Over the coming months, we’ll be publishing a series of interviews with Project Pressure artists discussing their experiences on receding glaciers around the globe. Project Pressure works to raise awareness of the loss of the world’s glaciers and maintains a photographic record of how these glaciers have been changing over time. The artists who work on the project not only help to document this change, but also to produce art that reflects the nature of the glaciers and the landscape in which they exist.
When he responded to Project Pressure’s call for artists, Chris Parsons, a freelance photographer based in central London didn’t actually expect to be selected. He’d been following the project for a number of years and, speaking to me from his home aboard a constantly moving narrowboat, Chris says he thought of the opportunity to work in Nepal as “the trip of a lifetime”.
Working to the initial brief from Project pressure, Chris looked to create something that combined science with adventure. He would be traveling to Nepal with a team of scientists whose aim was to conduct research on the glacier itself and Chris decided to bring a little of the scientific method into his approach. A microbiologist friend had recently shown him photographs of culture plates growing E. coli bacteria – the kind of thing you see in films about zombie outbreaks or sentient monkeys. Using this as inspiration, Chris decided to sample different areas of the glacier for culture and combine the resulting culture plates with photographs of where they were taken. The Microscopic and the macroscopic; side-by-side.
I thought that it made for a great contrast. The dead glacier, where nothing lives, but when you get down to this microscopic level, bacteria do thrive.
Arriving in Nepal, Chris recalls being unable to actually spot the glaciers as, in this region, they were covered by frequent rock fall and soil movement. Unlike the conventional glaciers that we imagine, they were brown, not bright blue or white.
“I’d been to Iceland before and seen glaciers there, but these were totally different. I had to have one of the team literally point them out to me the first time we saw them because I couldn’t distinguish them from the mountains”.
This covering of soil actually speeds up the decline of the glacier as, rather than the bright white surface of the ice reflecting heat, the darker soil acts to conduct and insulate, melting the ice at a faster rate. Chris sampled not only the water of the glacier for his cultures, but also the rocks, sand and soil, all from different sites. It was a steep learning curve for someone without a science background and, despite help from the researchers on the trip, there was still a lingering concern that he might return to the UK, prepare the samples and nothing would actually grow.
The uncertainty over the bacteria was in sharp contrast to the imagery Chris collected on the trip and which would eventually form the other half of the work. The journey through Nepal afforded him plenty of opportunities for photography beyond the glacier, including sitting in on a series of interviews with survivors of the 2015 earthquake and taking their portraits. The evidence of that disaster, which made headlines around the world, was still clear to see a year on but Chris found that the Nepalese people remained positive despite the tragedy and were, in his words, “unbelievably friendly”.
It’s clear from the way Chris talks that the cultural experience of Nepal has had a big impact on him and he explains that he’s already planning a return trip to take his dad and girlfriend to see the country. His highlight of the 2016 trip however was more physical than cultural and came when, after suffering with altitude sickness for several days, he returned to full health and was able to summit Chhuking Ri. Standing atop the mountain, a point higher than Everest base camp, and looking down on the glaciers he had come to know well from his work, Chris could find no other word to describe his feelings than simply “buzzing”.
Now returned to the UK and back at the day job, Chris is working to marry together his photographs and the cultured samples for exhibition. Much to his relief, the samples he took were teeming with life and he’s been able to photograph the colourful petri dishes that resulted. The exhibition is currently in the planning phase and information on it will soon be available.
Learn more about Project pressure here.