“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”.
John Berger, 1984
And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief As Photos (1)
The intention of my practice is to pursue my personal activism through photography. I want to be able to tell stories about the things that matter to me. So 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”.
I see myself in the tradition of people like pioneering activist photographer 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’(2)
My previous portfolios have taken landscape and photojournalist approaches. In this portfolio my intention was to create pictures that reflected on the impact and the fear caused by the extreme weather.
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 climate change 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. 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 conditions will no longer exist. So, as I move into the next phase of the project, the subject matter will be conceptual work which will take a different approach to commenting on the human relationship to water.
This picture is a good representation 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 and the subsequent flooding of the nearby river. The curve of the road is delineated by the bank on the right and the hedgerow on the left. The car has not been driven into a lake for pictorial effect. More than one reviewer of my portfolio thought that there were too many pictures of cars. I did indeed remove some car pictures from the earlier long list. But cars do serve a symbolic value for me. The denoted subject matter of the picture is a car trapped in a flood. The connoted content is disruption and loss. For most people, a car is a valuable asset. This one is ruined. The owner no longer has the use of this vehicle and will face dealing with the insurance company before they are mobile again. Many viewers will associate with the car’s owner and vicariously experience their sense of loss and upheaval.
Several distracting signs have been removed from the roadside to prevent the eye being drawn away from the car and the curve of the road. 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. I do realise that removing aesthetically undesirable elements means that I cannot claim my pictures are documentary images of the floods. Rather, they are subjective interpretations of the scenes I encountered.
This image is more conceptual. It was taken from inside my car, a point of view only available to me, using the rain lashed windscreen as a filter. The identity of the three pedestrians is obscured but we know they are very wet. The bright colours in the background are provided by the shops that line the road.
Ironbridge in Shropshire was badly hit by floods, so I travelled there one weekend. This documentary picture shows the shiny, aluminium flood barrier mimicking the curve of the swollen river. I feel that this twinning of the river and the barrier does additional interest to teh picture.
To create this picture, I visited the Sussex coast during Storm Dennis. The lone figure stands in a shattered structure, symbolising the insecurity of the built environment in the face of natural forces. The figure stares out to sea, contemplating an uncertain future. Whilst the human subject is posed, the setting is a real storm on a highly unstable stretch of coastline.
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 mood of the day to come through in my work and show clearly that one day is not necessarily like another. This is intended to connote the respect for nature which is a philosophical basis to my work.
A key point for me in understanding the context of my practice was reading Photography as Activism by Michelle Bogre (3). 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.
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.
Above is Lewis Hine’s celebrated picture of 12 year old Addie Card in the mill where she worked. Viewers in 1911 would have read Addie’s ragged clothes, bare feet and deformed left arm as signifiers of desperate poverty. 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. (3)
Hine and Riis both made a real difference through their practice. They brought about change that improved people’s lives. This is key to the respect I feel for them.
This tradition of activism is where I am placing my photographic practice. The exhibition I staged last summer was of a similar nature to this portfolio and was presented with a statement of intent that made clear my position on the climate crisis.
I have also documented several Extinction Rebellion (XR) actions and made my pictures available to their Media and Messaging team. These pictures are available to the world’s media in the XR public media archive and I have seen my work in XR internal communications.
Contemporary activist photographers whose work bears witness to human rights abuses, ecocide and injustice continue to inspire me.
Pete Muller is an American photographer whose work does not shy away from the patriarchal systems and toxic masculinity which sustain so much conflict and poor governance. He looks at the causes as well as the effects. (4)
Phillipe Chancel’s aim is to produce an unflinchingly honest portrayal of the world. As the world has suffered terrible despoiling under human stewardship, his work is a valuable documentation of what humanity has done to the planet. (5)
Project Pressure has a mission to visualise the climate crisis and commission art which can be used to inspire and promote progressive behavioural change. They help photographers, like me, who share a concern for the environment to share their work and show the extent of man-made environmental change. (6)
Since moving to Miami, Anastasia Samoylova has documented the city’s property boom that continues even as the city starts to disappear into the Atlantic Ocean. I have friends and family in South Florida and the places she photographs are familiar to me. As is the unrelenting pursuit of the dollar that drives this madness(7).
These photographers produce very diverse work, so do not influence me in one particular direction. Rather it is both comforting and inspiring to know that they are out there, doing this kind of influential work. I feel these are people with whom I could enjoy a drink and a long talk. They are fellow travellers.
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. My intention is to draw attention to the climate crisis and specifically what difference this is making to the part of the world where I live.
The winter floods were abnormal and linked by scientists to the effects of climate change. I have successfully captured pictures of these events and made the connection between these events and the possessions and way of life of people who have been directly affected.
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” (8). 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.
The blue-clad figure tugging their hood against the rain also reflects this mood. The incessant rain is a direct attack, it makes you wet and uncomfortable.
So is my work successful? In parts, yes it is. Crucially, I also have built a framework that reminds me of my intention and what I seek to achieve. I know now that I am an activist and that activists tell stories about what they believe in. And storytellers, as Berger so beautifully puts it in my opening quote, change “the way people read the night sky”.
(1) Berger, J, 1984, and our faces, my heart, brief as photos, London, Bloomsbury Publishing, p 8
(2) Whilst this statement from Hine is widely quoted, I have not been able to find the original source. Examples of its use are as follows:
https://bit.ly/2KcANQj contains content including the quotation from New York Magazine, 14th May 1977
(3) Bogre, M, 2018, Photography As Activism, Abingdon, Routledge
(4) Pete Muller website http://www.petemullerphotography.com/
(5) Philippe Chancel website http://www.philippechancel.com/
(6) Project Pressure website https://www.project-pressure.org/
(7) Anastasia Samoylova https://www.anasamoylova.com/work-1#/floodzone/
(8) US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18027145
(Featured Image from Flood Zone by Anastasia Samoylova)