Cait Oppermann photographs the juxtaposition of calm and chaos for swimmers in the Dead Sea
Taken between 2015-2018 while visiting her partner’s family in Israel, the New York-based photographer reflects on creating a body of work more like renaissance paintings than photographs.
- Lucy Bourton
- 11 January 2021
- Reading Time
- 4 minute read
It’s often a wonder of ours how photographers decide what to photograph and what to leave untouched. This especially applies to practitioners like Cait Oppermann whose work manages to highlight everyday details, moments and movements, and anything she touches morphs into an artwork when framed by her lens.
In turn, it’s a question Cait asks herself in almost every new place she visits, using her phone to capture moments as they present themselves, relieving “some of the psychological pressure of making pictures on a traditional camera, when I just want to experience a place for myself,” she tells It’s Nice That. “Even if I never look at the photo again, it’s worth relieving that moment of feeling like I need to keep that image in my head. This is actually what happened when I first when to the Dead Sea,” the focus of Cait’s newly released body of work.
Back in 2015 Cait was visiting Israel for the first time, taking a trip to her partner’s dad’s side of the family. The Dead Sea in particular, a salt lake bordered by Jordan and Israel full of “otherworldliness”, held everything Cait scouts for an image, but her camera was sitting at home. Taking snaps on her phone as sketches, “for when I’d eventually return and shoot it with a ‘real’ camera and intention,” over the next three years she continually photographed the lake and its visitors. “If I’d had a camera on me that day, perhaps that first visit would have been the beginning and end of it, which I’m glad didn’t happen,” she reflects now, releasing the work following two years of sitting with the images. “Sometimes the phone is a perfect sketchbook to prepare for and wrap your head around the real thing.”
Describing the Dead Sea for those who haven’t visited, Cait recounts a “gigantic body of water that looks and feels like oil”. Given such high levels of salt the lake is surrounded by showers at the water’s edge, which swimmers flock to wash away the salt after a quick dip. “It’s always buzzing with activity because the salt burns if it gets in your eyes,” the photographer describes. “It’s really an unsettling feeling. It’s so salty that your skin starts to feel like it’s burning… like you’re being pickled or something,” even recalling how when shooting her calves would ache from dehydration by the end of the day.
With this understandably preoccupying Cait’s subjects, the resulting series is a juxtaposition of this chaotic dash to fresh water. All the while however the Dead Sea remains calm in the background, quickly reforming to its undisturbed state one the swimmers clamber back out. Across the images Cait’s use of light also adds a painterly quality to how the water appears, almost thick to best portray her description of it feeling like oil once submerged.
Those featured also rarely look in her direction – mostly their eyes are closed for obvious reasons – but Cait still manages to capture their deep sigh of relief as they grapple with the metal showers. These showers also add their own quality to the images where they feature, offering a natural frame for Cait to work with, “like a containment of the frenzy within a small space of an otherwise eerily calm landscape devoid of life”. Those who look closely may be able to spot changes from image to image too, as the Dead Sea is gradually shrinking “up to a metre every year due to a number of factors, which are linked politically and environmentally,” Cait explains. “Even in the three years I visited, the water’s edge had noticeably receded. Everything had shifted in a way that was actually disorientating and made me question my own memories of the place.”
Releasing this body of work at the end of 2020, taking her time to reflect and rework self-motivated projects is a regular factor of Cait’s process. “I’ve always struggled with my own work, and what might be the right outlet for it,” she notes. Explaining how the responsibility of what to do with a body of work, as well as when and how to release it, “all feels a bit too much” at times, Cait describes her then releasing “it into the wild feels like relinquishing control as well, which has always been difficult for me.”
After filing away her documentation of the Dead Sea, upon revisiting the works the initial chaos, one that is so clear in the final images, is what struck the photographer again. In turn working with a retoucher to heighten the oily look and feel to the final photos, the series now resembles renaissance paintings with almost nude bodies intermixed, limbs held up in poses, and all against a serene background of course. “Once we hit that mark,” Cait concludes, “I decided the work was finally done.”
Cait Oppermann: The Dead Sea (Copyright © Cait Oppermann, 2020)
About the Author
Lucy joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In October 2016 she became a staff writer on the editorial team and in January 2019 was made It’s Nice That’s deputy editor. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about new and upcoming creative projects or editorial ideas for the site.