Photography in the Anthropocene

It was a welcome relief to come across pockets of habitat in the Lower Lakes and the Coorong National Park that were  in a healthy condition,  despite the lack of river flow during the Millennium Drought (1997–2009)  in south-eastern Australia.

These low flows  happened within  the proposed  Anthroprocene  period, which is a time when much of the diversity of life on Earth is being lost through human action causing a steady global warming.

This experience foregrounds  the need for photography, as a form of art,  to be more open to the experiences of nature;  and to be part of a rethinking that questions our most basic cultural narratives if  photography  in the 21st century is not to degenerate into  idle chatter.

The  causes for  the ecological devastation  in the Coorong during the Millennium Drought were the reduced freshwater flows from upstream. These, in turn, were  caused by  both the low rainfall during  the drought,  and the over extraction of water for the upstream,  irrigated agricultural industries. As a result, the shallow water in the Coorong become saltier than seawater,  and this diminished the life that previously thrived in the mixture of fresh and saltwater.

The 28-32 Mile Crossing in the Coorong is at the bottom end of  the River Murray,  which  had become  a regulated river  for irrigation water supply between  1910 to 1950.   This was a  period of history in which dams and weirs became powerful symbols of the transformative power of engineering and technology.

Though the Millennium Drought  was a time of  low rainfall,  the  melaleuca  pictured below looked to be in good condition.   It was  growing  on the side of the Old Coorong Rd,   near  the 28-32 Mile Crossing, near  The Granites, and it would be  normally be  overlooked or disregarded.  However, such  a   healthy tree within the  highly stressed Coorong suggests the need to  start thinking about the fate of non-human others in the Murray-Darling Basin:

SACoorongMaleleuca

This part of the Coorong suggests we need to move away from a more simplistic dichotomy of nature versus humans to a photographic  culture that works with a  more nuanced and multilayered narrative.

The 28-32 Mile Crossing is before 42 Mile Crossing as the distance is measured  from the township Kingston that lies south of the Coorong.  The representations of  42 Mile Crossing  assume  the conventional understanding of the ‘natural world’ as  a passive background to human dramas.

It is seen as  a popular spot for fishers, campers and tourists,  as it is one of the few locations within the Coorong National Park providing ready access to the Young Husband Peninsula and the ocean beach without the need of water-craft. This conventional understanding ignores the deep time of earth history within which such human action is situated.  Continue reading

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Landscape loss + nostalgia

One of the frequent responses to the common experience of landscape loss  in Australia’s industrial modernity –eg.,  salt ladened landscapes, dried out wetlands, low flows in our rivers, on-going land clearing and the loss of biodiversity  in Australia—is that of nostalgia,  or a yearning for what has been lost in the  Anthropocene.  The rivers used  to flow with clean water, the wetlands teemed with bird life, there were plenty of fish in the rivers, there was rich  biodiversity etc etc.

What has been lost in this  destruction of nature is  connected to issues of location and place of river communities. Nostalgia involves  a sense of unhappiness with the present, against which the past, or  often, an idyllic  past, is favourably compared. Lewis Bush in his  discontinued Disphotic: Writing on Photography  blog  puts it this way:

Contemporaneously nostalgia has come to describe an emotional response to a memory, typically a positive one of longing for a specific thing or time in the past, still in a way a sort of homesickness for a place once occupied but now impossible to return to.

This response to industrialized landscapes is often characterised  as a ‘defence mechanism’ for those who are uncomfortable with change. Finding comfort in looking back  is seen to  reflect parochial  concerns, which  are often conservative and backward looking. Nostalgia, as a yearning for yesterday,  is seen as  passive and reactive and contains  melancholic ideas and practices. 

SARMGoolwaposts

Yearning and nostalgia are uncomfortable and personal emotions and themes, characterised by bewilderment, darkness and grief  bought on by the loss of home, community and landscape when the rivers stopped flowing.

For many the past in the late 20th,  and increasingly in the early 21st century,   has never looked more attractive and the future more scary. The past, with its rivers boats and flowing rivers   is seen to be  attractive because people find the present state of the rivers in the Murray-Darling Basin upsetting and bewildering.   They question the idea of progress,  namely the view that historical time is a  progressively improvement on the world of  the 19th century.   Continue reading

Point Sturt

I have been invited by Lars Heldmann  to participate in a   project  of selected photographers who are being asked to respond to selected images in the  Godson Collection of the State Library of South Australia.  The project’s working title is called Our Waters,  and it is being driven by Lars Heldmann acting as a de facto curator.  This approach is one way to deal with the vastness and complexity of the Murray-Darling Basin.

It is early days:   the photographers are still to be selected;  no exhibition venues have been selected;  no grants have been applied for; and  no curators selected. It is envisaged that the exhibitions and the associated website would act as a hub for conversations about art, history and  the rivers in the Murray-Darling Basin. One possibility for the first exhibition  is 6 photographers responding to 6 images from the Godson Collection.

Whilst the project gets off the ground I have decided to kick things off by going back through  my archives to look at the images that I’ve made of the River Murray. This is Pt Sturt.

Pt Sturt
Pt Sturt

The Sturt Peninsula  juts out into Lake Alexandrina, which is one of the Lower Lakes near the mouth of the Murray River.  The Ngarrindjeri name for the end of Sturt Peninsula is “Tipping”, which meant “the lips”. This  picture was made in 2008, which was just  before the Millennium Drought broke and prior to the formation of the  Murray-Darling Basin Plan. Continue reading