“It is a war of attrition”: Calvin Chow photographs Jakarta’s struggle to keep itself above water
A giant sea wall may be a short-term fix for an advancing wall of water but, as Calvin Chow shows us in his ongoing series, stopping it will require bigger thinking.
- Daniel Milroy Maher
- 18 June 2021
In 2014, construction began on a giant sea wall that would run for 32km around the bay of Jakarta, a city often referred to as the fastest-sinking city in the world. With less than half of the population having access to piped water, over the years many residents have been forced to build illegal wells and pumps, drawing water from aquifers beneath the city and, slowly but surely, sinking its foundations. To make matters worse, rising sea levels due to climate change have meant that not only is Jakarta moving down, but the ocean around it is moving up. In the hardest hit areas, risen levels of around eight inches over the course of a single year have been reported. Many of these areas, including northern parts of Jakarta where the sea is not far away, are home to low-income communities. These communities live in close proximity to the wall, where they occupy slums and work on nearby fishing boats and in the markets. In contrast to the city’s more affluent residents, these impoverished groups experience the wall face-to-face on a daily basis, where it serves as a constant reminder of the sea’s looming dangers.
A couple of years ago, just over 500 miles away in Singapore, photographer Calvin Chow had been contemplating his own understanding of climate change. Inundated with news reports of rising sea levels and 3D projections of oceans covering skyscrapers, he realised that he had long since become desensitised to these alarming depictions of the future. “I felt like this bombardment of facts and figures callused people, [hindering their] desire to do something about the situation,” Calvin recalls. He wanted to see for himself what the future would hold, and whether these purportedly risen seas were already here. He wanted to create a project that would “speak to the heart”, providing a more poetic, human perspective on a subject that can often feel clouded by complex facts and figures that dull our emotional response.
The Blindness of The Sea was Calvin’s answer to this state of despondency. Started in 2019 and currently ongoing, the series looks at the relationship between nature and humanity, between ocean and city. Following similar thematic threads found in other areas of his work, which explore the relentlessness of time and space and everything in between, here Calvin looks at the dichotomy between the unceasing rate of growth in Southeast Asia and the unstoppable power of the sea. “The title of the project is a play on the phrase ‘sea blindness’, which refers to people’s ignorance of the importance of the shipping industry and how it keeps the world moving,” he explains. “I wanted to play with that idea from the sea’s perspective, [showing] that no matter what you put in front of it, it will still crash over it, for it is as blind [to us] as we humans are to it.”
Blind to the sea we may be, but it is hard to ignore the huge barrier that separates Jakarta from it. As Calvin says: “The physicality of the wall is a construct too stark to ignore. Getting over the wall would entail climbing makeshift ladders, some constructed with rope and driftwood, just to find a spot to fish or find a connection between one’s eyes and the sounds of the sea.” Jakarta’s hardy residents do what they must to ensure life can carry on with some sense of normality, and yet the very notion of “carrying on” is fraught with contradiction. Given enough time, without the proper attention paid to it, nature will undo any kind of normality we are accustomed to, be it the ability to fish or even the ability to live above water. In many ways, the wall is there to safeguard a very delicate and arguably unsustainable reality. A reality in which humanity can overcome its environment and people can go about their everyday lives without fear of displacement by natural disaster. The wall helps to maintain this illusion. “How high and for how long can we build a seawall, when we don’t solve the issue at its core,” says Calvin. “It’s akin to a band-aid over a gunshot wound.”
In the photographs, we see abandoned buildings left to be swallowed by the advancing water. A solitary figure stands on one of the wall supports, staring out at the vastness of the Java Sea. Elsewhere, man made structures seem to be at the mercy of the waves and the swells as they crash against cement and surge around rocks where fishermen sit. The locals appear frequently dwarfed by their environment, and the images feel like a reminder of how vulnerable we are to nature’s whim. But these photographs also present to us the unfairness of it all. Ultimately, these local residents, who are just trying to get by, are not to blame for the position in which Jakarta currently finds itself. These are the people who are most impacted by the city’s poor management of water supplies, and it is for this reason that it has gone on for so long. As always, those at the bottom bear the brunt of bad decisions by those at the top. And though from a distance it is easy to point the finger, Calvin says it’s also important to remember how skewed our perspectives can be.
“For developing nations, the climate may not take precedence over their survival. After all, they were not the ones who reaped the benefits of the industrial revolution. [In the west], the climate emergency has become one of the most talked about issues, but its views for change often gloss over the reality of what it means to those who live in developing nations.”
Calvin Chow: Island (Copyright © Calvin Chow, 2020)
About the Author
Daniel joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in February 2019 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. He graduated from Kingston University with a degree in Journalism in 2015. He is also co-founder and editor of SWIM, an annual art and photography publication.