Acid Coral Template

Tuomas A. Laitinen addresses important questions of ecology and climate change through a series of glass-made structures and installations

A Proposal for an Octopus, series, 2019. Photo: Jussi Tiainen

The octopus has earned a spot as perhaps one of the most visited subject matters in art. From 19th century Japanese erotica through to modern painting classics, the eight-armed sea creature has drawn many artistic practitioners in with its alluring symbology and anthropomorphic influences. Mysterious, intelligent, adaptable and fluid; the tentacled and unpredictable animal represents both wisdom and strategy. For instance, in the recent documentary My Octopus Teacher, we saw the ocean protagonist cover herself with shells to hide from impeding prey, outsmarting the sharks in an instant as she continued to poke her many legs into its gills. So it’s no wonder the octopus has caught the attention of artists and designers over the years, with Tuomas A. Laitinen being the most recent – an artist who works across video, sound, glass, algorithms, plus chemical and microbial processes.

In his most recent body of work Tuomas merges the line between art and science, weaponising materiality and craft to take a crystallised view at the world of ecology – that which is done so through octopus-shaped glass structures and compositions. The work, named Acid coral template, has been presented at the inaugural Helsinki Biennial this year, and he’s also recently been commissioned by Daata to create an AR artwork for the launch of the platform’s AR app – a continuation of what was first commissioned by Daata in 2020. “I had been researching protein crystallography for a few years and started to think about how I could translate this data in my work,” he tells me. “In that video work, I used the protein models to create these very baroque body augmentations for the animated characters in the video.” Simultaneously, at the time of making, Tuomas was working on coral growth simulations and eventually these two worlds collided. “The protein model for this particular coral is based on the Yersinia Pestis (plague) bacterium. So there is a weird fictional metamorphosis woven into the fabric of the work. A bacterium becomes a speculative coral. It’s not really about representing the data as such but making an interpretation, a translation, or a transmutation of it and consequently placing it into new environments through AR.”

PsiZone, 2021. Installation view, Helsinki Biennial

Tuomas grew up in a small Finnish town, a place known the centre point for glass production in Finland and in the 20th century. He started working on his installations as a teenager using junkyard materials and scraps, “so that was my fist touch to art, even though there were no such categories in my mind then,” he says. After a stint in music, Tuomas decided to attend art school and pursued his studies at Finnish Academy of Fine Arts, which is where his love of sound, moving image, 3D animation, light and installation first bloomed; his debut glassworks were created around 10 years ago and “were basically custom lenses for a camera”, while his first augmented reality piece was borne in 2016. Now living in Helsinki, he often works with various artists and researchers to question the role of ecology and production, often employing a profound mix of translucent materials such as glass and chemicals, as well las microbial processes and algorithms. 

For the last five years, Tuomas has turned his focus onto the eight-legged creature and its home: the coral reef. “I’ve been making glass sculptures for octopuses as an attempt to find ways to think with these extraordinary lifeforms and, on a larger scale, ocean ecosystems. The octopus started to feel like a relevant conductor for opening up various ecological questions, providing a tentacular and modular model for organising ideas and artworks: ‘nine minds’ in one body. There is always a core brain there, but the structure allows a certain decentralisation to happen.” In a wider context, Tuomas strives to question ecology but also to touch upon the various mythologies that are attached to it, “and ideas coming from processes of knowledge production.” He adds: “And in some way, an element of cli-fi and sci-fi is present in the entanglements of my work – especially climate fiction, where the weather or the ecosystem is often seen as a protagonist. The current path in my work started in 2010 when I discovered some key texts from feminist new materialist theorists. That moment presented a major shift in perspective, and it is still affecting a lot of my work.”

Haemocyanin, 2019. Still from the video

And now, when thinking about the relationship between ecology and sustainability, it’s universally thought of as a delicate and necessary relationship. Conserving the earth’s waters, soil and ecosystem is vital in order to remain harmonious with the environment and the incoming – or better yet the present – affects of climate change. Tuomas’ work not only proves the impact of art when it comes to raising awareness of climate change, but that it’s a an aesthetic reminder of how fragile the natural world can be, where with just a shudder, slap or bash it can break it into tiny fragments. 

“For me, the idea of ecology is something that emerges from being sensitive to processes of mutual coexistence,” he explains. “When I think of ecology, I often come back to the notion of overlapping symbiotic processes and questions of biodiversity. At the level of making art, it means that individual works (like this coral reef) emerge out of an extensive world building or thought process rather than clearly defined project boundaries. A certain bundle of actions and reactions allows a specific outcome or a life form to appear, and I think that this is a sort of a parable of an ecological process. Feminist theorist Deboleena Roy talks about this notion of ‘feeling around for the organism’ in her book Molecular Feminism, and it’s been one of the important reminders on how to look for kinship with other-than-human lifeforms. And then, on another scale, as a citizen concerned with environmental issues, I am trying to find ways to support youth climate actions, but on an artistic level, it’s all about these subtle differences and tentative approaches.

It seems to me that understanding different scales and the resulting perspective shifts are quite crucial tools in relation to thinking about ecological transformations.”

A Proposal for an Octopus, series, 2019. Photo: Jussi Tiainen

Protean Sap, 2020. Stills from the video

Rafael Kouto

The designer and label founder uses upcycling as a sustainable alternative to the current fashion system

What will the future hold for sustainable fashion? With Glasgow’s COP26 prompting goals and recommendations for a more environmentally conscious world, now has never been more crucial to reassess our relationship with the planet – and our clothing. When it comes to the fashion industry, there’s much to be learnt and adopted in order to reduce the impact it has on the environment. This includes net-zero emissions by 2050 latest, to waste elimination and erasing the global supply chains – not to mention increasing education of how to better address the climate emergency through manufacturing and more conscious and sustainable business models.

The anticipation for change is heartfelt across the globe, but now, perhaps it’s time to shine light on the industry folk who are already doing their bit. Like Rafael Kouto, a fashion designer who launched his own avant-garde fashion label with the environment in mind. Conceived with upcycling at its core, the label of the same name aims to tackle textile waste, dead stock and other materials in the creative and production lifecycle. “The goal since the beginning has been about cultivating an uncompromised approach to sustainability as it exclusively uses the technique of pre and post-consumer upcycling to create new clothes and accessories,” he tells me.

Rafael grew up on the Italian side of Switzerland in Ticino to a Togolese father and Swiss mother. He studied fashion design at FHNW-HGK in Basel, followed by an MA in fashion matters from the Sandberg Institut in Amsterdam. From working at Alexander McQueen to Maison Martin Margiela, Carven and Ethical Fashion Initiative, he garnered the necessary experience to excel in his profession. Equally, these past roles enlightened an alternative fashion system and proved that a more sustainable and viable option was possible; this is the moment he decided to focus his practice on upcycling and sustainable strategies, “with a particular focus on open source and craftsmanship,” he says. 

