The Anthropogenic Landscape Of Wales
This project looks at the link between the natural landscape and the human influenced landscape. It considers our impact on the environment and looks at the risks, impacts, causes and mitigation of climate change, through landscape photography. It looks at the landscape of the industrial world and how the environment is changing. I am looking at the landscape of Wales in the ‘anthropocene’, the proposed geological epoch dating from around the industrial revolution in the late 1700s, to the present day. We are now living at a time when the planet is the hottest it has ever been while humans have been alive due to global heating (https://www.giss.nasa.gov/staff/gschmidt/), which we as humans are undoubtedly causing, according to decades of research by thousands of scientists and researchers.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change say that we need to cut carbon emissions to net zero by 2050 (https://www.ipcc.ch/2018/10/08/summary-for-policymakers-of-ipcc-special-report-on-global-warming-of-1-5c-approved-by-governments/) to give us a reasonable chance of maintaining the climate, nature and the planet as we know it. The future is in our hands, just.
The reasons for choosing this subject are partly out of personal interest, as I am a keen climate activist. However, as a photographer, I believe it would be valuable to photograph these places so that people can see the effects, risks and causes of climate change with their own eyes. This work also keeps a record, for future reference, of areas that could change irreversibly. I like to photograph in a way that informs people of the affect humans have had on the landscape, in a mostly non-political, artistic way. I don't want to preach to people, instead I just want to show things how they are and I think that can be more powerful. People don't always like to be told things, just showing people can be more effective.
The style and aim for this project is to focus on the very local, sometimes overlooked, affects of climate change. I aim to look at the places and habitats at risk and photograph the destructive way in which we have changed the landscape, even in west Wales. I believe it will be more relatable for people to see local photographs instead of a picture of a polar bear or the like.
The location choice:
The locations I have chosen are the seafront and coast around Aberystwyth and Borth. Borth is an interesting location for me, partly because it is at risk from sea level rise. Sea defences have been built recently with EU and Welsh Government funding to hold the tide back, for now. The land around Borth has historically been shaped by humans for the benefit of humans, with the building of embankments and canals to reclaim wetland and bog for farming. The only railway line that links Aberystwyth to the rest of the country, is also at risk from waters rising due to the fact that it runs right between the Dyfi estuary and Borth bog, with not much room for any further sea level rise before the line is underwater.
Fairbourne, a small town approximately 20 miles up the coast from Borth, will have to be evacuated in a few decades time due to rising sea levels (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/may/18/this-is-a-wake-up-call-the-villagers-who-could-be-britains-first-climate-refugees). It is in a very similar geographical situation to Borth, with it being on flatland next to an estuary.
The other locations that I have researched and visited are slightly further afield: the mining landscape of Blaenau Ffestiniog and the industrial landscape of South Wales, in particular the steel works and M4 motorway in Port Talbot and the oil refineries at Milford Haven and nearby Pembroke Dock.
Photography has been used as an important tool for informing people about the effects of climate change on the landscape by environmental organisations like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, ever since the climate has become a global issue. Scientists can tell people facts, but seeing a photograph is one of the most clear and powerful means we have to document and to inform people, as they can see it for themselves rather than just being told by a scientist or politician.
One of the most well known photographs, that also had a big impact on the rise of environmentalism, was the ‘Earthrise’ photo, which was taken by US astronaut Bill Anders while circling the moon in Apollo 8 on Christmas Eve 1968. This photo represents a profound moment in human culture and at the same time, the environmental movement. It was the first time we had seen our planet from a great distance. The Earth in its surrounding dark emptiness seemed infinitely beautiful but at the same time, incredibly fragile. This pioneering image cemented the sense of the planet’s vulnerability, which Rachel Carson’s book ‘Silent Spring’ (1962) had awoken six years earlier.
‘Silent Spring’ sparked the public awareness of what effect human actions can have on the environment. The book, written by biologist Rachel Carson, looked at the effects of indiscriminate spraying of the insecticide DDT in the United States. The book suggested that DDT, alongside other pesticides, may cause cancer and that their agricultural use was a threat to wildlife, particularly birds (Carson,1962). The resulting public concern led to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, which banned the use of DDT in 1972 (https://www.epa.gov/ingredients-used-pesticide-products/ddt-brief-history-and-status).
This new popularity in the environment sparked interest in issues such as air pollution and oil spills, and therefore environmental interest grew. New pressure groups formed, most notably Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, both founded in 1971. Although the planet is still warming and sea levels are rising, there have been some successes in the environmental campaigns, notably on whaling and the hole in the ozone layer. The whale industry boomed in the 20th century, however the depletion of some whale species, to near extinction, led to the ban of whaling in many countries by 1969 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whaling). A further worldwide cessation of whaling as an industry came in the late eighties, partly as a result of fierce campaigning by Greenpeace and others.
The hole in the ozone layer is now the smallest it has been since its discovery in 1982 (https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2019/2019-ozone-hole-is-the-smallest-on-record-since-its-discovery). The depletion of the ozone layer in the Earth’s atmosphere was caused by the excessive use of manufactured chemicals, especially manufactured refrigerants, solvents, propellants and foam-blowing agents CFCs and HCFCs. The concern sparked cross-governmental alarm and swift action was taken to reduce the use of such pollutants, it is one of the only success stories of nations working together and effectively tackling climate change.
