On Transience – Theme Text Foam Magazine #64: EXTREMES–The Environmental Issue
The latest issue of Foam Magazine looks at the human relationship with the environment from two opposing, yet connected, perspectives: one side of the magazine focuses on abundance and the other one on scarcity. In this theme text, which connects both sides at the center of the magazine, managing editor Katy Hundertmark dives deeper into the two opposing extremes. Through the work of Cuban artist Ana Mendieta (1948-1985), she highlights the vital bond between human beings and the Earth, and the urgent need for more nuanced (visual) storytelling about climate change.
On Transience – The Ebb
SCARCITY – stands for emptiness, unproductiveness, or a shortage of resources and fertility. It is often used to describe landscapes that lack vegetation, growth, or abundance. Such a barren place is neither habitable nor able to host or nurture growth. I imagine a moon-like surface where every ounce of dust lies heavy and thick, maybe adorned with traces of life from a time gone by.
Ancient civilisations like the Aztecs, Mayans, or Egyptians lived in sync with their environment and the universe. They constructed their sense of time, architecture, rituals, narratives, and myths around the elements, and saw themselves as part of the natural cycle. Next to political and cultural factors, the reason for the downfall of these highly developed civilisations included environmental changes like droughts, floods, earthquakes, deforestation, soil erosion and more, which ultimately led to a scarcity of crops and energy. It is thanks to the monuments and art that survived the centuries that their stories were carried on to the next generations. There is still an incredible depth of knowledge to be gained and learned from the ruins of these civilisations, which leave visitors awestruck by the sheer beauty, scale, and power of their stories.
When I first came across the work of Cuban artist Ana Mendieta (1948-1985), I had a similar reaction. What I saw in her images were ruins of beauty and brutality, fullness and emptiness, pain and joy all captured simultaneously in the most simple and impactful way. Through her art, Mendieta emphasises the primal and elemental aspects of existence in a timeless way, asking us to look closer at the intimate bond between humans and the Earth. Her Silueta Series, where she created imprints of her body in various natural landscapes, convey a deep sense of connection and unity with the Earth – something we are very much lacking in our contemporary society. By using her body as a vessel to merge with nature, she challenges the Cartesian notion of human superiority and domination over the Earth, advocating for more harmonious coexistence.
Having left Cuba at a very young age, as part of Operation Peter Pan (an exodus of over 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban minors ages 6 to 18 to the United States between 1960 and 1962), Mendieta grew up in various places across the US, always searching for her roots. She found solace through her art, which asks questions about belonging, and the meaning of our existence, which subtly represents the struggle of being a woman of colour in a dominantly white and polarised country like the United States. Throughout her life and career, she was a strong advocate for feminism, decolonial, as well as environmental causes, coining the genre earth-body works with her compelling pieces that bring together land and performance art.
Mendieta‘s work is deeply moving and in the face of ongoing ecological challenges has the power to prompt questions about our role as cohabitants of the Earth. As Mendieta shows, being in touch with the world is a profound and essential aspect of human existence. This connectivity carries immense power, capable of conveying empathy and compassion without the need for words. It can heal, comfort, and unite us, ultimately reaffirming our shared humanity in an increasingly disconnected and divided world.
The symptoms of climate change and their impact on low-income countries have been ignored by those in positions of power over decades. This ignorance has created inequalities between high and low-income countries and made the latter much more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Now that the impact is being felt more severely across the globe in all layers of society, the default attitudes of denial and ignorance are no longer feasible options. While opinions on future scenarios differ largely, one thing is undeniable: we are getting a stronger taste of the implications with each passing day. Higher temperatures, rising sea levels, melting polar ice, catastrophic storms, declining biodiversity, polluted air, toxic groundwater, heatwaves, droughts, floods, wildfires, oil spills and so much more – all pouring into our social media feeds on a daily basis. Sometimes unfolding slowly and quietly, other times loud and brutal. Always overwhelming in one way or another.
Thus, the image of climate change is creeping its way into the shared imagination with more presence in newspapers, outdoor campaigns, television, social media – and even our camera rolls. If you photograph the world around you today, the chances that you have created a document containing a cause or symptom of climate change are high. The question is whether today's overflow of photographic images and its use in the media helps to better understand what the vulnerabilities at stake are. Does photography as a form of visual communication rise to the challenge of portraying these issues in the right context, showing how people and their livelihoods are impacted? Or have we normalised the sight of climate change to an extent that we are partially numb to most imagery (a phenomenon Charles Figley coined ‘compassion fatigue’ in the care sector)?
