With photography, I’ve always looked for elements which critically engage other authors or writers. Roland Barthes, in ‘Camera Lucida,’ called fragments in a photograph that engage with you at an intimate level its punctum. Hard to define or identify, these tiny elements often coalesce to form the entire photograph.
A variety of possible elements; clothing, plants, facial features, historical artefacts, light, shadow, literature, scratches even dust found in a photograph could act as your punctum. One of these elements might react with you, as a viewer, because you’ve collected an entire lifetime of experience and memory; which, you could argue, is what makes a photograph of any subject matter engage with you. This is how I approach photography. By decluttering the mind you can be lead by individual belief and, importantly, by instinct.
We drove early, swiftly through the mountains, over bridges, past wooden villages scattered in between grand forests and prehistoric vistas. We are in Ethiopia, en route down to the Danakil Depression. It’s an interesting place, lying at 84 metres below sea level, with blistering heat and a landscape similar to that of Mars. The road to the Danakil had a climate I’ve only encountered once before; ironically in Jersey, during a particularly undecided day in April. The weather and atmosphere was white and icy, the sun was bright and tried to warm the earth; but to no avail. The mist, inert, lay swallowing the island till mid afternoon. It was this bizarre, cold, immovable mist I encountered in Ethiopia. It’s a phenomenon due to the constant searing heat from the Danakil rising up then converging with high altitude; the mist is permanently sustained here.
“Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw,’ that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.”
– Donna Tartt, ‘The Secret History’
Donna Tartt is an author whose work I’ve read widely. Her mentality and writing describes scenes that often transcend the very fabric of poetry. It’s literature I’ve tried to visually depict in the past. As I stopped the car on that misty day in Ethiopia, everything seemed photogenic, so, I had to look for pieces which could make my photograph interesting. I was searching, without really realising, for the punctum of that moment. I saw in the distance a black rift. I was drawn to it initially by the cows meekly grazing by its side. The scene was quite pastoral and idyllic, in a bizarre otherworldly sense. The more I tried different angles, exploring the scene, the more I realised, what I was interested in was the dark chasm running across this landscape. For me that was a depiction of the dark crack running down life as it were, unique to everyone; the black rift reminded me of that passage, it reminded me of my own “morbid longing for the picturesque.”
This may all seem rather exuberant, and what does it have to do with plastic? The honest answer is I’m also exploring a personal reaction to the African continent. But the work goes hand in hand; the repugnant and sad reality of our discoveries requires critical analysis and is informing both documentary and personal work. As we drive south we’ve seen blocked waterways, overflowing landfill sites and people morphed into animalistic scavengers. These sights are the exact juxtaposition of picturesque; it’s like a dark incessant knocking on our door. What I’m reacting to personally, through photography and the RAW Foundation’s harsh realities is the fact we’re at a precipice – an unbearable lightness – time is running out.
We entered Kenya at a very unknown border post called Banya Fort. This required a large amount of searching, but we eventually appeared in Kenya at the northern most tip of the mythical ‘Jade Sea,’ or as maps name it, Lake Turkana. The road was nonexistent, it required following, luckily, another vehicle’s tracks which must have passed a few days earlier. We traversed boulder fields, dried up river beds called luggars, on the constant run from a foreboding dark storm behind. We were genuinely off-grid for six days. It was a sight to behold.
“The Earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there – there you could look at a thing monstrous and free.” Joseph Conrad, ‘Heart of Darkness.’
We pressed on to the Milgis, an area of outstanding natural beauty. We were invited to stay by Helen and Pete, founders of the Milgis Trust. The trust ultimately aims to conserve wildlife, habitat and pastoral people’s way of life. It’s an incredible community perched on the summit of El Kanto Hill. Over the past 20 years, they’ve developed working relationships with the Samburu, Turkana and Rendille tribes. They’ve created a safe drinking water infrastructure, brought conservation to a nomadic area and successfully reintroduced elephant and lion. Visiting the camp was a truly privileged experience.
Whilst staying at the camp, Helen organised around 50 of her scouts to come for an awareness and education talk by the RAW Foundation. This was lead by Melinda Watson, the founder of RAW Foundation and recipient of Earth Champion’s Change Agent Award. I photographed the talk and discussion with the scouts. Melinda spoke of the dangers of plastic, specifically single use bottles, which litters and intoxicates their extremely sensitive environment. We spoke of organic and long lasting solutions; such as traditional Calabash and stainless steel containers. The steel bottles are what we use, and we’ve successfully drunk water out of the tap for the entire trip. No plastic bottles have been bought. The scouts seemed rather concerned and a flurry of questions about what they could do to help arose. They are now keen to bring the awareness home, to their families and tribes. They promised to spread the word as far as the eye could see and then beyond. The Milgis Trust was delighted the RAW Foundation could visit and they are now endeavouring to become plastic free themselves.
Samburu Warriors, Milgis, Kenya
There are many travellers, authors, poets and artists who romanticise Africa on its landscape. I’ve discovered for myself this continent does indeed hold an aura, an ability to produce a renewed sense of self – there’s something in the air.