Pink, orange and ochre striations caress low lying grey clouds hanging over the flat expanse of wetland as the last light of day faded into dusk. A formless landscape became less distinct as evening gloom enveloped the swaying reeds and glimmering waterways etched into the mudflats beyond the seawall. Late November and long summer days were a distant memory. Winter was coming and life was in retreat, either escaping and flying off to warmer places or preparing for the colder months ahead. As ever, all was in flux as season gave way to season and the living sought to see off death for another year. An uncanny silence spread as the light faded and the yellow lamps of Whitstable began to glimmer in the distance. As I crossed Nagden marshes and then Cleve Marshes and headed for the car parked at Seasalter I was accompanied only by the occasional call of unseen gulls and waders somewhere out in the estuary. A breeze blew gently off the water, cold and sharp against my exposed cheeks, bringing with it the smell of salt and damp as the incoming tide started to swallow up the mudflats. Soon, the sea would reach the seawall, and nothing would be left of the rivulets and channels of an area appropriately named ‘The Oaze’. By the time it was gone, I would be ensconced in a warm car heading home after a day taking photographs and sketching in what must be one of the wilder wetland environments in South East England.
Wetlands occupy a curious place in our collective imaginations, often portrayed as places of death and disease, sites of terror and the monstrous, for instance depicted as the ‘Dead Marshes’ in The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. Wetlands are harbingers of death and misery as exemplified by mosquitoes, that deadly humming insect that has bought so much misery to humanity. Of course no mosquito is able to act with intent against humans, yet narratives can fold into each other so that ‘war with mosquitoes’ becomes ‘wetlands as battlegrounds’. Such narratives see wetlands as places to conquer, improve, drain and reclaim, to be made productive and transformed into a more manageable social reality. Such sentiments still hold ground with some local community groups objecting to wetland creation as engineering dismal mosquito infested swamps. However, there is another narrative, emerging in the 1970s, that see wetlands as places of conservation, biodiversity, sources of human wellbeing. Internationally the RAMSAR convention, adopted in 1971, recognises that wetlands are among the most diverse and productive of ecosystems.
Under the influences of popular fiction, international conventions, wars and disease I started a photo journey to explore lowland wetland landscapes in England at the end of 2016. I was interested in seeing Wetlands through a photographic lens. In an age of smartphone cameras people take more photographs than ever before. We are often told that looking at the world through the lens of a camera takes us out of the moment, detaches us from the here and now. Yet, my experience of photography is somewhat different. I thought about what Susan Sontag said, “A photograph is not just the result of an encounter between an event and a photographer; picture taking is an event in itself, and one with ever more peremptory rights…” (1). Moving through the landscape, slowly and carefully observing the landscape, felt like an event itself. The camera facilitating a journey of viewing and creating. Photographs can frame ontology and bring our attention to certain aspects of the world over others, in Heidegger’s terms to make part of the world ‘occurrent’.
This is not a photo essay about the wildlife of wetlands, although they are certainly characters that come to the fore. Rather, it is a subjective insight into the fantastically diverse and vibrant worlds of wetlands in lowland England. It is a personal encounter as I explore these wet landscapes and think about their sense of place and how different landscape elements come together and have meaning for me. The following are a series of 32 photographs, selected from over 2000, taken over three years across numerous wetlands in England. Ranging across the North Kent Marshes in the South East, to Alkborough Flats on the Humber and the Avalon Marshes in the South West. The photographs and associated text captures my experience of wetlands and hopefully something of the inspiring, haunting and reflective qualities I encountered.
Acknowledgements: This work was carried out as part of a project called ‘Taking the bite out of wetlands’ (WetlandLIFE), Grant Ref: NE/N013379/1. WetlandLIFE was one of four health and wellbeing projects run through the RCUK Valuing Nature Programme funded by NERC, ESRC, AHRC, BBSRC and DEFRA.
1. Sontag, S., 1977, On Photography, London, Penguin Books (pg. 11).