I grew up in Melbourne, on the outskirts of the city. At the bottom of the hill where we lived, a creek had been realigned to prevent it from flooding. Huge concrete slabs on either side created an artificial channel that stretched as far as the eye could see. My friends and I would set off on our bikes, with the creek on our right and the city behind us. We would spend the day exploring beyond the suburbs until eventually the sewers, motorways, reservoirs and backyards began to give way to the natural flora and fauna of the Victorian bush. We watched the balance of power shift; two different worlds combining to give birth to another. Victor Hugo described this as “that kind of bastard countryside, somewhat ugly but bizarre, made up of two different natures.”
I’m still drawn to the spaces where natural and human worlds clash, interact and combine. However the innocent excitement I once felt for these places has given way to unease. Writing in the 19th century, Hugo could not have foreseen the catastrophic effects humanity would have on nature. But we see it everywhere. Industrialisation and accelerated human modification of the landscape have created ecological challenges which all of us, including scientists and political leaders, are either struggling to cope with, or even more terrifyingly, seeking to ignore.
In January I photographed the beached Sperm Whale at Hunstanton in Norfolk. Two weeks before, I had written in my notebook that I wanted to make a picture of a stranded whale to represent the increasing threat that humans pose to ecosystems. I wasn’t expecting it to happen so soon, but I knew it must be only be a matter of time. Since then an unprecedented 28 sperm whales have beached in the North Sea. It is still unclear whether the cause was exposure to unusual levels of sound, toxins in the marine environment or heavy shipping traffic. What appears clear is that as the world becomes more populated, and as our appetite for human ‘advancement’ and comfort increases, so too will our devastation of nature.
The ‘Bastard Countryside’ explores the British landscape as a series of metaphors. Each photograph represents a small part of the story of how our modern living is destroying the planet. Although the series has been made in the UK the subjects and themes are global and invite the viewer to reflect on the actions that have shaped and shifted the spaces they relate to in these pictures. And with this reflection, I hope they encourage the viewer to consider an alternative set of actions that can restrain this shape and shift: walking, cycling and taking public transport; maximizing energy efficiency in everything we buy and use; recycling, re-using and avoiding useless purchases; buying locally wherever we can. We are all complicit in damaging the planet: ultimately it is only ourselves who can effect change – our political leaders will only act if we force them to.