In 2017, Rafael therefore decided to launch is own fashion brand, which has now gone on to win numerous awards such as the Swiss Design Awards in the Fashion & Textile category for both 2018 and 2019 (he was also the finalist in 2020), plus the Gerbert Ambiente Design Preis 2020 and 2021. To date, he’s also been published in the pages of magazines such as Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Dazed. He also applies his knowledge and know-how to a series of upcycling workshops in collaboration with various institutions, alongside teaching as an associate professor in Fashion Design at the IUAV in Venice. 

Throughout all of Rafael Kouto’s output, garments are construed with utmost credibility to materiality, source and process. Amassing in timeless collections abound with pattern and colour, everything is created in Switzerland through the upcycling of existing dead stock garments or fabrics, “with different traditional couture techniques as crochet, screen printing and knitting,” he says. The result of which is a consciously designed label replete with bespoke clothings for the wearer, bound in a post-modern blend of tie-dye, 70s swirls and traditional African prints. “The collections have a hybrid aesthetic between African and the West, therefore I envision the Afro descendants community embodying those values and all the loves of the aesthetic of course.”

Rafael’s approach to fashion design and manufacturing is commendable. The industry – and our planet – is so awash with garments that they’re bursting at the seams of landfills and our wardrobes. There’s simply too much in the world and, along with more sustainable business practices, our consumer habits need to adapt. “With the brand, we are contributing on a small scale, but I think that the most important part is about proving that a sustainable alternative to the current system is possible and to engage the users through upcycling workshops and other activities into the creative and production process,” explains Rafael.

So what does Rafael aspire for the future? “My hope is that fashion will head into a more sustainable, local, social, ethical and community direction,” he says. “I think that idea of expanding as the biggest fashion houses and bands will be replaced by small scale and niche businesses. In this case, I think the mind set of the industry still needs to change and not be based on a constant need to consume compulsively. But, it’s something that has to change also from the brands’ perspective.”

Solai

Founded by Sarah Krause and Sarah Seb, the sustainable fashion brand uses soil regeneration to combat climate change 

Photography by The Earth Issue

The thoughts of fashion becoming fully sustainable has left many feeling hopeless, uninspired or drained by the constant disappointment of the industry. Not only are brands not doing enough in terms of curbing the warming climate, but consumers are left slightly bemused as to the active steps they should be taking – thrifting, buying less, choosing consciously and buying from conscious brands all seem like reasonable guidelines. But what does it really mean for a brand to be sustainable? And is our trust dwindling?

Helping to rebuild confidence is Sarah Krause, a Londoner with an Austrian and Mexican heritage. She set up Solai alongside Sarah Seb, fashion designer and creative director, as a response to the increasing pressures on the planet. Left feeling “disheartened” by the fashion industry, there remained a glimmer of excitement as she noticed the influx of sustainable practices coming into the fore. “I wanted to see clothing on the market that was creative and modern whilst also being ethnically made and genuinely good for the planet,” she shares. “Ultimately though, I wanted to go a step beyond and create clothing that was not just sustainable, but actively climate-beneficial.” 

Photography by The Earth Issue

To address this, Sarah turned her focus towards soil regeneration. Perhaps a term that some may not be familiar with, regenerative farming looks at exhausted soil, and is the solution for creating healthy ecology and, among other things, helps to reverse the effects of climate change. By definition, to regenerate means to regrow or be renewed; so think of the clothing lifecycle in this sense as being continuous and mindful of damage and restoration. “If we could work with regenerative farmers to grow our clothing fibres, we would play a role in reviving degraded lands and creating a carbon sink in the soil,” she says. “This approach to land management has proven to be one of the most effective ways of combating climate change and, to me, there was a clear interesting with the fashion industry. The idea was simple, but incredibly powerful.”

Solai therefore partners with a collective of farmers and artisans in Erode, Tamil Nadu, that of which had “successfully revitalised” acres of once degraded lands through regenerative agriculture and “indigenous wisdom”. The proof is in the output, and Solai’s collections since birth have shown the benefits of tech and conscious sourcing. By 2022, for instance, the brand will make the majority of its clothing carbon negative, derived from regeneratively grown cotton. “The remainder will be made from pre and post-consumer recycled materials, including cotton and wool, so that we can keep existing fabrics out of the waste stream and save ample natural resources in the process,” says Sarah. A recent product in the works, for example, is the “very first photosynthetic top”, which translates to a coating which “captures carbon” and “releases oxygen” while being used. Like something from a dystopian future, perhaps a photosynthetic garment is hard to comprehend, yet Solai are making it a reality.

Photography by The Earth Issue

Besides the somewhat biophillic sounding clothing design, Solai has also recently launched its Revival and Eco Collection, shot and produced by the environmentally conscious agency The Earth Issue, headed up by Elena Cremona and Isabelle Landicho. Captured amongst the Italiante Glasshouse and Tea Garden in the Ramsgate area, the collection presents soft silhouettes, intricate embroidery and mossy undertones – crafted from tencel, linen and sustainably farmed organic cotton, plus naturally dyed colour palettes drawn from annatto seeds. It’s type of clothing that doesn’t adhere to any outdated stereotypes of what sustainable clothing may look like. 

“Although seeing a constant barrage of greenwashing can be demoralising at times, overall I’m hopeful for the future of the fashion industry,” says Sarah of her hopes for the future. “I remember even a few short years ago, so few people were talking about sustainability in fashion and I’d have a hard time trying to get people interested in the topic. But now, I think it’s increasingly on people’s radar and I’ve seen a genuine shift in attitude, with greater commitments to make better, more conscious choices. Crucially, I think fast fashion brands have to majorly scale down their production and put some of their vast marketing budgets into the hands of their labourers. It’ll be interesting to see if people and planet prevail over hefty profit margins!”

Photography by The Earth Issue
Photography by The Earth Issue

The Same Sea

Port takes a trip to the Finnish island of Vallisaari for the Helsinki Biennial 2021

©Matti Pyykko, Helsinki Biennial

A group of 330 islands conjugate around the coastline of Helsinki, establishing an untrammelled and easy getaway from the humdrum of city life. It’s normal for locals to boat around here, whether that’s in lieu of the sauna, work or heading home from the mainland. Life in the Finnish capital feels serene, and the calm streets of the more urban environments – free from any queues – only solidifies this as a place where happiness, nature and the environment matter above anything else. 