In her book Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag delves into the relationship between photography, spectatorship, and empathy. She explores how the saturation of images depicting violence and suffering in media can potentially desensitise viewers and diminish their capacity for genuine empathy towards the given subject. Sontag examines the complex dynamics between witnessing and understanding, questioning the impact of an overwhelming influx of such images on our emotional responses – something that continues to be relevant in our image-saturated society. As if maintained via a drip feed of photographs, we have normalised the idea of a globalised, weakening, terrorised world to a point where it is hard to imagine the return to a more local, fair, and non-toxic one. Regardless of which outlet, social media or thematic publication, what we need is photography that conveys authentic and meaningful experiences, rather than feeding sensational clichés. Work like the Silueta series communicates on a highly visceral level, which reaches a much more intuitive part of the human mind. By working with the elements, Mendieta speaks about vulnerability and points right to the core of our most confronting question: What traces will future civilisations find of us – which will survive? Or maybe even, which images will survive? Let’s take inspiration in Mendieta, who never shied away from the daunting questions, but rather immersed herself in them to understand better.
This issue of Foam Magazine intends to capture conflicting tendencies in the Anthropocene inviting you to consider the human–nature relationship through the conceptual frameworks of abundance and scarcity. This side shows the impact, the disintegration, and the lack of connection to native knowledge, capturing the decrease in different ways. We are not in denial about our own contribution towards the depletion of resources: the use of papers, inks, and transport in the production of the magazine also have their own impact on the environment. Nonetheless, we hope this magazine will serve as an agent and messenger to raise awareness, reflection, and debate around a topic that is very important to us all, transmitting the (com)passion that is needed to steer the future course of our planet in a different direction.
Time to change perspective.
On Transience – The Flow
ABUNDANCE – a concept usually associated with fulfilment, satisfaction, safety, and success, carrying within the promise of answering all our heart’s desires and providing for all earthly needs. It’s the epistemological land of milk and honey, where everything flows and continuously gets renewed, replenished, and updated. A utopia if you like, where dreams come true, and humans live in coexistence with nature.
Modernised western societies propel the illusion of abundance by proclaiming an existence without boundaries – where no mountain is too high, no ocean too deep and no planet too far to reach, grasp, or claim. Space lenses, like the James Webb Telescope, allow us to look deep into the past, taking photographs of the very creation of our galaxy while contemporary DNA technologies could soon offer ways to manipulate our evolution as a species. We are led by the belief that anything is possible, and only the sky's the limit – for the fortunate ones at least, since the pillars of today’s world rest on a harsh history marked by the exploitation of those deemed inferior according to race, gender, and class. A system of oppression and inequality which protrudes until this very day, protected at all costs by those who benefit from it.
At some point during their manic race for knowledge, power, and capital, the founders of the ‘modern’ world began to detach themselves from the environment around them. They placed new materialistic meanings on the words fulfilment, satisfaction, safety, and success, essentially shifting away from an existence in alignment with our natural environment. The neoliberal promise of individualism and material wealth has nurtured such a dependency on technology that it is almost unimaginable how humans ever survived a day without electricity, remembered without taking a screenshot or navigated landscapes without wireless internet. We have become so obsessed with ourselves, our growth, our pleasure and longevity that we now find ourselves on the verge of overflowing the vessel that, so graciously, steers us through the sea that we call the universe. The evidence has been around for a while: this continuous pushing of the boundaries will – without wanting to sound too cynical – lead us further and further down the path towards ecocide. Since the industrial revolution in the early 19th century, the growth of population and subsequent overconsumption and exploitation have been exhausting natural resources, polluting water, soil, and air to an extent that threatens to leave an irreversible impact on our planet. With great assertion we infringe on the natural habitats of the plant and animal kingdom, and in so doing are destroying our very own home – welcome to the Anthropocene.
In 2014, Barack Obama famously stated, ‘We are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it’. This was an urgent appeal for immediate change, emphasising that our actions today will have huge consequences for future generations – which will be overwhelmingly large! In late 2022, human population already reached the 8-billion mark and the United Nations projects a further climb to 9.7 billion by 2050. This means, for example, that food insecurity will continue to grow, and megacities will melt into Megalopolis as people continue migrating to larger cities in search of jobs and a more prosperous life, away from the agricultural livelihoods led in the countryside.
