“Those who first invented and then named the constellations were storytellers. Tracing an imaginary line between a cluster of stars gave them an image and an identity. The stars threaded on that line were like events threaded on a narrative. Imagining the constellations did not of course change the stars, nor did it change the black emptiness that surrounds them. What it changed was the way people read the night sky”.
And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief As Photos
My intention is to pursue my personal activism through my photography. I want to be able to tell stories about the things that matter to me.
I have long been politically active. Increasingly I see my practice as that of the activist photographer, recording and commenting on the issues that concern me. I see myself in the tradition of people like Lewis Hine who explained his photography ambitions thus:
‘There were two things I wanted to do. I wanted to show the things that had to be corrected; I wanted to show the things that had to be appreciated’
Hine was an undoubtedly successful activist. His pictures of child workers in early 20th century America were highly influential in curtailing the practice of employing very young children in dangerous jobs.
Drawing on the influence and tradition of Hine and other activist photographers, and working with advocacy groups such as Extinction Rebellion and Greenpeace, I would like to be part of the process of pressurizing government and big business to take the climate crisis and make progressive policy and behavioural changes.
I aim to do this by creating both documentary and conceptual work that may become exhibitions or books. This would be part of a process of building a reputation as a trusted voice in this area. I am also examining how single or multiple pictures could be incorporated into posters, flyers or in the media. I am not concerned with commercial success. Engagement with a cause which is personally important to me is what matters.
Social issues tend to have a familiar pattern. A behaviour or crisis is identified by people who become concerned about it. These people become active in seeking to rectify the situation they have identified. They seek to tell the story to other people, encourage them to also become active and then bring pressure to bear to change the situation. The activist, as Berger so beautifully puts it, changes “the way people read the night sky”.
The intention of the portfolio I am submitting for Informing Contexts, is a meditation on the terrible flooding experienced in the UK during the winter of 2019/20. Flooding was predicted to be one of the main effects of climate change on the UK. Over the last seven years, those predictions have come true with devastating effects. So I want my pictures to say “look, wake up, the things that the scientists predicted 20 years ago are coming true. They are right, we must listen to them and change our way of life if we are to have a future”.
My work is typically created outdoors. The majority of the work is documentary, in that it records scenes which existed prior to and after my visit. I am making increasing use of human figures in my pictures, both on a posed and candid basis.
My current project is entitled And The Waters Increased. All pictures in the current portfolio include water, or references to water. This fits with my intention to consider the effects of flooding in the UK. The majority of the pictures are taken in the South East of England with the exception of some that were taken on a field trip to Ironbridge in Shropshire.
The work has a seasonal aspect to it. The winter of 2019/20 saw serious flooding across the UK which is ideal subject matter for my project. So I have spent the winter months building a collection of outdoor pictures which bear witness to the extreme weather conditions. As the year progresses, these seasonal conditions will no longer exist. So as the project progresses, the subject matter will be conceptual work which will take a different approach to comment on the human relationship to water.
This picture is typical of my intention in creating the flood pictures. The picture successfully captures an exceptional moment. The car is actually on a road but the road is flooded due to the very heavy rain. The curve of the road is delineated by the bank and the hedgerow on either side. The car has not been driven into a lake for pictorial effect. Several distracting signs have been removed from the roadside and levels have been adjusted to improve the visibility of detail. Otherwise, the scene is largely as I saw it. This is typical of my workflow. I prefer to get my pictures properly composed and exposed in the camera and limit my post-production activity to teasing out details.
As my work is largely outdoors, its appearance is subject to the seasons. I live in the South East of England, so weather conditions can vary from dark, sullen skies and heavy rain, through to brilliant sunny days. I do not manipulate my pictures to a uniform look, rather I want the seasonal changes to come through in my work and show a connection to nature that I consider important.
A number of the pictures have cars shown in them. I use cars as a symbol for human presence in a picture. Sometimes it makes more sense to show a car (as a symbol) in a picture rather than actual people. For example, in the picture above, I was presented with the car in the flood. It would have been difficult to immerse a person in that cold water on a winter day.