While leaving the port of Helsinki on a refreshingly crisp day – the locals explained it was unusually cold for the time of year – that’s when I first caught sight of the many tiny islands, most of which are decorated with a wooden hut or left untamed and completely wild. Some are homes, others are summer houses or places to soak up the heat of the sauna. Then there’s the rocks, poking out of the water with abnormally smooth edges; they sink into the sea bed with little effort, windswept and altered by the tectonic shifts of the surface below. It took a mere 20 minutes to arrive at our destination of Vallisaari, an enchanting island and home of the Helsinki Biennial – an event presented by Helsinki Art Museum (HAM), directed by Maija Tanninen-Mattila, and curated by Pirkko Siitari and Taru Tappola.

Making its debut on the island with 41 artists from Finland and across the globe, the biennial’s new location is a land that’s diverse and rich in its formation. Few people could have entered Vallisaari a handful of years ago, due to it being used as a military base for the Russian Army – the remnants of which are still astonishingly present today. With a title of The Same Sea, the works involved in the biennial’s festivities reflect on the island’s history, as well as the interconnectedness and dependence that the world has on its oceans. With the climate at the fore, this is highlighted immediately as you board the island, where visitors are stunned by the confrontational work of Finnish artist Jaakko Niemelä’s Quay 6 (2021) a large, red structure that cups the shore line as it explicitly denotes the impending threat of rising sea levels. Below, I round up a few key highlights from the event, consisting of sculpture, sound and installation that each reflect on our climate emergency. 

Jaakko Niemelä: Quay 6, 2021 ©Maija Toivanen/HAM/Helsinki Biennial 2021

Jaakko Niemelä: Quay 6 (2021)

Designed as the island’s greeting, Jaakko’s installation has been construed of scaffolding, painted wood structures, water pipe and pumps. Commenting on the drastic effects of climate change and how the rising sea levels will greatly affect our lands and civilisation, the alarming piece directs its focus onto the melting of Greenland’s northern ice sheet; if it were to disappear in entirely, then sea levels will rise to six metres – the height of the structure.

Teemu Lehmusruusu: House of Polypores, 2021 ©Maija Toivanen/HAM/Helsinki Biennial 2021

Teemu Lehmusruusu: House of Polypores (2021)

A hybrid of natural processes, research and sound, the Helsinki-based artist’s installation is given anthropomorphic qualities as it listens to decaying trees before converting the noise into music. The work is likened to an instrument made of soil, and visitors are invited to touch and place their ears onto the large tubular structures to listen to its deep and vibrating hum. There are four structures in total, each of which is crafted from mushrooms, electronics and decaying wood. 

Margaret & Christine Wertheim and the Institute For Figuring: Helsinki Satellite Reef, 2021 ©Maija Toivanen/HAM/Helsinki Biennial 2021

Margaret & Christine Wetheim: Crochet Coral Reef, The Helsinki Satellite Reef (2021)

The world’s coral reefs are depleting, suffering greatly from pollution and heat exhaustion as a result of climate change. This handmade crochet piece, crafted by two LA-based sisters, is a passionate response to the matter; it reflects on the long process of building the sculptures as well as the lack of time that animals (and the reefs) have on our planet. The project has travelled to New York, London, Riga and Abu Dhabi in engaging with more than 10,000 participants; the sisters will also work with local Finnish communities to crochet a reef in Helsinki.

Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller: FOREST (for a thousand years…), 2012 ©Maija Toivanen/HAM/Helsinki Biennial 2021

Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller: Forest (for a thousand years…) (2021) 

In a calming corner of the island’s woodland, an immersive sound installation encourages its visitors to perch on tree stumps as they listen to various sounds: aircrafts flying above, birds, explosions and choir song. The Canadian artists’ work comments on the sounds that a forest will hear in a lifetime and, in this case, the different points in history for Vallisaar. Its listeners are exposed to yelling, screaming and gun fire, but equally they are connected to the trees around them, personifying nature as a delicate and fragile entity. 

Mango Season

Andrea Hernández Briceño, who’s part of this year’s Latin American Foto Festival, uses her medium to raise awareness of food insecurity in Venezuela

Alfred Flores, 5, holds a bunch of quenettes in Patanemo, Venezuela, on July 17, 2020. “He’s a demon”, everyone says. This just means that he’s a restless kid, not that he’s possessed by the devil or something. His family lives from the land, since they don’t earn enough to buy food in a supermarket. They trade what they hunt and grow with other people from the area. When he was born, life was different. This image is part of the Mango Season chapter of the project The Nature That Inhabits Us with the collective Ayün Fotógrafas. ©Andrea Hernández Briceño / Emergency Fund for Journalists by the National Geographic Society.

Launching this month is the fourth edition of the annual Latin American Foto Festival, hosted by The Bronx Documentary Centre and featuring large-scale photographs throughout the Melrose community. Within, and available to view online, the festival sheds light on a collection of notable image-makers, including Venezuelan photographers Andrea Hernández Briceño and Rodrigo Abd. Both of whom reflect on humanity’s relationship with nature, particularly focusing on the country’s fragility with oil industry, economic decline and the climate. Other photographers involved are Florence Goupil, Cristóbal Victor Peña, Pablo E. Piovano, Victoria Razo and Carlos Saavegdra.

Andrea, in particular, is a visual storyteller based in Caracas who’s “interested in many things, but especially in everything that touches the social sphere, migration and women’s issues.” After graduating from a Mass Communications major with a specialism in journalism, she continued her education at the International Centre of Photography in New York with a scholarship in Visual Journalism and Documentary Program. After which she decided to return to Venezuela, kicking off her career in the arts and forming part of the collective of women photographers united by Latin America, named Ayün Fotógrafas.

While back in Venezuela, Andrea started work on a photography project entitled Mango Season – delving into the annual dry season in which fruits begin to fall from the trees in all their sweet and generous abundance. Mango season, for many in the country, is a lifeline, and The United Nations’ World Food Program has reported that one-third of Venezuelans are suffering from food insecurity. Coupled with the pandemic and oil shortages, the country is in crisis. Below, I chat to Andrea to find out more about her work and what she hopes to achieve through her colourful and impactful imagery.

A working horse bites its tail during a break from carrying cocoa beans in a farm in Patanemo, Venezuela, on July 16, 2020. It is owned by the Flores family. They live from the land, since they don’t earn enough to buy food in a supermarket. They trade what they hunt and grow with other people from the area. This image is part of the Mango Season chapter of the project The Nature That Inhabits Us with the collective Ayün Fotógrafas. ©Andrea Hernández Briceño / Emergency Fund for Journalists by the National Geographic Society.

What’s your ethos as a photographer, and what stories do you strive to tell?

The stories that move me the most are the one’s where I can clearly convey the dignity of the people that I’m portraying. I believe that this connects the audience to the people portrayed and feel very satisfied when I think I’ve achieved it.

