- photobook essay -
In times of great change we must retreat inwards and tend to ourselves. The contents of this book seek to depict a personal and internal metamorphosis of the human being achieved through internal reflection. Nothing can be changed from the outside-in, or progress from above to below. The currents of change have always and will always operate in the reverse, that is from the inside-out and from the bottom to the top.
There was once a time when humanity’s footprint was the momentary imprint left behind by the surface area of our two bare feet. Today, our footprints have left permanent scars and have flooded nature with artificial and unchanging materials which she cannot absorb or decompose. The most egregious of these materials is the plastic polymer. With a molecular structure of repeating patterns which for all human purposes of scale is ad infinitum, the bonds between the atoms of each plastic monomer are too strong for nature's currents to wear down. Instead, the plastic is broken into fragments that over time get smaller and smaller but their fundamental structure remains plastic. Many of these pieces become smaller than the width of the finest strand of human hair, while many more become microscopic in size. These imperceptible fragments are so small they can penetrate cell membranes and embed within the living tissues of marine organisms. Plankton are the basis of the food chain, so when larger animals eat plankton and larger animals eat those larger animals each level of the food chain is bioaccumulating plastic. And it can’t go anywhere except up, from the bottom to the top of the food chain.
Imperceptible and unabsorbable, these man-made materials are naturally irremovable. This information has been known for a long time; it has been corroborated, validated and authenticated by scientists and academics yet largely ignored by systems of power. A 2019 study observed that the average human digests 50,000 pieces of plastic a year. However, the group of researchers are quick to comment that the true figure is likely to be much higher as only a small number of consumables were analysed for plastic contamination. This number demonstrates the vast contamination of our ecosystem with artificial materials. The oceans cover two thirds of the planet’s surface, they regulate our climate and they are our water source, once the plastic is in the oceans it imperceptibly pervades all aspects of our lives. But microplastic is invisible, we can’t see it. Like a virus, plastic contamination lurks invisibly beyond the realms of human perception. If we breathed the water and the microplastic embedded in our lungs, would we do something about it? Maybe, but don’t forget that gaseous pollutants lurk in the air and humanity does little about that. As I am writing this text, another imperceptible danger is floating in the ocean, but this time it floats in our ocean, the ocean of air and atmosphere. It affects our lungs and it affects them fast, so its effects are felt and they are visible, so we are doing something about this one.
The images and ideas conveyed in this book are the culmination of a long term research project into the nature of the spectacle, its grand narrative of consumption and progression and how they (the spectacles) might be avoided or denied. Since the 1960’s photographic images have been the lubricants for the mechanisms of mass production and consumption, therefore the image as an object has become inseparably tied to economic processes. In seeking a means of spiritual and physical protection from the spectacle I adorned a mask. The mask-object has a long and lustrous history of protection and deception that can be found in almost all cultures, so I imagined mine as a piece of personal protective equipment (PPE) from the reigning ideology. Constructed of found objects and news-papier mâché bound with a mixture of flour and water the mask felt organic. There was no pre-empted design, simply by chance the mask emerged with facial features akin to those of an ancient human skull. But it’s purpose was just an imagining, the mask itself never physically or literally denied the ideology proffered by spectacles; the object was only a representation of this act.
The danger that now dwells in our ocean of air has achieved the unimaginable and toppled the systems of the reigning ideology. The global interconnectedness upon which it so heavily relies has been brought to a some-what standstill. While the economy unravels at its seams, survival has become more important than consumption for the first time since WW2. Society-as-we-knew-it has splintered, is it beyond repair? We do not know, we cannot know, the future as always remains uncertain. These are the present circumstances that have shaped and defined the final outcome of this research project in a way I could never have imagined in the beginning. Willingly forced to return to my childhood home and to live in the company of my family and the presence of the rural countryside I grew up in has afforded me the opportunity to retreat inwards. Removed from 21st century society, for rural areas tend to cling to the past, I have been provided with the time and space to reflect upon and realise personal truths. And these have been born from the place of an individual. No longer attempting to comment on society at large but to reflect and represent the internal, the meaning of the mask began to change. Instead of representing a change in society, it came to represent a change within myself.
So let us return to the current of change. Approximately 2000 years ago, Aristotle wisely concluded that time is the measurement of change. Just as the traces of time mark lines in the trunk of a tree, each consideration and development of this project is a measure of change both within myself as a human being and as an artist. The medium of photography is perfectly suited then, for each image is a physical object of frozen time.
Just as plastic, a virus and pollution cannot be seen, time is yet another imperceptible phenomena. It’s passing is something we observe over hours and years, months and days, but time itself is only ever experienced in the present moment, somewhere between the Now that just was and just is. The passing of time exists only in the traces of your memory, every day and every night your brain is creating, breaking and re-creating synapses. These new synapses will gauge your sensory perceptions and show you the world of tomorrow, but never the world of yesterday. Just as your heart never stops beating, your brain never stops rewiring and it is this magnificent process that allows us to experience time. Time is memory and memory is the trace of time.
The images you have seen and will see as you continue to turn the pages of this book were captured at night-time, under the cover of darkness. Quite by happy coincidence the period in which I began photographing started with the deep-darkness of the new moon and ended with the fertile light of the full moon under which I remember wondering whether I could have read from the pages of a book. In the darkness the camera requires more time in order to capture the imprint of light. There is always some light in the darkness, it is just that our eyes are insensitive to its delicate level; evolution never intended for us to be night walkers. Because of this each image is a compression of time: the passing of 8”, 5”, 4”, 2.5” and 2” seconds is contained within the frame. Nature remains a constant in the equation of these images; she does not experience time. To nature time is, has and always will be eternal. The human being is fraught to experience themselves as fragmented and distorted by the lens of passing time. However, we are gifted to watch ourselves grow, to change, to observe and leave the past behind, through time we can become traces of our former selves. When a caterpillar turns into a butterfly, it sets the seedlings of its next generation. Human beings must learn from the natural systems and undertake metamorphoses of self in order to set the seeds for our children and our grandchildren.
We should not let the systems of human society return to that which they were. Faced with the largest economic recession the world has ever known, ask yourself why are you working so hard, 24/7 and flat out for a future that is proving to be unsustainable and ultimately destructive. We have forgotten that we are human and that to be a human is to be an animal and to be an animal is to live symbiotically in harmony with our mother, nature.
Nature doesn’t need you. She doesn’t need us. Her eternal current will continue regardless of humanity’s future.