’t just causing droughts that affect crops and cause food shortages – it also means the cattle can’t graze. So people are being forced to travel ever further to find water and food for themselves and their livestock. This creates conflicts over land and access to water.

This girl, who was 10 or 11, lived in the village of Malawama. She is at the top of a massive baobab tree, collecting leaves for the family dinner – the tastiest are usually higher up. Baobab leaves are a popular meal in the region. They’re similar to spinach and eaten as a side dish or added to soups and stews. I saw her from a distance and the image quickly caught my eye. I was surprised to see her climbing this huge tree unaided, but she moved so confidently that I soon stopped worrying. She was completely used to it – as most local people are.

The mystical baobab has been deeply embedded in Zinder culture for centuries – there are songs and stories about what they call the tree of life. As well as the leaves, its fruit is nutritious, its flowers and seeds have medicinal properties, and the wood and bark are used in a variety of ways. The tree has adapted to the environment: during the rainy season, it can absorb and store water, which means it can fruit and flower during the arid season. Elephants eat the bark for its water while its foliage and vast hollow trunk provide shelter for animals and humans. Baobabs are now being planted as part of a reforestation project, to help people deal with climate change. This tree gives me hope – it is part of a positive story about the region.

For many years, I was a news photographer, working first in Spain and then in Kenya. I was often assigned to stories of conflict, but I think the media present a skewed image of Africa by focusing on negative stories. I want to look at the positive side, at the fantastic minds working to transform lives and do amazing things. I want to put my camera in those spaces and tell those stories. I’m working on a project about a boxing school for girls from the slums of Nairobi. They’re being taught to defend themselves and to gain self-confidence. Some are going on to become professional boxers. It’s changing all their lives.

Even villagers unfamiliar with climate change know their lives are changing, that the land is degrading and each day is getting tougher. It worries me that this is only the beginning, that things are only going to get worse.

I love this image of the girl in the baobab tree because it’s not spectacular. It’s gentle and poetic, a regular scene in a Niger village. The area has been scarred by conflict and drought but life also goes on in a quiet way. This tree, and what it represents, makes me feel positive and peaceful.

Luis Tato’s CV

Luis Tato.
Luis Tato. Photograph: Will Baxter

Born: Spain, 1989.

Trained: Self-taught.

Influences: Cristina García-Rodero, Tomás Munita, Alex Webb and Gordon Parks among many others.

High point: “Being nominated for the 2021 World Press photo of the year.”

Low point: “Losing my job at the newspaper I worked for in Spain because of budget cuts.”

Top tip: “Know the history and the story. Listen, ask, read and watch before shooting.”

• Luis Tato is the Sony World Photography awards 2021 professional winner in the wildlife and nature category. See the virtual exhibition at worldphoto.org.


Interview by Imogen Tilden

The GuardianTramp

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