I’m a storyteller and one of the biggest and most transversal stories now is food insecurity. It affects more than 90% of Venezuelans. 

Can you give some more context into the mango season in Venezuela, how is it celebrated?

The mango season lasts about four months and during this time, people have a little bit of food guaranteed. It is not exactly celebrated because we used to think of the mango season as a problem: when they fell, they could break a windshield or dent the hood of a car, they also rotted on the floor and brought flies and disease. But today, its meaning is changing to something good. They don’t rot anymore on the floor because there’s always someone that picks them up.

Luis Alfredo Flores, 11, poses for a portrait in a cocoa farm in Patanemo, Venezuela, on July 16, 2020. This land is worked by his family. They live from it, since they don’t earn enough to buy food in a supermarket. They trade what they hunt and grow with other people from the area. This image is part of the Mango Season chapter of the project The Nature That Inhabits Us with the collective Ayün Fotógrafas. ©Andrea Hernández Briceño / Emergency Fund for Journalists by the National Geographic Society.

How has mango season changed over time, has it been affected by climate change and the pandemic?

Climate change hasn’t affected the mango season very much. These trees actually bear fruit during the dry season.

For the last six years, the mango season has changed its meaning into something good because of the social, political and economic crisis. So when the pandemic began, it just felt as if another element was added to the whirlwind of terrible living conditions (we also have fuel shortages now, ironically in an oil producing country). But it shifted my perspective and made me think of a different way to make this abstract story into something visual: it made me look for moments that showed the beauty, strong will and dignity of Venezuelans in this adverse situation.

Do you have any personal anecdotes or stories to share about mango season?

At the beginning of the pandemic, everything stopped. It felt as if we were suspended in the air. There was so much free time. So I went almost every day at my parents house. They have a big backyard with mango trees and they had just put some seeds for grass. I talked a lot with my dad; about love, family and expectations. We sat there drinking coffee or something stronger in the afternoon, watching the grass grow. Literally.

The Choroni cemetery in Venezuela, on January 30, 2021. This photograph (a damaged negative, a happy accident) This image is part of the Mango Season chapter of the project The Nature That Inhabits Us with the collective Ayün Fotógrafas. ©Andrea Hernández Briceño / Emergency Fund for Journalists by the National Geographic Society.

In terms of your imagery, from what I’ve gathered you’ve shot in quite a colourful and joyous manner – which is a contrast to the important topics addressed. Is this intentional, perhaps to make harsher topics more digestible?

The collective imagery of Venezuela is quite different to this body of work. My country is almost always portrayed as a sad, miserable place because there is a crisis going on. I’ve also added to this imagery because it is real, necessary and important for our history. But I also think that it is essential to show the in-between moments of calm, joy and connection. It is a different way to portray our humanity. I think it makes the audience feel a little bit closer to us because they can see themselves in the magic of everyday life and nature.

As your work’s now part of the Latin American Foto Festival, what do you hope to achieve? What can the audience learn about Venezuela, nature and the environment?

Being part of this festival has been a dream of mine since I came four years ago. I thought it was an amazing way to bring the power of photography into a community. With this work I hope to broaden the horizons of the people that look at Mango Season. I wish to make it easier to recognise the humanity in others, even if they are in far away places. And I also hope to bring the people that I photographed In Caracas, Patanemo, Choroní, San Antonio de Los Altos and Chuspa closer to the people in The Bronx and the US. It’s just a dream, but I think it can come true because my dream of exhibiting at this festival came true.

View from the highest mountaintop in Choroni, Venezuela, on January 30, 2021. This image is part of the Mango Season chapter of the project The Nature That Inhabits Us with the collective Ayün Fotógrafas. ©Andrea Hernández Briceño / Emergency Fund for Journalists by the National Geographic Society.
A girl straightens her little sister’s unicorn hat in Galipan, Venezuela, on October 4, 2020. This image is part of the Mango Season chapter of the project The Nature That Inhabits Us with the collective Ayün Fotógrafas. ©Andrea Hernández Briceño / Emergency Fund for Journalists by the National Geographic Society.
A fisherman sits on the “malecón” in Choroní, Venezuela, on January 31, 2021. This image is part of the Mango Season chapter of the project The Nature That Inhabits Us with the collective Ayün Fotógrafas. ©Andrea Hernández Briceño / Emergency Fund for Journalists by the National Geographic Society

Lutfi Janania

The Honduran-born botanical artist creates objects and sculptures coined from the natural world

The Central American country of Honduras is rich in flora. So immense that it runs miles, canopied amongst mangroves, cloud forests and long lines of coast stretching across the Caribbean Sea, to the north, south and Pacific Ocean. It’s marked by high and rainy mountainous slopes of the country’s highlands, dense in oak-pine forests and delicious woodlands that spreads for valleys upon valleys. Yet despite its vast occupancy of luscious lands and lively fauna that inhabit it, Honduras has also undergone some dramatic environmentalist issues. This includes the loss of soil fertility and soil erosion, plus the depletion of forests where trees have been harvested for lumber, firewood and land. Its fragility is only increasing, but it’s also these very pines, leafs and flowers that serve as a delectable backdrop and inspiration for one particular artist working today, Lutfi Janania.

Lutfi is a Honduran botanical artist who was raised amongst the rainforest and mountains of San Pedro Sula. After emigrating to New York City, the artist was in search of a new utopia – one comparatively different to the green facades of his upbringing. And, in doing so, he started working in the fashion industry whereby he learned about construction, colour and texture; the key elements to his work now. A few design roles later, and he finally ventured out on his own as a stylist, working on editorials and employing the use of flowers within the backdrops and more subtle accents of the shoots. This is the moment when he realised he’d found his utopia, or better yet his “passion for creating fantasy through experiences that could be harnessed through botanical design,” he tells me. Naturally, this led to the launch of his own design studio, Rosalila, during which he works with botanicals to build objects, sculptures and installations.

Corallia. Shot by: Maksim Axelrod

“I live for the idea of creating a fantasy, transforming a dream into reality,” he continues, noting how this was fully harnessed once he’d moved to the USA. “I imagine it as materialising an enchanting and otherworldly environment and the creatures that live in it.” Through freshly cut tropical plants used in installations through to various assortments of trimmings and flowers, Rosalia is indeed a “fun, flirty, exotic yet very elegant” outlet for his goals and view of the world. “Think of that sensation when taking in the lively rays of sun in the tropical beaches of Honduras while holding a delicious spicy margarita in your hand.”

