Photographer Chloe Dewe Mathews' newest book, Caspian: The Elements, takes the reader on a meandering journey through oil-rich central Asia following traces of natural elements such as fire, gas, salt and water in people's everyday lives. Her images work as small, fascinating stories about how the region's residents interact with their environment in surprising ways.
Natural elements show up in Dewe Mathews' photos through religion, ancient therapeutic practices and recreation. In one of the most striking series of images, Dewe Mathews shows people bathing in the region's celebrated crude oil at a spa in Naftalan, Azerbaijan. In other images she explores Ramsar, Iran, an area with some of the highest known levels of naturally occurring radiation. A more abstract image shows what water looks like as it slowly becomes ice in the Volga Delta in Astrakhan, Russia.
Dewe Mathews worked on the project between 2010 and 2015. She was awarded the Robert Gardner photography fellowship in 2014 to help her finish the project. The book was published in collaboration with the Peabody Museum Press and Aperture in October 2018.
What drew you to the Caspian region?
It all started in 2010 when my boyfriend (now husband) and I decided to do an ambitious journey from Asia to Europe, from east to west. We wanted to physically experience the cultural shift between the two continents, so we flew to India for a friend's wedding and then made our way to Xinjiang, China's northwest province. That was where the proper journey started. From there, we hitchhiked through Central Asia and Europe, back to Britain.
So it was 10 months hitchhiking and we carried a small tent, which we slept in a lot of the time. Although sometimes we'd meet people and stay in their houses or gardens; we'd just stay wherever. And the whole idea of that first trip was to research by experience rather than shooting something I'd seen at home online — which is a fairly common method, but what's the point? We were trying to do something in reaction to that. We'd crossed the Kazakh step and ended up in Aktau, one of the oil-boom towns along the Caspian coast, where I started shooting. A couple of small stories emerged which then evolved over the next five years to become a much larger, in-depth body of work.
How did researching by experience shape your work?
I was just trying not to knowingly repeat what I'd seen elsewhere. I was looking for much smaller stories that I found by being there. Things that were about a set of people or even one person or perhaps a small town, like Naftalan in Azerbaijan. In an area that's so well known for oil and gas, I became interested in the subtle ways those materials were involved in people's lives. At times, it was really surprising: I found people using natural resources in their religious practices, therapeutic practices and artistic practices. I became fascinated by these unexpected relationships and tried to create a portrait of the region, linked together by these raw materials.
When did you know this was the project you wanted to work on?
There were probably two instances. The first was in the small sanatorium town called Naftalan where people bathe in crude oil as a health remedy. That was an extraordinary, mind-opening moment because from my perspective as a Londoner, as a Westerner, I associate crude oil with heavy industry, global trade, extreme wealth and corruption. To see people bathing in crude oil, as a health remedy — that exploded my preconceptions. When I read around the subject, I realized that people had been bathing in crude oil for centuries, long before the industrialization of oil. They bathed in it to cure skin and bone disorders like psoriasis or rheumatism. Marco Polo even talked about it in his diaries from the 13th century.
I shot a set of images in a cemetery on the Caspian coast called Koshkar-Ata. We were hitchhiking along the coast and I noticed a group of men working with limestone, all dressed in white with scarves around their mouths and heads. It was such a striking vision. They spend probably five or six months of the year living in the cemetery, working on these exquisite new mausoleums. The architecture of the cemeteries has changed recently because the region's oil wealth has meant people have increasingly expensive tastes in mausoleums. They have etched nodding donkeys and gas towers into the sides of these tombs to commemorate their dead, which was another moment of seeing how the slow seepage of the oil industry and wealth associated with it is transforming the region. And I found that fascinating.
How did you explore natural elements through your images?
The stories about oil and gas sparked my interest in the region, but I became aware of other sites and places along the Caspian where salt, uranium, water, fire and so on played very important roles in people's lives. So these materials almost became like guides through the region. They were the thread that brought together otherwise unconnected stories and created alternative portraits. I was interested in reading the area not as a series of separate countries but as a landmass made up of these specific materials. And so that became a useful and stimulating way for me to bring these stories together.
What do you want people to take away from the book?
The book is by no means a complete or thorough appraisal of the area; it's a subjective way of weaving together stories which I think are pertinent or important. I hope readers might reflect on their own relationship to these materials, because although these places might feel far away, all these substances feed into our lives and almost everything we consume. I also hope it's an insight into a region that is lesser known to a global audience, and that the book might be a space to reflect on our relationship to landscape, which is a recurring theme in my work. Often that relationship is desperately destructive, but there are also moments of poetry and beauty in the book.