Borth and the Dyfi estuary:
My own response started with photographing the various landscapes around Borth. I started by photographing the vulnerable coastline where sea defences have already been built (fig8) although their lifespan is only 50 years (https://www.assembly.wales/laid%20documents/agr-ld10723/agr-ld10723-e.pdf). Borth is extremely vulnerable to change in the climate, predominantly due to sea level rise.
The other interesting aspect of the coast at Borth is the petrified forest. The preserved stumps of the ancient forest were unearthed on the beach by heavy storms a few years ago and perhaps serve as a symbol or stark reminder of how things change. As well as the coast, the land the other side of the main street, around Borth bog and towards the Dyfi estuary, is very relevant to my project. The land is very flat, almost below sea level and a lot of the farmland is reclaimed. To keep the land dry for sheep and cows, dutch style water management has been built with canalised rivers, a grid of ditches and embankments to contain the waterways. The result is a clearly managed and human created landscape that is, at the same time, vulnerable to being reclaimed again, but this time by nature.
fig Borth by Janoš Vranek
fig Dyfi estuary by Janoš Vranek
At the northern edge of the protruding piece of flat land that Borth sits on is the wonderfully bio-diverse Dyfi estuary and salt marsh. The shape of the mouth of the river is fascinating, with lots of wiggly channels that look like veins, especially noticeable from above. At the moment the Dyfi salt marsh serves as a unique habitat as well as natural protection to the fields inland from high tides and as a carbon sequestering organism, akin to coral reefs or mangroves. However, due to the rising waters, the areas of marshland are going to be squeezed into ever thinner strips.
The other problem the Dyfi salt marsh has, is that the current embankment that protects the land and the railway line, stop the marshland from spreading away from the rising water (http://www.nrn-lcee.ac.uk/documents/NRN-LCEE_SciencetoPolicy_ResilcoastF1WEB.pdf). The suggestion from environmental experts and even Natural Resources Wales is to remove the embankment and allow the river and marsh to expand and spread naturally, without being contained by manmade structures. What that would mean for the railway line and the town is unclear, but a place with similar geographical factors up the coast, Fairbourne, is to be gradually evacuated over the next couple of decades with the flood defences gradually succumbing to the sea.
Blaenau Ffestiniog and Port Talbot:
After photographing the places and habitats at risk from climate change, the next places that I visited were Blaenau Ffestiniog and Port Talbot. I chose those towns as they are both shaped and owe their existence to heavy industry, slate mining at Blaenau and steel and coal works at Port Talbot. However that has also left a big mark on the landscape and has had an impact on the environment both locally and further afield.
In Blaenau, the mountainous area surrounding the town is unrecognisable with enormous opencast slate mines and mountains of waste slate. Looking at a satellite map, amongst the green of snowdonia is an area of grey. Now that almost all of the mining activity in Blaenau has stopped, the landscape looks almost post apocalyptic in the otherwise serene and beautiful national park. It was interesting photographing that contrast and the juxtaposition between the two different landscapes.
At Port Talbot the landscape is dominated by the huge steelworks and the concrete M4 flyover. The steelworks emit pollutants that make the air quality very poor, you can clearly see the enormous chimneys emitting exhaust gases.
fig Blaenau’s slate heaps by Janoš Vranek
fig A view over Port Talbot by Janoš Vranek
Alongside the local environmental and aesthetic issues, the works at Port Talbot use huge quantities of coal imported from China and wood chip for energy. Therefore steelmaking has a very large carbon footprint. The raised concrete section of the M4 motorway that passes over the town really emphasises the harsh and oppressive landscape that is clearly part of our making. It struck me how little there was in the way of trees or other forms of nature of any kind, that resembled the rest of Wales. Even the three small mountains that flank the town are quite barren, mostly due to the fact that the area was stripped of trees when the steelworks needed fuel for energy.
Photographically, my strategy was to take colour landscape photographs, in a documentary style, of the locations that I have chosen. I decided on the landscape format simply for consistency. I decided on colour photography, primarily because I wanted to show the landscape in its truest form, without layering over too many purely aesthetic and photographic adjustments.
The style is that of a documentary photograph, a snapshot of the landscape I wanted to illustrate, that tells its own story within the boundaries of the project. I chose not to use a tripod as it is a bulky to carry around and I preferred the quickness and simplicity of handheld photos, especially when taking most of the photos in a documentary style.
I hope that these photographs are thought provoking, informative and give a new or previously overlooked meaning to certain landscapes. I have aimed to take photographs that demonstrate the power that photography has to inform and educate.
To quote David Buckland from the book ‘Burning Ice’:
“In 30 years we have actually got to change our lifestyles. I don't know if human beings have the capability for the kind of change that is necessary. Yet, maybe there is a chance it is down to the messenger, the narrative, the story, to make change possible” (Buckland, 2006).
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By Janoš Vranek