Lutfi’s reasons for venturing into the field of botanicals stems wholly from his past. His familial home, for instance, is located on a nature preserve, built by his grandfather amongst the wild forest. Describing the environment as being “literally Jurassic in size”, Lutfi had the entire ecosystem at his fingertips. “The trees tower over my house and provide habitat for a variety of tropical birds and giant variegated monsteras, and other plants which climb and drape all over their entirety. Coming of age in such company really shaped my understanding of colour texture and light.”

The typical compositions of a forest tend to be centralised, as the plants reach for the light in their journey to photosynthesise. Lutfi’s work, however, completely defies the laws of gravity, and of the rainforest for that matter. He relies steadily on light, weight, balance and, of course, gravity, to stretch and spread his pieces to achieve questionable angles. Reaching branches are paired with dried florals, “which seem to simultaneously bloom and weep”, while curved woods and obscure silhouettes are formed through the skill of finding stability within his striking sculpture pieces. It’s an art form in itself.

Looking inwards, and beyond the outer layer of wildness and beauty, you’ll notice how Lutfi’s structures are more than just a display of expansive nature. He picks his materials depending on the stories that they speak, especially those that tell tales of their homelands. “And because of my upbringing in the bioreserve of Honduras, my relationship and experiences with the natural world have led my inspiration to be often rooted in nature,” he explains, weaponising both permanent and sustainable objects in order to reach the studio’s environmentally conscious goals. “At Rosalila, we have a conscious practice; we don’t believe in a wasteful way of designing. We repurpose our materials, pushing their limits and boundaries.” 

Leafy Sea Dragon. Shot by: Leon Hernandez

The Leafy Sea Dragon sculpture embodies this entirely, as its’ construed of hand-preserved botanicals, manzanita wood branches and crystals. “The piece explores negative space, grandeur and fantasy with an emotional connection,” adds Lutfi, who collaborated with a family-owned fabricator in Queens to create the Italian rainforest marble base, and a Brooklyn-based metalworker in Brooklyn to weld the brand stand, before adding in the botanical work crafted by the studio. It’s an immeasurable piece with strands and spikes alluding to the ever-growing quality of nature; punches of pinks are tossed amongst the desolate, earthy tones of the environment, causing a fiery juxtaposition of fertility and sterility that plausibly takes a stand against the dwindling lands of the rainforest.

All of Lutfi’s pieces encompass a myriad of materials, be it marble, quartz, brass, manzanilla wood, curly vines and hand-preserved botanicals. And through the marriage of the man-made and natural, his pieces are greatly provocative. “My desire is to convey emotions, feelings and sensations and the dualities in them,” he shares on a final note about the work’s impact. “When compiled together, these vignettes with crooked leaves generate sorrow, curiosity, anticipation and longing. In stirring such emotions, the environment begins to take shape and the life within the work becomes evident. The dried, dehydrated material is not just preserved, it’s persevering and actively creating. What appears to be dead is very much alive.”

Portrait in front of sculpture. Shot by: Ricardo Rivera
The Mirror. Housed by: @Ashya.co. Shot by: @equatorproductions
Corallia. Shot by: Maksim Axelrod

Have You Ever Seen a River Stop?

Amazonian fires, dams and the occupation of indigenous land; Barbican Centre’s new series of films looks at climate justice in Brazil

The river is rich in symbolism. It denotes nature, just as much as it suffuses the landscape with moisture, hydrating the soil to bring growth, food, air and life. But in equal parts, the river represents the manmade, and the lengths in which humankind will drain the organic resource to manipulate, guide and provide water to its growing population. And in the case of the climate emergency, the river is perceived as a goldmine. Many are without adequate water supplies and the world is becoming ever-more thirsty. Wild fires are increasing, droughts are more frequent and the reliance on our rivers is becoming imperious. 

This is a global situation, but one that’s particularly prevalent in Brazil – a topic that’s explored in a new series of short films hosted by London’s Barbican Centre, titled Have You Ever Seen a River Stop? Brought in conjunction with an exhibition, Claudia Andujar: The Yanomami Struggle – a show dedicated to the work, photography and activism of the Brazilian artist who defended the territory of the Yanomami, one of Brazil’s largest indigenous peoples, from illegal gold mining – the film series considers the problems of Brazil’s attempt to modernise, and the impact this has had on its civilians. Think dams, highway constructs, infrastructures and more, all of which are perceived through the lens of contemporary art and in films titled YWY, a androide by Pedro Neves Marques; A Gente Rio , Carolina Caycedo; Equilíbrio and Yawar by Olinda Muniz Wenderley.

“It is not difficult to imagine why Brazil comes to mind when we discuss climate justice,” explains Francesca Cavallo, researcher, writer, curator, and organiser behind the event. “The fires in the Amazon region, the recent disputes around the occupation of indigenous land, the enormous economic interest that international banks and corporations have in the country, and Bolosnaro’s handling of it all are among the most shocking examples of how climate change is not a thing of the future, but something we should deal with now.”

Indeed provoking change, the event shifts its focus onto those who are directly affected by climate change in Brazil; it’s a welcomed turn, “especially if we think that what we mostly hear from public figures are top-down, techno-modernist solutions,” adds Francesca. “These approaches do not consider that it’s the affected people, indigenous or not, that should decide how change should happen.”

Additionally, those behind Have You Ever Seen a River Stop? wanted to examine how these topics of environmental disasters in Brazil could be brought outside the usual spheres of protest, and instead mobilise the power of art and cultural institutions to reach a wider audience, including those “that are not those already ‘converted’.” This is achieved through working with London’s Barbican, and it gives what Francesca describes as “another important layer” – brought into light through discussions contextualised in Claudia Aundujar’s work and exhibition. “Indigenous people are taking ownership of media tools and of the narratives that, for too long, white people have been telling about them.” says Francesca. “These voices are important if we want to re-asses how we can live tougher on a planet that is warming up.”

Beforehand, as phrased by Francesca, people used to talk of “natural disasters”, yet in the case of the Anthropocene – a unit of geological time used to describe the recent period in Earth’s history wherein humans started to have significant impact – these disasters are never just “natural”. They’re man-made and they’re devastating. As such, the films address the “factual, political, the imaginative and the spiritual”, showcasing different moods and sentiments, rather than the typical documentary manner of things.

Carolina Cyacedo’s film A Gente Rio, for example, indirectly discusses a one of the worst environmental disasters in Brazil caused by the mining industry, whilst showing how livelihoods depend on the river. “The collapse in 2015 of the Samarco dam destroyed and polluted the Rio Doce’s region with poisonous minerals,” says Francesca. “For the post-show discussion, and thanks to Carolina’s fascination (who also renounced her screening fee in favour of the organisation), we were able to invite MUB, the Movement of People affected by Dams, to talk both about their issues and the collaboration with Carolina. In this case, it was terrific to ask the activists themselves what they got from this collaboration. Sometimes people pretend a bit too much from artists that engage with these issues; artists are always prone to criticism for exploiting other people’s tragedies.”

