Following the Bees: an Exercise in Learning

French photographer Fiona Filipidis conducts a thorough photo analysis of bees and the vital role they play in the environment.

© Fiona Filipidis, from the series To Make a Prairie

It all started from the top of the buildings of Paris, when rows of urban installations popping up on the city rooftops caught the eye of photographer Fiona Filipidis as she drove down the motorways. Her curiosity led her then to Lisbon - as Portugal is one Europe’s main honey exporters - where devoted beekeepers in astronaut-like attire patiently brush the buzzing insects from their honeycombs. In between, she pondered the claim - falsely attributed to the scientific genius of Albert Einstein - that if bees were to die, humans would vanish too. Although Einstein didn’t say that, it is nonetheless true.

Every day, honey bees - these critical plant pollinators - are threatened by pesticides, parasites, climate change, and the loss of flower meadows. If the bee population dwindles, the impacts for other life forms could be fatal. According to a U.N. report, 70% of the crop species that feed 90% of the world’s humans are pollinated by bees; thus, the insect’s extinction could trigger a chain reaction affecting vegetation, fauna and ultimately humans. "I realised that humans have the biggest role in the bees' future," Filipidis says.

© Fiona Filipidis, from the series To Make a Prairie

By tracing the subtle thread that links these resourceful insects back to us, Filipidis began her project To Make a Prairie, a kaleidoscopic homage to bees and their role in nature as well as in human life. The title alludes to a poem by Emily Dickinson, which Filipidis finds fitting for the message she aims to convey: the precarious but vitally necessary nature of the work that bees conduct.

The photobook is divided into six chapters, punctuated by images of a menacing orange sky - Hurricane Ophelia hitting London in the fall of 2017 - a recurring reminder of the threats we face and the frailty of our existence. What disasters can be survived? What if bees were to disappear?

"All these images seem quite pleasant, and soft, and delicate, but then you've got this constant reminder, when you look through the book, of this very pressing, urgent matter," Filipidis says of each chapter’s opening. In a juxtaposition of original and old photographs, quotes, poems, artefacts and images from pop culture such as Queen B’s album cover - the eclectic assemblage of different elements broadens the book’s context, pulling viewers in multiple interesting directions.

© Fiona Filipidis, from the series To Make a Prairie

"If I could make a photography project which shows the beauty of bees… and how intermingled they are with our everyday lives and have been for thousands and thousands of years, then that could spark a bit more interest," Filipidis says.

The chapters range from the hive’s hierarchy, to bees’ origins, to the meticulous work of the beekeepers. Joining them in the Portuguese apiaries, Filipidis wore the bulky beekeeper’s suit while photographing, an experience she said nurtured new feelings of understanding. "I came out of every encounter learning and feeling a different way," Filipidis says. “It’s all very good to do as much research as you can, but until you've actually been there and sensed it and done it, you don't realise what it all entails." After each shoot, she’d return home energised, but mostly moved by the beekeepers’ devotion to the bees, working in tandem with them.

© Fiona Filipidis, from the series To Make a Prairie

"For lack of a better word, they are awesome," she said of the stinging insects. "They put me in a state of awe every time, when I saw, when I learned how they work, how they function." The sense of awe that infuses her work leads to a new awareness of nature, the life of bees, and ultimately human existence as well, all of which is interconnected.

"When you learn about how certain natural mechanisms work, it makes you wonder how everything can be so perfect, and it has been so perfectly made," she says. "That's how I felt, generally. Everything has a purpose, everything is there for a reason."

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Fiona Filipidis is a visual artist working in Paris and London. Her practice is born out of collection, research, and empathic response. In her work she focuses on nature, as well as the private worlds of the everyday. Follow her on PHmuseum and Instagram.

Lucia De Stefani is a multimedia reporter focusing on photography, illustration, culture, and everything teens. She lives between New York and Italy. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

PHM 2018 Women Photographers Grant
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