The beautiful photographic documentation of ‘environmental stories’ by Sophie Gerrard allows us to pose questions about damage and care and recovery and the relationships between them.
Before I became a photographer I trained to be an environmental scientist. One day in high school we watched a film about the destruction of the Brazilian rainforest and something clicked for me. We understood well enough then that we are destroying this unique resource, it was happening fast, and it should be stopped. That film resulted in me changing my university choices, eventually graduating from Manchester and working on a project protect and restore areas polluted by mining in the NE of England. I was drawn again to telling these environmental stories visually. Once when sent to take measurements of toxins in a lake caused by iron pollution from a former mine. I didn’t want to record the toxicity levels; all I wanted to do was capture the visual impact of the bright orange body of water.
After I took a photography MA I headed to India with Greenpeace and other NGOs where again I documented toxic waste, this time from e-waste recycling industry. In 2006 I produced E-Wasteland. The pools of chemical residue and piles of computer parts created a kind of toxic beauty, captivating and yet deadly to those who dismantled them.
When I returned to the UK from India I looked for environmental stories closer to home and found one at Menie in Aberdeenshire where Donald Trump was destroying a site Site of Special Scientific Interest to construct a golf course. In The Dunes 2009 – 2011 I documented the shifting sands and the over a period of 2 years and photographed the people who lived there. The way Trump dealt with the landscape there was a precursor to his attitude on pollution and climate change in power.
Today, the supposedly protected dunes are all but destroyed. The Trump International Golf Links opened in July 2012. The more we erode these unique places, the more we contribute to the links between our own identity and the landscape. The Dunes presents a social document of a community bullied into submission and a once protected landscape left with no voice.
In Drawn to the Land I built upon this interest in people who knew the landscape. The photographs explore Scotland through the eyes of those who work it everyday. The body of work follows the lives of 10 female farmers from the Borders and the Central Belt to the Hebrides and the North Coast. Everyone one of the women I photographed actively works the land. Some of these women inherited their farms, some are crofters, and all have unique and fascinating stories to tell of a changing physical, environmental and agricultural landscape. In a time of biodiversity loss and economic struggles for farming communities these women each have the common goal of leaving their farms in better condition than when they acquired them. They all have ambitious views on improving the sustainability of the land and maintaining ecosystems for the future, Over time these women have become friends too and the project is ongoing.
My most recent body of work is The Flows, focusing on the gentle and undulating peatlands of the Flow Country, located in Caithness and Sutherland in the far north of mainland Scotland.
Peatlands are a globally rare habitat, vital in combatting climate change. Although they cover only a tiny amount (3%) of the planet’s land surface, peatlands hold almost 30% of all terrestrial carbon – twice as much as all the world’s forests. The Flow Country is widely considered to be the largest expanse of blanket peat bog in the world. It is the principal single terrestrial carbon store in the UK and is of such high conservation value it is currently under consideration for World Heritage Site status by UNESCO.
During the 1980s, the Conservative Government under Margaret Thatcher offered tax incentives to the super rich, resulting in vast areas of the Flow Country being planted with non-native coniferous Sitka spruce which drained, damaged and ultimately killed large areas of the bog. Over 80% of the UK’s peatlands have been damaged by years of mismanagement – through drainage, inappropriate development, extraction, burning, forestry and grazing.
Eschewing sentimentality, the photographs look at how this precious environmental resource has been desecrated and denuded over generations and how these almost magical places are being revived and reinvigorated through careful and considered conservation by the RSPB and their partners. This is no abstract notion: survival of the peatlands is a touchstone for the environmental health of the nation. Once seen as fair game for industrial-scale exploitation, The Flows poses a question, asking us to consider our relationship with these spaces that give us so much without us knowing.