- Swim with your mouth shut
This project is about the commons and bearing witness by exploring my local landscape of the Thames Estuary.
The photographs I take are a personal reflection and help in translating my experiences into something tangible, a process dictated by tidal times, seasons and the weather. As a keen open-water swimmer, my research into local water health made for an unsettling feeling and led to the choice I made to stop swimming in these dirty, polluted and over-exploited waters over a year ago.
After doing research on pollution this estuary has been the victim of for many centuries through industrialisation, population growth and mismanagement. It was only in the 50’s when parts of the river were declared biologically dead, meaning it was believed that the water body could not sustain any wildlife. Whilst in the 70’s it was affectionately called the ‘open sewer’.
While the Thames Tideway Tunnel, which is being built as we speak, is expected to help improve water quality, especially around London, other environmental factors continue to threaten the health of wildlife and human health in the Tidal Thames. These include climate-change-induced changes in water temperature, the concerning impacts of chemicals, a rising tide of plastics, and the possibility of these entering into the food chain.
Still today high levels of toxic metals are being observed in the area, for example, anthropogenic silver, lead, cadmium, and arsenic, are being detected in coastal and estuarine sediments and mainly originate from sewage sludge, effluent discharges, mining, smelting, and industrial waste as well as ironically from possible photographic sources and of course landfills, whoever thought putting landfills next to waterways was ever going to be a good idea, like the ones we have here on Two Tree Island, Leigh-on-Sea, and Tilbury just down the road, they are toxic time bombs that through flooding and eroding are now leaching into the Thames. There are well over a thousand sites like this across the country, so South Essex is not an isolated area with these issues.
For the past three years, I have been concerned and aware of the environmental footprint of my own artistic practice. Consequently, the approach of my darkroom practice is fundamental to this project. I collect seaweed and sea spinach during my photography field trips, which are then utilised to make a photographic developer which to develop my black and white films with. These rituals of using sustainable and natural materials serve as a connection between the moment, place and the final piece.
I am following a path of shiny slippery bladderwrack, combed across the concrete jetty. In the distant, you can hear fog horns and heavy ship engines turning in an even rhythm.
The jetty has eroded and a gaping hole is staring back at me. I guess the sewage now enters the waters much closer to the beach than intended.
Absurdly I find myself attracted to these brutal formations that conceal the emergency storm overflows and their sinister functions whilst stretching out towards the river’s mouth.
When the tide creeps in slowly swallowing these totem-like architectural structures, you would barely know of their existence unless you carefully observed the movement of the water's surface creating curious lines and shapes.
The children’s paddling pools neatly positioned directly next to the emergency storm outlets will sink under high tide soon again. Local swimmers will find these invisible pontoons under the higher water and use them as diving platforms.
The barnacle and seaweed-covered man-made constructions have become part of our ecosystems and form this familiar landscape where the sky is reflected in the glistering mudflats creating a perfect backdrop for walking along them, to admire the estuary views during ebb and flow.
I play with this tension between the beautiful and the dirty truth surrounding the true meaning of these outlet points that regularly spew raw sewage and road surface water directly into our bathing waters.
The environment agency measures the water quality only during the summer season. Regardless of the overwhelming popularity and change in water use culture where swimming, kayaking, and paddle boarding now take place all year around.
People getting on with their daily lives without having much of an idea or choosing not to acknowledge that the blue flags awarded are not just, and these waters desperately need our attention, and for the government to sort out this toxic legacy now.
Photographed at Thames Estuary; Westcliff-on-Sea, Chalkwell and Leigh-on-Sea 2021-2022.
These black and white films were developed by a more sustainable homemade seaweed and sea beet developer. The plants were foraged on the shores of the locations in the photographs.