Saturday, 31 May 2008

The significance of crumbling paint

Going through some of my old work books, looking for scribbles about Robert Frank, I found these close-ups I took of the Berlin wall some years ago. Our class went there together as part of a project when I did my B.A photography course. I was intrigued by how the crumbling paint looked like maps...and I remember having the word remapping on my mind...
It made me think about the borders project and how fascinated I am about maps, borders, geopolitics. On another trip to Berlin I got a brilliant book 'Wall Remnants - Wall Traces' done by the Brandenburg University. I spent some time walking along the traces of the wall, it would be fantastic to re-trace the whole wall. It's amazing how much is still there.

Monday, 26 May 2008

More places along the estuary

Map of Thames Estuary
On Saturday I took the train out to Leigh on Sea and walked through Westcliffe, Southend and Thorpe Bay. Again the light was to bright for my liking but might have got a few good pics. Often I need to spend time walking around exploring and find out what is there and what sort of light would be good and then keep revisiting places. The busy end of Southend, down by the pier really gave me headache, it was load and brash, full of tourists. Moving past and in to the Thorpe Bay, which is really another part of Southend gave me much more inspiration. In my tutorial with John on Friday we spoke about potentially trying to get more engaged contact with the communities. I luckily bumped in to John Clarks of the Southend Beach Hut Owners Association, a very talkative guy who has lived in the area all his life. As well as telling me all about beach huts, how some of them are over a hundred years old, originally in Victorian times they had wheels and were rolled in to the water, eventually the wheels fell off and today's beach huts were born. Some huts sell for as much as £20,000(!) Other stories were about SS Montgomery an American ship that sank in the channel during the war, full of explosives, engineers has to check on the ship every few months and ships has to navigate around it. There is apparently enough explosives to blow up the whole of Southend or at least all the 500 beach huts! It is possible to see the mast sticking up if one goes out there. He also told me about Mulberry Harbour, a floating harbour that was one of many built in secrecy, in the estuary for the D-day landing but this one got broken in half and stuck in the water. It is possible to walk out to it at low tide, A group of teenagers I photographed earlier had described the big piece of concrete as a shipwreck where they like to go, seems to be the thing to do if you are 15 in Southend.

John has so much knowledge about the estuary and seemed genuinely interested in my project, he also knows a lot of people in the community and has offered to put me in touch with some people among others a local fisherman that he thinks can take me out to the sunken ship etc. That would be brilliant, I really hope this will work out! In 1972 John worked on Foulness Island, digging up and dismantling bombs. The land had been used as a dumping ground from the WWII. This operation was due to the governments plans at the time to build an airport on Foulness, this later got scraped when a new government came in to power and only a third of the bombs were cleared. John said he thought this was very sad, since the idea of an airport there would have been perfect, it would not be flying over any houses just straight in from the sea. This is all new to me and I will do some research. Foulness is furthest out in the Thames Estuary on the Essex side, much of it is MOD land (Ministry of Defence) and can not be photographed, one also need permission to walk on much of the land. I really have to get in contact with people in charge and see if there is any possibility at all for photography and if so what locations. I asked John about this and he said it would be difficult but perhaps easier than some years ago. Again he said he might know somebody.... The best thing about doing this kind of photography is that I meet so many interesting people, it is amazing how much you can learn from them, so fascinating.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Canvey Island

I'm currently reading Downriver by Iain Sinclair. He writes beautifully but also somewhat negative about places along the estuary, '...Canvey Island: a gulag of sinking caravans, overlooked by decommissioned storage tanks.' Yet I sense great passion in his writing. Celebrate might be to strong a word but I want to acknowledge these places for what they are, both good and bad. I'm very concerned about representation.... Jackie, a lady I photographed together with her daughter Morgan and friend Kelsey, was very upset about a recent picture in a tabloid of a haggard lady which were suppose to represent the average Canvenite. 'She looked like something out of 'Shameless''(Channel 4 TV-series of a group of people on an estate up to no good), she said. I feel that this is what many journalists and photographers do far to often - reinforce stereotypes without even really looking for anything different.
I guess I'm looking for a kind of beauty in places that often feel forgotten and Sheepey and Canvey inspires me greatly, they are not perfect, streamlined or boring. There is no Starbuck's or sameness in sight, there is room for exploration and imagination. Character and sense of place is on the menu, I feel great love and affection. At the same time I wonder for how long this will last? Places are constantly evolving and changing. In the 1930's Canvey was a thriving holiday resort for Londoners, then fell in to decline much due to cheap travel abroad and easy access to places further a field and now when more and more Londoners are forced to move out of the city due to the high cost of living they might just settle in places like Canvey.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Thames Estuary as a national treasure?

