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22 April 2023

On Intimacy and On Mythologies, On Power and On Ruination: Six Projects For Earth Day

22 April 2023 - Written by PhMuseum

Alice Pallot, Yana Wernicke, Seif Kousmate, Emilio Azevedo, Joe Habben, and Geert Goiris' diverse approaches are challenging the environment's representation, brilliantly contributing to the visual discourse around the climate breakdown.

Every year on April 22 since 1970, Earth Day marks the anniversary of the birth of the modern environmental movement, calling for the activation of political action. This March, the IPCC published its sixth climate change report, which is very likely to be the last one of the decade. The highest CO2 concentration in the last two million years has been reached. The level of water has never been rising this fast.

Seen through the lens of image makers, the current climate breakdown poses representational issues, too. How to visualize the slow, though radical change we are experiencing? Can we find ways of visually dealing with urgency and threat going beyond the representation of devastated landscapes?

The six projects below are all somehow broadening the scope of what photography can say about our planet today. More than fifty years after the iconic Blue Marble and Earthrise, the first photographs showing the full Earth as seen from space, we need images that help us reflect on our surroundings. Maybe more than ever, we now look for perspectives that start from very close, rising the voice of situated knowledge. Be it through approaches of speculation, inquiry, or intimacy, be it through material or optical experimentation, these projects are all stretching the boundaries of nature and environmental issues’ representation, while reminding us of the imaginative tools photographic practices can put into action.

On entanglement. Algues Maudites by Alice Pallot

© Alice Pallot
The presence of intensive agriculture pollutants in the coastal waters of Brittany is causing toxic, “cursed” algae to multiplicate, and leave dead landscapes behind. Put in front of the lens, the algae become a filter painting the photographs green. The usually invisible toxicity is here haunting everything we see: these transfigurated landscapes being maybe somehow more truthful than the idyllic, natural scenarios we could see with the naked eye. 

With microscopic particles now coming to the front, and taking all the space, the photographic approach of Alice Pallot brings visual justice to the non-human, and to the way we are deeply entangled with it. It’s an approach of closeness: the H2S gas particles are so close they get stuck between our eyes, and anything outside of ourselves we might try to see.

On intimacy. Companions by Yana Wernicke

© Yana Wernicke

Rosina and Julie save animals from certain death. The way they live with them seems to bear traces of an ancient bond. Something that goes way beyond the tired, objectifying gaze we’ve now been directing at animals for a relatively long time, as John Berger describes in his essay Why Look at Animals?

The same tenderness and intimacy we see in the gestures of the two women and their animal companions, we find in the way Yana Wernicke looks at their relationship. Her photographic gaze cancels the “marginalizing” look Berger elaborates on - it is, instead, a celebration of their centrality, a glorification of care, and of the wonder of an everyday life, almost painful in its striking difference to the animal representations we got used to.

On matter. Waha by Seif Kousmate

© Seif Kousmate

How to represent relentless deterioration? How to picture the oases not as mystical, miraculous spaces, but rather as endangered realities? While documenting a space in transition, Seif Kousmate is asking us to reflect on the broader relationship this change represents - the one between our species and the environment we inhabit and twist.
Dry dates, the dead skin of palm trees, and other organic matter collaborate in the shaping of the image, making them fade, change color, and deteriorate. They are, at a time, images of natural disintegration, photographs of the way we shape our surroundings, and proofs of how central, and increasingly unignorable, the physicality of matter is: in times of a climate catastrophe, imagining clean, unspoiled photographs feels harder and harder. As dirt and invisible agents are now infiltrating their surface, they become part of the image-making process, actively changing its result.

On mythologies. Rondonia by Emilio Azevedo

© Emilio Azevedo

Where does colonization start? The Amazon rainforest’s framing as a distant place, an object in the eye of a subject, and a resource to be extracted is present in the visual documents from a 20th-century expedition aimed at the building of a telegraph line. Today, the same area is the place of the utmost environmental destruction.
It is not only industrial damage, but also interiorized ideologies that can make a place perish, Emilio Azevedo says. What does it take to reshape a visual imaginary? To rebuild a national narrative out of different principles than those who caused its ruin? Emilio Azevedo’s poetic, honest, sensitive images of Rondonia can be seen as a manifesto for the agency of images: in its frightening, damaging aspects, as much as in those that are empowering, and bear the potential for change.

