As Donald Trump signs an executive order to scrap Obama era climate change regulations and Theresa May triggers Article 50 to bring about a long, and highly worrying, period of isolationism for the UK it is abundantly apparent to anyone except the most short-term careerist politicians that, whatever you think about nationalism or patriotism, the planet has a finite amount of resources and if we find a way to share them they'll last longer than if we pursue selfish, protectionist policies and end up squabbling over them.
So Somerset House's Grow/Conserve photography exhibition (officially the Syngenta Photography Award Exhibition) was timely. In more ways than one. Somerset House is a beautiful Neoclassical building and, having been fortunate to visit on a sunny day, the fountains were on the courtyard. I even had an ice cream. What with the friendly staff (including the lady who surveyed me on my departure) and free brochure available to visitors my mood was good on entering. It was still good on exiting but you'd have to be of very hard heart not to be at least a little angry about the damage we're doing to our planet, our only home.
Syngenta AG is a huge Swiss agribusiness that claims to use science and innovative crop solutions to help rescue land from degradation and revitalize rural communities but they've had problems with the Landless Workers' Movement in Brazil so, perhaps, this was a chance to offset that. I don't know. That's too complicated to go in to here. Regarding the exhibition alone they'd done a good job.
The exhibition was broken up into two parts. The first was a selection of the winning, and other podium placed, photographers. The second, and better, half was compartmentalised further into rather dry sounding rooms with names like Sustainable Development, Culture and Community, Rethinking Resources, and Health and Wellbeing. Despite this the photos themselves worked a treat and did a sterling job in conveying the message of the exhibition.
Eric Tomberlin - The Garden of Earthly Delights (2010)
Eric Tomberlin's homage to Hieronymus Bosch was a bit of an outlier, utilising studio trickery to create an image of an overcrowded metropolis, but it was certainly eye catching. Perhaps more so than Yan Wang Preston's series of Chongqing based photographs that, nevertheless, scooped first prize in the 'Professional Commission' competition.
The British-Chinese artist claims to be interested in how landscape photography can challenge myths and reveal hidden complexities behind the surface. To make their environments more suitable for living many expanding Chinese cities, like Chongqing, are buying already mature trees and, instead of growing, are 'building' forests. Tree dealing has become a boom industry yet, perhaps predictably, many of these trees struggle to survive within the urban environments they've been placed in.
Preston's photos show these displaced, odd looking, trees trying to adapt, and being helped, to their new homes in Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. It certainly touches on the themes of both growth and conservation that the judges, an international bunch, were looking for.
Yan Wang Preston - Forest 7 (2011)
Yan Wang Preston - Forest 5 (2011)
She's beaten Lucas Foglia into second place. Lucas is still in his thirties so there's plenty of time for him to have another go. His collection, Frontcountry, portrays those who live in some of the American West's least populated regions. He didn't find life there as harsh as he'd expected (it was easy for people to get a job) but it was more nomadic than he'd imagined. When a mine closes the land becomes scarred, the company moves on, and the workers follow.
While life may not be so tough on the folks living there the animals fared worse. The dog seems ok, the horses not too bad, but for the poor cow things aren't gonna end well.
Lucas Foglia - Casey and Rowdy horse training, 71 Ranch, Deeth, Nevada (2012)
Lucas Foglia - Adam killing a cow, Mortenson family farm, Afton, Wyoming (2010)
Claudia Jaguararibe - Mata Atlantica, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (2010-2014)
Claudia Jaguararibe (bronze in this contest) from Sao Paulo has made beautiful photographs that I didn't fully understand. She's based her work on Brazil's long tradition of artists and scientists working together. Agrobusiness is one of the most important economic growth factors in Brazil and, Jaguararibe thought, the Mata Grosso region, due to belonging to major industries, had not been sufficiently documented. Her attempts to do so, and in some ways preserve a part of its history, have to be viewed as only a qualified success.
3rd place in the 'Open Competition' went to Robin Friend, an Australian-British photographer based here in London, who uses his camera to capture the problematic relationship between humans and nature. That comes, often, in the form of junk. The hope is that his series, Bastard Countryside, helps persuade society to move away from its attitude of disposability. Pictures of crushed up cars, and other detritus, certainly force home the message with some eloquence. Yet I find litterbugs and fly-tippers don't seem to see themselves as the problem. It's always 'the others'.
