Alice Cazenave

Art & Science

Current projects - Leaf portraiture in Meghalaya, India

Having recently developed a photographic printing process which uses leaves as natural photographic paper, I am now embarking on a project using this method, which will focus on the changing relationship between man and his natural surroundings.

The project takes me to the north eastern Indian state of Meghalaya, which is known for its otherworldly natural landscape and home to the Khasi people. Here I am printing the portraits of the Khasi tribe onto native leaf species in celebration of their graceful but changing relationship with their natural surroundings.

Centuries ago the ancestors of these indeginous people trained the roots of native rubber tree species to cross canyons and form living bridges. Scattered amongst sacred forests and ferocious waterfalls, the living root bridges of the East Khasi hills are becoming a well trodden route for tourists; western and Indian alike. The village where I was based for one month is consequently in a state of flux, taut between tradition and modernisation, and seemingly on the brink of extreme change. I experienced a strong sense of ancestory and pride in the ingenuity of the living root bridges, and whilst not completely reliant on it, I felt a sense of reverence and respect for their natural surroundings. Many were proud to cook banana flowers and jungle leaf sourced from the forests that generously surround them; religiously they chewed the areca nut that grows abundantly.

The root bridges embody the deft handiwork of the Khasi people, of their understanding and elegant relationship with nature. This is why the bridges are important, and although becoming increasingly redundant in use, they are physical manifestations of Khasi ancestory.

By printing the portraits of Khasi people that I lived with during the research period, I aim to visualise their heritage within their natural surroundings. The work fuses alternative photographic processes with a more traditional role of photography; in documentation and storytelling. The portraits function to anchor and celebrate the association of the Khasi people with their ancient practices, before they cease to exist completely.

Project theory

Thirst, land and people

The dissemination of holiday snaps through social networking sites is magnifying tourism to this area of India. This impact will undoubtedly ameliorate the villagers' quality of life and is welcomed by many that I spoke with. However it will also eventually inevitably throw out of balance the carefully preserved respect between land and human activity. The implications of this in ecological terms are severe; the situation may seem small scale and isolated, but it reflects an international, insidious attitude that is dominating our contemporary thinking and decision making.

This short essay briefly addresses some of the philosophy and psychology behind the changes in the relationship that man has with his natural surroundings. It also introduces the theory behind this current and ongoing photographic project.

Heightened tourism, climate change and ecological destruction are complex and wholly different in manifestation, but there exists some homogeny in their structure.The impact of human behaviour on the environment can be traced to society's obsession with immediacy, consumption and progress.

The global ecological crisis in its various forms is above all a cultural change that is established by our individual and collective behaviour. One of the features of contemporary culture identified by philosopher Charles Taylor, is the rationale behind society's propensity to prioritse and celebrate practices of maximum efficiency, and to measure these practices as success; Taylor names this instrumental reason*. The change in attitude brought about by modernisation and the pursuit for cost efficient practices can be recognised, in certain circumstances, as society's decline.

One consequence of instrumental reason is the emergence and propulsion of climate change, where infinite growth rises from industrial waste disposal and an an epidemic depletion of natural resources. The causes of climate change are labyrinthine, but arise from a collective inclination towards the notions of immediacy, consumerism and economic viability. These eclipse and discredit the tenet that the natural environment is valuable because of its majesty and precedence, alongside its more obvious and critical role in maintaining the equilibrium in biodiversity and the hydrological cycle of the entire planet.

In relation to photography, the jpeg exemplifies this shift in societal attitude, which combines advances in technology with appetite for immediacy. Photography as an exercise encompasses a hugely diverse identity, and whilst the reliance on jepg may not feature in fine art photography, it does epitomise Taylor's concept of industrial reason. Digital images are compressed for the convenience of a quick transfer through the realms of the internet. We readily favour the jpeg for its ease of transfer and instantaneous access, despite the image quality being severely compromised. For his JPEG series, photographer Thomas Ruff took digital images off the internet and printed them as large scale pixelated pieces.

The works are large-scale and have a jarring,blurry beauty. One interpretation is that the very components that served to construct the image ended up destroying it. It is this notion of compromising quality for practices in maximum efficiency that Taylor describes as one of the malaises of modernity.

In order to satisfy the interminable demand from international markets, the world's most majestic masses of forest are being devoured. Clearing land for cattle ranching to meet the local and global demand for beef is a huge contributor to deforestation. Increasing reliance on ready-made and fast foods is an insidious habit with grave effects on health and indirect consequences to the natural environment. Soaring global demand for palm oil as an inexpensive raw material for food and cosmetic products has been a monumental driving force to deforestation in south east Asia, the plantations of which have often been financed by the sale of timber from the cleared forests.

The acceptance of this contemporary thinking manifests itself physically in the form of global depletion of resources, extreme loss of biodiversity, unrelenting pollution and climate change. The severity of the change is such that the word anthropocene** has been conceived to describe the era of this phenomenon. It describes the effect of human activity on the state on the planet. One aspect of the anthropocene is that we respond to the ecological crisis with a mixture of astonishment and boredom. Because the change seems gradual, we are capable of not responding, and we are finding ourselves in a period of consequences.

Using native plant species and the portraits of the Khasi people, the leaf portraits created on site aim to resuscitate the severed links between man and environment, and function as a celebration of this ancient relationship. The works invite the viewer to re-establish a reverence for nature and reposition themselves into part of the solution of the problems we are experiencing.

* Instrumental reason: 'The kind of rationality we draw on when we calculate the most economical application of means to a given end. Maximum efficiency, the best cost-output ratio, is its measure of success.' As defined by Charles Taylor in his work The Ethics of Authenticity

** Anthropocene is currently a cultural rather that geological term: The Anthropocene defines Earth's most recent geologic time period as being human-influenced, or anthropogenic, based on overwhelming global evidence that atmospheric, geologic, hydrologic, biospheric and other earth system processes are now altered by humans. Source: The Encyclopedia of the Earth