On power. Close of Play by Joe Habben

© Joe Habben

A hashtag: #make our planet great again. A huge, inflatable plastic bear wearing a t-shirt: together is better. An out-of-scale thumb pointing at plastic trees in a model. Huge images of the globe, working as a background for negotiations to take place. There’s a grotesque character to the scenes, characters, and gestures Joe Habben captured at Glasgow’s COP26 climate change conference - it’s the shortcomings of a system. We are not only looking at corporate greenwashing: Habben shows us the precision, and the absurdity, of the aesthetics places of power have. This is what late-stage capitalism, and environmental injustice look like. Paradoxically, these images can say more about climate change than what a burnt landscape seen from above can do: it’s in places like this one that impactful, large-scale decisions are being taken. The way Habben looks at power creates the premises for us to scrutinize it, reducing the distance with something that often feels out of reach.

On ruination. World Without Us by Geert Goiris

© Geert Goiris

What would the world look like after we’re gone for good? World Without Us by Geert Goiris does not linger much on visions of the destruction we’ve created. It’s not about its extension, or gravity, as much as it is about uncanny details. There are large, disquietingly empty spaces. There are objects, ruins from a past: a partially melted sound tape. There are humans, with something inexplicably non-human to them. And there are creatures that seem to live, nevertheless, undisturbed: ladybugs on a rock, a geological structure that appears to have eyes. Goiris’ work shows an atavic need for speculative narratives - and the urge for ones that do not tiredly replicate stereotypes. Ones that can leave space for the unknown, for things impossible to be ever fully grasped.

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Alice Pallot (b. 1995, FR), delves into the links between the sciences developed by human beings and their impact on our constantly changing natural environment through expeditions and research, thereby pinpointing questions and ambiguities intrinsically linked to our time. She exhibited her work in FOMU Antwerp (BE), Camera (IT), Copenhagen Photo Festival (DK), Fotofestiwal Łodz (PL). She won the Roger De Conynck prize, and is part of the FUTURES network. She published three books entitled Land (2016), Himero (2020) and Suillus (2021, republished in 2022), and co-founded the De Anima collective.

Yana Wernicke (b. 1990, DE) is a German photographer. Her most recent work is a portrait of two young women who have established profound relationships with animals and an exploration of the ideas of species loneliness and interspecies relationships. The project was published as a photobook in the spring of 2023 by Loose Joints.

Emilio Azevedo (b. 1987, PL) is a visual artist and photographer, whose work is based on research aimed at establishing the cultural and historical foundations of the ecological crisis that faces our modernity. Started at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Photographie (Arles) and pursued with the support of different European art institutions (such as Musée du quai Branly (Paris), Wiels Center for Contemporary Art (Brussels) and the FOMU (Antwerp), the art and research project he is currently leading focuses on the civilization process that took place in the Brazilian Amazon at the turn of the 20th century.

Seif Kousmate (b. 1988, MAR) is a self-taught photographer who has developed a visual vocabulary between documentary photography and the poetry of fine art photography. He has worked on various visual projects in Africa, including migration, youth, and most recently, the impact of climate change on oases. Kousmate's work has been featured in various publications, festivals and exhibitions around the world.

Joe Habben (UK) is a photographer and filmmaker based between Glasgow and Brighton, UK. Joe’s practice explores environmental and social issues. His projects have documented human intervention, public space, globalisation and the climate crisis. Through his commercial work he’s worked with a range of clients; from grassroots initiatives and charities to slow-fashion brands.

Geert Goiris (b. 1971, BE) Goiris has over twenty years of experience teaching photography. In his work of recent years, Geert Goiris puts the predictive potential of images first. Photographic images are often understood as documents, traces of a past.
He was a guest teacher at diverse places such as the Rietveld Academie, Amsterdam; CEPV Vevey, Switzerland, and had solo exhibitions at FOMU, Antwerp, Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Museum M, Leuven and FOAM, Amsterdam. His work was shown at Manifesta 5, San Sebastian, and in group exhibitions in Belgium, Chile, US, and France.

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