Robin Friend - VW Graveyard, Chudleigh (2005)
Kenneth O'Halloran - Ouedrago Baba, age 45, in the village of Sika, Kongousi District, Burkina Faso (2015)
Matthew Hamon's conceptual images of post-rural Montanan meat processing struck silver in this category. His photos of animal hunting and torture didn't do a lot for me so I could see why Kenneth O'Halloran beat him to the prize. The Dublin based snapper took a steady eye to subsistence farming in sub-Saharan Africa and, even though his subject has turned away from the camera, he's been imbued with a dignity that not all of those involved in what is, essentially, ethnographic work provide.
Life in rural Burkina Faso is, clearly, a far cry from the huge metropolises many of us now call home. Every second two more people become city dwellers. That means each year 77,000,000 move from rural to urban areas. Over half of the world is now domiciled in a city. Urban sprawl, and population boom (from 1.6 billion to 6.1 billion in the 20th century), has displaced vast areas of farmland and created polluted air and huge slums. Yet these huge cities have also helped millions escape poverty. The challenge, of course, is to build liveable cities that exist in harmony with rural communities.
It's unclear exactly what the photos of Richard Allenby-Pratt and Ryan Koopmans say about that but they certainly help to give a small idea of the huge scale of city life today.
Richard Allenby-Pratt - Zebra, Dubai (2010)
Ryan Koopmans - Water Green Boulevard, Astana, Kazakhstan (2011)
Ryan Koopmans - Interchange, Shanghai, China, (2011)
One death in every nine is now attributed to air pollution and the linemen in Probal Rashid's terrifying, if fascinating, study of life in Dhaka look to be more susceptible to this than most. Rajendra Mohan Pandey shows a different aspect of subcontinental city living. His use of chiaroscuro something Caravaggio would surely be proud of. It's a wonderful picture and, following the geographical studies of Koopmans, reminds us that, despite their sizes, cities are made up of, and belong to (or should do), the people that live in them.
Probal Rashid - Life and Lines, Dhaka, Bangladesh (2014)
Rajendra Mohan Pandey - Living together, Kolkata (2014)
Toby Smith - Saadigat Island, UAE, February 14th (2016)
My very favourite photos in the exhibition are in the room marked 'Conflict and Climate Change'. Here both the beauty, and the cruelty, of humanity and nature are exposed in their starkest forms. The young Bangladeshi girl who stares out at us in Kim Asad's Cost of Climate Change didn't ask to live in an era of forced migration. The Persian lovers embracing in the desert with, seemingly, all their belongings yet nowhere to live didn't want to be displaced from their home by wars, persecution, and weather disasters brought on by the greed of others (and stupid medieval religions).
An average minute sees 84 people leave their homeland to head for another country. Roughly two thirds displaced by flooding or droughts and the remaining third by conflict. Whilst Rupert Murdoch pays vile columnists to suggest we could simply shoot these people dead most of us realise that a more humane, compassionate approach is needed and it could begin, quite simply, by not driving everyfuckingwhere.
Kim Asad - Cost of Climate Change, Bangladesh (2016)
Gohar Dashti - Untitled, Stateless Series, Iran (2014-2015)
Gohar Dashti - Untitled, Stateless Series, Iran (2014-2015)
More than 10% of the planet's population will go to bed hungry tonight yet many countries, including some developing ones, face an obesity epidemic. We need to look not just at how we grow food but how we consume it. I eat a lot of crap so I'm lecturing myself here as much as you.
Guilhem Alandry's wonderfully lit photo of aubergine farming in Bangladesh makes quite a contrast with Tommy Fung's shot of the Hong Kong/Shenzhen border though that picture tells of a contrast itself. The green fields south of the river are in Hong Kong. The built up city north is Shenzhen. You can see how different policies affect the environment as starkly here as anywhere.
Guilhem Alandry - Brinjal in Bangladesh (2015)
Tommy Fung - Untitled, Hong Kong and Shenzhen (2013)
Despite our planet having an abundance of both water and energy 40% of the global population is threatened by water scarcity and billions go without electricity or clean cooking fuels. We have the resources to solve the problems but we need to look at how to harness them.
Sadly, as the current vogue for populism and demagogues continues, and everyone starts bitching and infighting we seem even less likely to address these issues in the foreseeable future and, as things get worse, and more areas are affected, and more people become displaced, the grubby opportunists of the far right will continue to have a steady supply of scapegoats to further their insidious agenda.
It was a beautiful, if painful to think about, exhibition. In that respect it was very much like the world we're living in now. Apposite.
Peter Essick - Amish Farmer, Oxford, Pennsylvania (2011)
Temitope Olanuyi - Ojongbode Area, Oyo, Oyo State, Nigeria (2016)