Other works analyse the more science fiction, like Pedo Neves Marques YWY a androide, as the film navigates a plantation of transgenic crops and an Android, played by indigenous activist Zahy Guajajara, talks to the plants about seed sterility and reproductive rights. “The long close-ups on Zahy’s face, the proximity they create between the viewer and the android make a supposed fiction all too familiar if one thinks of how transgenic seeds have been imposed by international corporations, such as Monsanto, across South America and the world,” Francesca explains. While Kaapora and Equilibrio, two interconnected films by Olina Muniz Wanderley, are seen as a reckoning of the filmmaker’s identity as an indigenous woman, “as she becomes inhabited or possessed by this spirit that protects the forest, Kaapora, and how this encounter informs her life and work at the farm.”

The river, then, not only serves as a metaphor throughout this series of events but also across the wider spectrum of things; it’s the veins that run through the earth, keeping it fertile and, more importantly, alive. Yet within Have You Ever Seen a River Stop? these issues of climate justice are raised as if they were poetry, shying away from the political or factual point of view and instead offering up the world on a cinematic platter. “Moreover, these films show for me the interdependence of issues of inequality, race, exploitation, representation and environmental degradation,” concludes Francesca. “One cannot even conceive of climate change without thinking of climate justice, nor can one neglect how spirituality and the imagination can give strength to accept or challenge the current situation. More than anything, all these films are, for me, profoundly poetical.”

Have You Ever Seen a River Stop? is available to watch online until Monday 19 July 2021 

Sebastião Salgado. Amazônia

Sebastião Salgado shares an edited excerpt from his new book on the Brazilian Amazon, published by Taschen with editing, concept and design by Lélia Wanick Salgado

The Maiá River in Pico da Neblina National Park, in the São Gabriel da Cachoeira area. Yanomami Indigenous Territory. State of Amazonas, 2018.

This book is dedicated to the indigenous peoples of Brazil’s Amazon region. It is a celebration of the survival of their cultures, customs, and languages. 

It is also a tribute to their role as the guardians of the beauty, natural resources, and biodiversity of the planet’s largest rainforest in the face of unrelenting assault by the outside world. 

We are eternally grateful to them for allowing us to share their lives. 

Sebastião Salgado and Lélia Wanick Salgado 

Marauiá mountain range. Yanomami Indigenous Territory. Municipality of São Gabriel da Cachoeira, state of Amazonas, 2018.

When I first visited an Amazon tribe in the mid-1980s, I remember feeling anxious about meeting people whose lives were so radically distinct from my own. There, men and women, families whose ancestors had inhabited these forests for millennia, were still treated as “primitives.” 

How would they receive me? How would I react to them? How would I behave before such different human beings? 

That early experience of living alongside the Yanomami, one of Brazil’s largest ethnic groups, was so powerful that it shaped my relationship with the natives of the Amazon region ever since. Finding myself cut off from the world in a remote village in the northern state of Roraima, I soon understood that the Yanomami were not in fact that different from me. After just a few hours in their company, I began to relax, to feel accepted. The emotions we shared—to love, to laugh, to cry, to feel happy or angry—served as our common language. I felt at home in my own tribe, that of all humans, where myriad systems of logic and reason are interwoven with my own, with those of Homo sapiens. 

Since then, and particularly over the past decade, I have spent long periods in the Amazon, navigating its rivers, flying over dense jungle and peripheral mountain ranges and, above all, living among its people in tiny communities scattered across the world’s largest tropical rainforest. And I can say without hesitation, even after a career full of extraordinary experiences, nothing has given me greater joy than working with the dozen of indigenous tribes portrayed in this book. Through them, thanks to them, I reconnected with my own pre- history. I rediscovered the lives we led thousands of years ago. 

Left to right: Pinu Vakwë Korubo with a bird, a red-throated piping- guan (Aburria cujubi, Korubo name: kuxu) hanging from his shoulder— contact in 2014; Xuxu Korubo with a quiver for arrows (Korubo term: vitinte) on his shoulder—contact in 2015. In front of them, two brown woolly monkeys (Lagothrix lagothricha, Korubo term: kolokit) brought down by poisoned arrows from Xuxu’s quiver, shot from blowguns. Hunting encampment. Valley of Javari Indigenous Territory, state of Amazonas, 2017.

The natives of the Americas are descendants of the migrants who crossed the Bering Strait from Asia during the last Ice Age some 20,000 years ago. With the arrival of European conquistadors and colonisers in the 16th century, their numbers were decimated by diseases brought by these foreigners and by wars waged against them. Then, through a gradual process of miscegenation, the identity of a majority of them became mestizo. 

Indigenous women were at the heart of the formation of the Brazilian people. After the first Portuguese landed in Brazil in 1500, they were soon followed by hundreds of thousands of men. It was not until 55 years later that the first five Portuguese women landed. The Jesuit missionaries who accompanied them were quick to notice hundreds of thousands of mestizo children, prompting accusations that the Portuguese men had been living in promiscuity. 

The Raposa–Serra do Sol Indigenous Territory occupies two ecologically distinct areas: fields in the south and densely forested mountains in the north. Its main landmark is Mount Roraima, seen in the background, whose name is associated with the mythological hero Makunaima. This hero inspired Brazilian author Mario de Andrade’s classic novel Macunaíma. There are an estimated 140 Macuxi villages. Cotingo River Falls. State of Roraima, 2018.

Although the number of natives living in the Amazon rainforest fell drastically, their experience was different. Thanks to the impenetrability of the jungle, for centuries they were able to preserve their traditional tribal way of life. 

Now they too are threatened: one aim of this photographic project is to record what survives before any more of it disappears. 

The Amazon region embraces nine South American countries, with 60 percent of the rainforest lying in Brazil. The population of this area is thought to have numbered around five million in 1500. Today, in a territory more than eight times the size of France, there are just 370,000 indigenous people belonging to 188 tribes and speaking 150 different languages. A further 114 tribes have been identified, but they have not been contacted. 

Towns and cities sprang up along the Amazon and its major tributaries as far back as the 17th century. But in the middle of the 20th century a dangerous new chapter in the indigenous peoples’ struggle to survive began with the opening up of Brazil’s vast undeveloped and sparsely populated interior. Migration from southern Brazil led to the deforestation of the Amazon to make room for cattle farming and soybean cultivation. New roads and navigable rivers facilitated migration and made it easier for logging firms to harvest valuable hardwood and for freelance prospectors to seek gold. With these outsiders, who included religious groups bent on evangelising remote tribes, came influenza, measles, malaria … and death for thousands of natives. 