I found a really good program on BBC Radio 4: National Treasures from August last year. They debated the question: Should we spend £500 million on preserving the natural landscape of the Thames Estuary or transforming Stonehenge into a visitor attraction worthy of World Heritage Status? It was all just a theoretical exercises but gave me some good ideas about how investors, politicians and academics think about places and if they are worthy of preservation. (This idea is of course in stark contrast to proposals like Heathrow's third runway in the estuary). The panel argued around historical, emotional, social, and existence value.
Words like melancholy, decay, love of ruin, wilderness, despair came to mind for emotional value. (I'm always desperatley drawn to places of such character).
Problems with access to the estuary was mentioned which can not be understated, it is of course much due to this that it holds its special character. Germain Greer called the estuary the cradle of Britain's industrialisation, one of her many good points I thought. Finally, not to my suprise, Stonehenge scored the higher points.
Other words to think about: mud, intertidal zones, marshland, biodiversity, rising sea levels, changing light, interlocking system, sewage.

Technology frustration

Really gutted I missed most of the Tim Hetherington talk but just couldn't get out of work on such short notice and the quality was to poor on what I did manage to listen in to and I'm half deaf anyway... Technology in so many ways are amazing but sometimes frustration takes over.

Monday, 12 May 2008

Sheppey and the Thames Estuary

I was told Isle of Sheppey is 'forgettable' and would be a waste of my time by someone I know. After a few trips to the island I personally think 'forgotten' would be a better word. Sheppey fascinates me - it is has a special feel to it. It gives a sense of being far away, so it is rather strange to know that London is only about 65 km from there, perhaps it is more of a mental state than about geographical location. In many ways full of contrasts - there is neglect, youth with little to do, lots of rubbish but at the same time friendliness, people with a lot of time on their hands, people walking their dogs, tending to their gardens. It is also a place people retire to, Doris, a lady whom I photographed told me 'It is every Londoners dream to live by the seaside'. Sheppey is her realisation of that dream.

I've been pondering over maps, looking at the rest of the Thames Estuary, there are many small places scattered along and big gaps of empty marshland, much of the area is undeveloped. It all awakens my curiosity and I think it could be a relevant project, especially since more and more attention seem to be given to the plan of putting an airport on a man made island in the Estuary (just outside Sheppey) and there are other ideas too, an article in Sunday Times - 'Take a dip in Dubai-on-Thames', outlines the idea for two man made leisure islands in the estuary including marinas. I don't know about Dubai but sounds like there could be another Sandbanks on the way.
If any of these plans go ahead it will for certain change the places along the estuary forever and would impact on communities and wildlife.

So I am expanding my project to places and land along the Thames Estuary rather than just Sheppey. Photographing very much in the same way, using medium format, available light and mixing landscapes with portraits. Also talking to people, trying to get some good quotes.

I went out to Canvey Island yesterday. The light was really strong and horrible for most of the day but I saw lots of good locations to return to when better light, very exciting. I got some shots of a group of 17-year old girls sunning by the beach using a very graffitied wall as shelter, I thought that made a terrific backdrop. I also met a lady who told me about a man called Joe who lives in a mobile home and builds model railways, there is a track running through his garden. He sounds like the kind of person I want to include, hopefully he will agree to be in a picture. I also got the man running the beach cafe terribly worried that I was from health and safety, I had to keep reassuring him I was not.