In Foam Magazine’s Issue #43 On Earth, we already looked at our changing relationship to landscape and how new technologies influenced human perception and interaction with our environment at the start of the Anthropocene. Departing from the awareness that there existed, side by side, two incompatible attitudes to the natural world – the rational and the emotional – the issue indicates the contrast that characterises the human quest for a new relationship with nature. Here photography is presented as a tool to pierce through barriers and open up new ways of perceiving and processing the natural world without dominating it or doing it injustice. The question of climate justice remains relevant and even more urgent since On Earth, which climate activists from groups like Fridays for Future, Extinction Rebellion and The Last Generation so passionately, and at times controversially, convey.
Out of this urgency grew the desire to create a follow-up issue about the state of our planet focusing on the paradox of the Anthropogenic experience, presenting itself as a dichotomy between the feeling of being part of the natural world and of being separate from it. During our editorial meetings, we identified two (seemingly opposing) positions that define our current relationship with the world – abundance and scarcity. Realising that they are inherently connected, we decided to combine them and hence developed the framework for the issue you are now holding in your hands: split in two, turned upside down, linked at the centre. We are aware of our own limitations and don’t claim to offer answers or solutions, but rather we hope to make the dichotomy of those pressing issues more visible, more real, and ask what photography can add to the discourse.
Extremes - The Environmental Issue advocates for the need for more nuanced storytelling when it comes to climate change, one which takes into account both sides of the coin and manages to communicate their interconnections as well as the injustices. Current visual tropes of climate change often paint very one-sided pictures, which mostly reiterate problematic framings and power dynamics inherent to photojournalism. Think of the skinny polar bear searching for a shore, the chunk of ice dropping into the sea or stretches of earth full of cracks. These images create a distance to the threat, when actually what we need to be confronted with is the proximity of it. This can only be achieved with authentic and subjective stories that bring us right up close, that allow us to truly see and understand the impact and recognise connections. Especially bearing in mind that impact is experienced in very different ways, and the ones most affected don’t always get to control their own narrative. In her essay Crisis of Storytelling, Gem Fletcher quotes author and environmental activist Rebecca Solnit who states, ‘Every crisis is in part a storytelling crisis. This is as true of climate chaos as anything else. We are hemmed in by stories that prevent us from seeing, or believing in, or acting on the possibilities for change. Some are habits of mind, some are industry propaganda. Sometimes, the situation has changed but the stories haven’t, and people follow the old versions, like outdated maps, into dead ends’. When speaking about Gen Z, the most dedicated and bold generation today when it comes to climate activism, Fletcher continues to argue that ‘Our mind is a battlefield for images, and while historically, many activists have opted to reject the media or remain anonymous in favour of foregrounding the message, that strategy is not viable in our current media landscape. These emerging collectives understand that repositioning the status of activists in the popular imagination is vital to building support and engagement in the mission’.
In order to understand the stakes, it is necessary to look at the full picture, even if it feels uncomfortable. With this magazine, we consider what that picture looks like and invite you to read the story from both extremities, as a whole, while acknowledging that everything is interrelated, no matter how contradicting it may appear. The system makes it easy to forget that every single action, from the purchase of bottled water to the quick flight home, will have an impact somewhere. The portfolios and essays on this side address the growth, excess, overproduction, overconsumption, and greed that drive the Anthropogenic engine to continue grinding.
From here, the fundamental shift we need to create to secure a future on this planet is to reconsider which images contribute to ‘world-building’. We need to move the conversation towards a new definition and representation of development. This definition should be one that implies more inclusive, healthier, and protective attitudes towards nature and living within the boundaries of our world, not beyond them.
About the author
Katy Hundertmark is a Scottish-German artist and managing editor of Foam Magazine. Her work has been exhibited at venues such as Streetlevel Photoworks Glasgow, Stills Edinburgh, Seenfifteen London, Macro Testaccio Rome and her writing has been featured in magazines like Quottom Magazine, Notes Journal and Studies in Photography.
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Foam Magazine has been awarded several prizes for both its high-grade graphic design and the quality of its content. Most recently, Foam Magazine was awarded Photography Magazine of the Year at the Lucie Awards 2017 and 2019.
Foam Magazine is an international photography magazine, published two times a year by Foam Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam.
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