A key point for me in understanding the context of my practice was reading Photography as Activism by Michelle Bogre. This book discusses photography’s role in social reform. Bogre tells the story of photographers who have used their work to inform and agitate for progress.
Activist photography can be seen as a subset of documentary photography, in that the genre is concerned with depicting real things in the world. The beginnings of activist photography were in 1840 when David Hill and Robert Adamson made a series of calotypes in the small Scots fishing village of Newhaven. People outside of the village would have been unaware of how the people of Newhaven lived prior to the circulation of Hill and Adamson’s pictures. Hill and Adamson sought to inform, but other early photographers saw the opportunity to influence.
In 1877 Street Life in London was published. This report was written by Adolphe Smith and illustrated with the photographs of John Thomson. It directly argued for action to improve the lives of working class Londoners.
In 1887, Jacob Riis began documenting the squalid living conditions of migrant workers in New York. His photographs illustrated How The Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York. When Theodore Roosevelt became governor of New York, Riis was involved in the introduction of significant housing reforms.
Through to the present day, activist photographers continue to bear witness to human rights abuses, ecocide and injustice.
This tradition of activism is where I wish to place my photographic practice. I am particularly concerned about the climate crisis, so that is where I will focus my activity.
The context for my work is not the photographers who are doing exactly the same work as I am. It is those photographers who want their work to inspire change. I can draw inspiration from other photographer activists, I can learn from how they work and what they seek to achieve.
Other activists whose work inspires me include:
Pete Muller – an American photographer whose work focuses on masculinity, human ecology, national identity and conflict.
Phillipe Chancel – Chancel’s aim is to produce an unflinchingly honest portrayal of the world. As the world, under human stewardship, is something of a mess, his work portrays a world that humanity has harmed.
Munem Wasif – Wasif is a native of Bangladesh and works in his own country, documenting the many issues he identifies there.
Project Pressure – A group that commissions art which can be used to inspire and prompt behavioural change with regard to the climate crisis.
Anastasia Samoylova – Since moving to Miami, Samoylova has documented the city’s property boom that continues even as the city starts to disappear into the Atlantic Ocean.
I do not draw on any of the above practitioners aesthetically or in terms of subject matter. I seek to portray my subjects in a way that is appropriate to their surroundings, rather to an aesthetic brief.
It is important to consider what might be considered success. One way of considering success is to assess how closely I am adhering to my intentions. I wrote a personal manifesto for my work and I would consider that promoting this set of ideas would be a successful outcome:
Climate scientists are in almost complete agreement that emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases are causing a climate crisis.
This science is no longer up for debate, it is settled and what is required now is action by governments, business and international organisations to move away from the fossil fuel-based economy which has caused this crisis.
A critical mass of people must decide that change is required and mobilise to achieve this.
Politicians must break their allegiances to big, polluting businesses and put the needs of the people and the planet first.
This manifesto is an attempt to retain focus. Does an activity or project that I undertake help to drive progress in one of these four areas? If it does, that’s progress on a core concern. If not, what are my reasons for doing it? I’m giving myself some lanes in the pool of ideas.
However, photography is all about pictures and the love of pictures. The greatest pictures succeed because of the punch they deliver. It might be a political, aesthetic or emotional punch but it is always recognisable as a punch. So success, the vindication of an aspiration to greatness, should deliver a punch. This made me think of Barthes’s notion of the punctum, but I was wary of that. I wanted something more specific to my own practice. So I started to think in terms of solastalgia.
Solastalgia is a portmanteau of the Latin word solacium (comfort) and the Greek root –algia (pain). It was created by Glenn Albrecht in a 2004 essay to express “the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault”. If my work reflects my own or other peoples’ solastalgia, then I have achieved the punch, the visceral connection that I desire.
So does my current work meet these criteria? To varying degrees, yes, I think it does. My favourite from the portfolio is the silhouetted figure in the shattered structure on the beach. This does have a sense of loss in the face of the elements. Interestingly, that was the favourite with my peers who reviewed my portfolio.
So is my work successful? In parts, yes it is. I also have built a framework to assess what I do in the future and that is a very useful tool.
References to be added