A Star Wars themed wedding of Simon and Kristy Naquin. They moved from Isle de Jean-Charles to Gray six months earlier. Gray, Louisiana, United States.
2024 Photo Contest, North and Central America, Honorable Mention

The First Climate Refugees of the United States


Sandra Mehl

13 May, 2023

A Star Wars themed wedding of Simon and Kristy Naquin. They moved from Isle de Jean-Charles to Gray six months earlier. Gray, Louisiana, United States.

Isle de Jean-Charles, 130 kilometers south of the coast of New Orleans, is sinking. It once had a school, a church, and hundreds of residents, but today it is just a sliver of land three kilometers long and 300 meters wide surrounded by the waters of the bayou. Since 1955, 98% of its surface area has been lost to erosion and rising waters, exacerbated by climate change, which brings ever more destructive hurricanes to bear on the region. The oil industry in Louisiana contributes significantly to the environmental factors impacting Isle de Jean-Charles. Carbon emissions notwithstanding, thousands of offshore platforms in the region require countless kilometers of channels to be dug in the Gulf of Mexico for shipping routes. These channels cause subsidence, a form of underwater erosion, that intensifies erosion on land. 

In 2016, the effects of the sinking land, compounded by oil extraction and seasonal hurricanes, forced the relocation of the residents of Isle de Jean-Charles to the town of Gray, Louisiana, 65 km north. This marked the first federal climate change resettlement program in the US, making the islanders the country's first official climate refugees. By late 2022, after six years of administrative challenges and preliminary planning, the islanders were able to move into their new homes. Between 2016 and 2023, the photographer made seven trips to Isle de Jean-Charles to document this relocation of its residents and memorialize the end of the French-speaking Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indian Tribal Community, which occupied the island for two hundred years. 

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Sandra Mehl
About the photographer

Sandra Mehl is a documentary photographer and filmmaker whose work focuses on contemporary issues such as human rights violations, inequality, and climate crisis, with an interest in their impact on daily life and intimacy. Her long-term projects cover stories across Europe, the United States and Western Asia.  ...

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Technical information
Shutter Speed





Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

Jury comment

The jury gave this project an honorable mention because of how the photographer portrayed a marginalized community with such tenderness. The photographer stays clear of distorting people's humanity, instead giving a human face to the obscured environmental crisis facing North America. The project is edited beautifully and intentionally, and is a call to action that engages the viewer to seek a deeper understanding of the climate crisis.