An igapó, a type of forest frequently flooded by river water, with palms and other emerging trees. In the center of the photo, a tree whose trunk is covered with water: an aldina (Aldina latifolia). At right, a jauari palm tree (Astrocaryum jauari). Anavilhanas archipelago, Anavilhanas National Park, Lower Rio Negro. State of Amazonas, 2019.

Intentionally set forest fires in the Amazon are not new, but they have multiplied so drastically that they now grab attention far beyond Brazil because of their undisputed impact on climate change. Often described as the world’s lung, the rainforest has been steadily losing its ability to absorb vast quantities of carbon dioxide. Instead, it has been adding to global CO2 concentrations, creating an enormous “carbon bomb.” 

The Amazon rainforest is the only place on Earth where humidity in the air does not depend on evaporation of seawater. Thanks to its size and an intense concentration of humidity, this forest generates its own process of evaporation in which each tree acts like a geyser or aerator, releasing hundreds of litres of water into the atmosphere daily. As a result, thanks to its hundreds of billions of trees, this blanket of vegetation creates an extraordinary airborne river, or river of vapour, which carries more water than the Amazon River pours into the Atlantic Ocean each day. The impact of this on global climate conditions is immense. 

With 20 percent of the Amazon’s biomass already lost, any further disruption of its ecological equilibrium will have drastic repercussions far beyond Latin America’s frontiers. Yet too many Brazilians still fail to recognise that protecting the Amazon is also in their interest. Surely they, no less than Argentinians, can understand that their immense agricultural wealth depends directly on the rain that falls over the Amazon. 

What drew me back to the Amazon? Certainly not its dark side—not the fires or deforestation or the poisoning of rivers by gold miners or the drug trafficking and arms smuggling that flourish in the region. Rather, it was to savour afresh the unparalleled beauty of this vast region. For me, it is the last frontier, a mysterious universe of its own, where the immense power of nature can be felt as nowhere else on earth. Here is a forest stretching to infinity that contains one-tenth of all living plant and animal species, the world’s largest single natural laboratory…

– Sebastião Salgado Paris, 2021

Photography by Sebastião Salgado

Sebastião Salgado. Amazônia, Sebastião Salgado, Lélia Wanick Salgado, TASCHEN, £100

Men of Zo’é ethnicity, residents of the village of Towari Ypy, wearing traditional headdresses. Standing, left to right: Biri Zo’é, Xú Zo’é, Sinera’ýt Zo’é, Kurú Zo’é, and Boaté Zo’é. Seated: Kitá Zo’é, Dirik Zo’é, Tuwáj Zo’é, and Toduá Zo’é. In their language, “Zo’é” means “I am me.” They probably used the expression during the period of initial contact, as if to say “We are people.” Zo’é Indigenous Territory. State of Pará, 2009.

Geomancy

Michael Lundgren questions the impact of humanity in a celestial series shot in the deserts of the American southwest, Mexico and Lebanon

A photographer’s inaugural picture can speak plenty, perhaps setting the tone, the subject matter or direction addressed in the future. Michael Lundgren, a USA-based photographer known for his visual pilgrimages into the deserts of Mexico, Arizona and Utah, first picked up a camera at the age of eight. Using an old twin lens, he recalls wandering outside and observing the ferocious vision of a tree in autumn. Deciding to capture it, he framed the tree on a waste level finder and, despite thinking he’d heard the shutter sound, he never found out if the tree actually appeared to be on fire in his image. He hadn’t put any film in the camera. 

Although this isn’t the case for all photographers, Michael’s debut into the medium – by means of a tree on fire, not so much the lack of film – undeniably hit a chord with the young creative. To such lengths that he chose to constantly surround himself in the wonders of the environment, capturing earth’s glory and preciousness with the delicacies of his frame and eye for the supernatural. “I grew up immersed in the natural world and found my time there to be as so many have described it: a spiritual experience,” he tells me. “Time in the landscape felt more like coming home than travelling far. As I became a young man, I watched the fields and woods that surrounded my home transform into suburbs and parking lots – my awareness of the earth as a limited resource grew side by side with these changes. On a few journeys to western United States, I feel deeply in love with the desert, its extremities of light and dark, and a certain vastness of space only found in arid places.”

Having worked in his profession since the 90s, Michael has gone on to publish three monographs: Transfigurations, Matter and Geomancy, all of which illustrate the otherworldliness of the desert through an exploration of both the artificial and the natural, perceived through his signature non-documentary style of fantasy blended with environmentalism. Geomancy, in this instance, comprises a book and new exhibition of the same name, currently on view at The Museum of Photography in Seoul, Korea, and running until the end of the month. The series itself pulls together 39 photographs in total and explores the artist’s deep inquest into the subject matter of desert located in the American southwest, Mexico and Lebanon. 

Eery, crystal sharp, and minutely detailed in its approach, each and every photograph appears to have been plucked from a film of science fiction. Its theatricality and alien representation – achieved through zoomed in photos of prickly cacti, metallic sheens of rock faces, and hauntingly desolate landscapes – gives the work an unnerving feel, like the scenes themselves have come from a world far from our own. Familiarity is a distant word throughout Michael’s Geomancy, and that’s precisely his aim with the entire body of work; because he himself started out slightly bemused. “Geomancy began with a handful of pictures I didn’t understand,” he says, citing this as the way he always kicks off a project. “When a picture confronts me that I don’t understand, a shift occurs, one that I’m barely conscious of. A new line of questioning is formed.”

“With this work,” he continues, “I began to see the earth as a series of messages that wouldn’t offer up their meaning easily. From the geologic to the human traces found there, the earth itself began to feel like a surface drawn upon over and over again, each layer a sign of something both knowable and unknowable. A palimpsest.” The latter being something that’s been reused or altered but still visible of its earlier form, which is an apt description of Michael’s photographic tendency to manipulate the landscape. “The desert and arid lands in general have a different relationship with time. As my brother Erick Lundgren says, ‘The desert remembers, the forest forgets.’ The notion here is that what has happened and what is happening is simultaneously present in the desert. As if there is a continuum of awareness. My hope with Geomancy was to create a body of work where the earth itself oozed with memory.”

Crafted over the course of four years in multiple countries, the majority being deserts in Mexico and the USA, Geomancy indeed sings with a life of its own. The desert has rich visual connotations; aliens, droughts, beaming sun, the lack of wind and rain, road trips or tornados. In an American context, for example, the term Great American Desert was used in the 19th century to name the western part of the Great Plains, located just shy of the Rocky Mountains in the north. Today, the land is more commonly referred to as the High Plains, and sometimes used to describe North America and parts of Mexico. These treeless, uninhabited lands have made appearances throughout art for decades, the more obvious in Western films or dystopian thrillers. 

