Sophie Green documents the ancient practice of mud bathing, showing us the restorative potential of nature
Therapy is a photographic testament to the “mud-seeking pilgrims” all around the world – and to the magical mud itself.
- Daniel Milroy Maher
- 2 March 2022
“We trust the products that line our shelves more than nature itself, and there has been a massive and ridiculous disconnect here – especially since the natural product is likely more trustworthy,” says writer Emma Latham Phillips of her recent project Therapy, which was made in collaboration with photographer Sophie Green and looks at the age-old practice of mud treatments. Inspired by the images they found online of vast landscapes foregrounded by smothered, semi-naked bodies, the duo set out to investigate this intriguing pastime, photographing and interviewing participants in the hope of better understanding its appeal.
“Together we travelled to the coastal lakes beside the Black Sea in Bulgaria and the Dead Sea in Odessa in 2019, and I personally travelled to the volcanic baths of Columbia in 2020,” recalls Sophie. “All the locations seemed to offer varying landscapes to record people’s connection with the mud therapy.” In Bulgaria, she says the lakes were “serene and beautiful”, characterised by muddy shores that “intertwine with swaying reeds and lush greenery”, whereas the lakes in Odessa are set against a background of “concrete soviet-style blocks and the Kuyalnik Sanatorium – one of the oldest mud resorts in the country”, and the final destination, Columbia’s El Totumo Mud Volcano, is situated in a tall mound of earth that protrudes from the ground like a giant ant-hill and can only accommodate 10 to 15 people at a time.
Each setting presented Sophie and Emma with visually contrasting ways of engaging with the restorative qualities of “medicinal mud”, though recurring elements could be found in the participants themselves: “It was really interesting to me how women would embellish their looks whilst practising this functional treatment out in these alien landscapes,” explains Sophie. “Mud was smothered all over their bodies, however [they] would still wear their wide-brimmed hats, headscarves, designer glasses, red lipstick, manicured nails, and colourful lingerie.” These aspects gave the mud baths a “beauty pageant” feel, as though the visitors were there not just to rest and recuperate, but also to look good whilst doing so. And why not? For many, these outings are long-awaited summer holidays, and they want to make the most of them.
“[Eastern Europe] has a history of health holidays and sanatoriums – travelling specifically to heal using natural therapies,” says Emma. “A lot of older men and ladies [go to] take control of their health and ease the ageing process – it’s an act of self-care and self-love, so it’s almost like a beauty pageant. They proudly wear their bikinis, red lipstick, hats and mud. It is their great gift to themselves.” In theory, this idea may resonate with some of us in Western Europe, and yet, in reality, rarely do we go in search of natural sites of healing, or utilise the many health benefits that the natural world has to offer. Many of us instead retreat to our spas and salons, preferring the often clinical cleanliness of white robes and tiled floors.
For Sophie and Emma, Therapy is a visual response to these notions, pushing back against the idea that treatments can only be found in doctor’s offices and on massage tables, and showing that a possibly even greater state of wellbeing can be achieved by immersing oneself in nature. “A main point of this [project] was the idea that while the West would happily buy clay/mud masks, the prospect of getting into a muddy lake is both off-putting and anxiety-inducing,” Emma tells us. “But by bathing in the mud in its natural context, you are actively reconnecting to nature, and that whole process of being under the sky, in the sun, and with others, brings you joy as well. It heals you physically and mentally.”
Therapy was originally published in More or Less Magazine’s Generation Next Issue.
Sophie Green: Columbia – Therapy (Copyright © Sophie Green, 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.