In Michael’s Geomancy, these desolate ecosystems are given an equally as incongruous meaning as they float between the supernatural and the manmade. “I’m interested in the place in our experience that exists just before conscious recognition, where the world is unrecognisable to degree and then suddenly there is a shift and our brain registers the world,” he adds on the matter. “Think of waking up from a shallow nap and not fully understanding where you are, or taking a walk in the dark of night. What we see in these spaces is not the literal confirmed world but an abstract one where our imagination is able to function. Photography has this wonderful ability to somersault from the abstract to the literal and I hope the images sit within this liminal space.”

Achieving just that, Geomancy opens up the enclave of consciousness, where the viewer is unintentionally asked to make sense of what’s in front of them: an image that appears to be from both the past, present and the future. With such a profound grasp of time and travel, Michael’s work gives an affirmed nod to the celestial, but more so does it raise awareness to the impeachable – and enduring – impact of humankind. Speaking of a memorable story from making the series, Michael turns me to a trip in Campeche, Mexico: “I hired a Mayan guide to take me into a series of caves. We set off in the mid-afternoon, which turned into a five-hour journey through the narrowest passages you could imagine. Deep in the heart of these caves, he brought me to a reliquary and gestured to a ledge of ochre stone before us – 

‘These are the bones of my ancestors who dies here hiding from the Spaniards’. 

What struck me was that even the inside of the earth holds the memory of the human.”

Michael’s Geomancy is currently on view at The Museum of Photography, Seoul, until 26 June 2021. All photography courtesy of the artist.

Unequal Cities

Johnny Miller’s ongoing project captures the inequalities of our cities from an aerial point of view

Mexico City: Extreme wealth inequality in Mexico City’s Santa Fe neighbourhood

Technology has given way to many wondrous possibilities, like the ability to capture the world from above with the simple pressing of a remote control. Drones – the robotic aircraft that operates without any human pilot, crew or passengers – have become increasingly popular among photographers, notably for the ease and efficiency with capturing views that were previously unattainable without a helicopter or plane. Johnny Miller, who’s based between South Africa and the USA, is one of those photographers. After arriving in Cape Town in 2012 to study, Johnny decided to stay put and has been working in his medium for a total of 10 years – shooting documentary projects and lensing topics of inequality, climate change plus sustainable cites and communities. “Inequality became a much more important focus for me,” he tells me, “when I moved to Cape Town and was confronted with the reality of living the world’s most unequal country.”

In 2016, Johnny made his drone debut as he began to photograph Cape Town’s Lake Michelle and Masiphumelele communities. “These are two neighbourhoods that couldn’t be more different – a gated estate next to a township,” he explains. “I was just operating on instinct at the time, I didn’t really know what I would capture, and I certainly didn’t have a ready-made audience. Once I took the photo, I put it on Facebook with the caption, ‘Today, I’m starting a little project on inequality’. The photo blew up overnight and went viral.” This was the moment that his ongoing project Unequal Scenes was borne; a photographic series illustrating the inequalities written into the urban fabric of our cities. He’s now visited nine countries as a result – South Africa, Brazil, America, India and Kenya to name a few – and with every trip, he notices the inequality rooted deep into the area’s housing and architecture. Below, I chat to Johnny to find out more about his impactful project, why he uses a drone to tell these stories, and how he hopes to achieve a global, equal and sustainable future. 

Kenya

What inspired you to start documenting the environment, or more specifically, the aerial views of our cities?

I’ve always been interested in the aerial view, and I love maps. Drones just made everything really cheap and easy to get a camera into the sky – I consider them a real democratic revolution in terms of how we understand our world. 

I knew that Cape Town was a divided city of course, and that architecture had a big role in that. The reasons are fairly obvious to anyone who has studied South African history. So when I got my first drone, it was a natural project to pursue, especially because at the time I was looking to pursue more meaningful photography projects. 

 

Dunoon, Cape Town, South Africa

Why tell these stories through photography, and what impact will this medium have on the topic of climate change and environmentalism?

Drones have a huge role to play in understanding the human impact on our world. I see them as a real democratic revolution. Never before has it been possible for the average person to capture information about the earth, and that allows for a reckoning in terms of how it looks from above. Are there fences, roads, or other barriers separating one group from another? Why? What are the reasons behind that and how does it shape that community behaviour?

Eyal Weizman talks about the ‘inscribed humanity’ on the face of the earth that you can see from the air. This is literally policy in concrete and steel. And it’s hard to see from the ground. What I hope with this project is that of course people will begin to talk about inequality, but more than that, people will begin to better appreciate how we all interact as part of an interdependent system. You may think that you have freedom of will, freedom of movement; but look at the architecture and road network of your city from above. You are constrained by all sorts of factors: power cables, bridges and fences. These are all planned out and designed for a reason. In South Africa, they were designed for total control of Black people, which is why the project is really powerful in that context.  

Brazil: Favela houses glow orange in the sun during a break in the clouds over São Paulo 

What aesthetic prominence does the aerial view add to the subject matter?

The ‘nadir view’ of shooting straight down seems to be much more powerful than shooting towards the horizon. I think this speaks to the project ethos, which is highlighting the world’s most egregious divides, and how looking straight down confronts the viewer in a powerful way. So that has become the de facto ‘style’ of Unequal Scenes, and all the most ‘famous’ images are shot in that way. 

How do you hope your audience will respond to this work?

I hope that audiences will respond to Unequal Scenes with a sense of engaged curiosity. I think most people want to understand more about each photograph – what the unique story is for each city, each location. I’m hoping that people will go deeper than that though, and apply the project to their own lives. Even if you live in a very ‘equal’ society, let’s say in Scandinavia or somewhere like that, you still participate in a global economic system, a global environment. Or for example, we’ve seen very clearly in 2020 that the world is very connected in our public health. So I think the project has relevance for everyone, and I hope to leave people with an enhanced feeling of interdependence. 

What’s next for you?

I’m continuing to develop Unequal Scenes with new locations and new imagery. I also have other drone journalism projects that I undertake often with my organisation, africanDRONE, and my partners at Code For Africa. I keep myself engaged and curious by exploring new tech and new art projects that sometimes don’t have any relevance to social justice issues at all, but are just fun to experiment with. You can find more at millefoto.com

Photography by Johnny Miller

Johannesburg
Namibia: The “informal” area of DRC (Democratic Resettlement Community) has ballooned from its roots as a temporary housing area to a city in itself, equal in population to the formal areas of Swakopmund
Mexico City: A gated housing estate in the Ixtapalapa neighbourhood sits next to a classic concrete low-income area
Kenya
Dunoon, Cape Town, South Africa