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Yangykala Canyon, which in prehistoric times lay beneath the Caspian Sea. Turkmenistan, 2012

Features / Publication

Oil, gas and fire: Chloe Dewe Mathews photographs human relationships to the elements

If ever you wanted to examine the human relationship to, and reliance on, the very resources which make up our world and how this fundamentally shapes everything we are, you need look no further than the Caspian Sea. Located at the intersection of Asia and Europe, it is the world’s largest inland body of water and one of the oldest and most important oil and natural gas-producing regions on Earth.

In 2010, while hitchhiking from China back to Britain, alongside her husband as part of a ten-month trip, photographer Chloe Dewe Mathews arrived on the shores of the Caspian Sea. It was area unlike much of the modern world, in which every square metre of land is chartered or laid claim to by someone. “I was really fascinated by the fact that the Caspian Sea is not owned by any of the countries that surround it. Ever since 1991, division of the territory has been in discussion – all five countries want the largest portion possible because of the mineral-rich Caspian seabed, as well as the access to international waters. So it was interesting to arrive in a place which was still in limbo, so long after the dissolution of the USSR,” Chloe recalls. Travelling across the region, she became aware of the geopolitics between the countries, but it was the Caspian’s geology that piqued her interest. “I began to see it as a region, rather than a set of countries,” she tells It’s Nice That, “trying to put those borders and politics aside to a certain extent in order to read it in terms of the materials that connect the countries and their people.”

To the west and northwest of the Caspian lies Russia and Azerbaijan, to the north and northeast, Kazakhstan. Iran wraps itself around the southern shore of the Sea, with Turkmenistan nestled in the southeast. For 20 years, the governments and the people of these four countries have disputed the status of the Sea, but in August of 2018, the water and its shores was finally divided up. Despite their political, social and geographical diversities, the people of this region are inextricably linked by their concern for the Caspian. Not only do their economies rely on its resources, but their myths, traditions and religions are also entwined in it too.

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In a cemetery on the Caspian coast, Uzbek migrant workers build elaborate mausoleums for the new oil-rich middle class. Kazakhstan, 2010

It was upon arriving in Kazakhstan that Chloe first considered there could be a story to tell in the area. “We noticed a cemetery from afar and could see a group of men all dressed in white with masks on”. Intrigued, they approached the group and discovered they were building elaborate mausoleums to service the newly-rich-on-oil generation. “I was interested to see how the architecture of the cemetery was actually changing due to the oil wealth in the area,” she continues, “on the tombs, I saw symbols of the oil industry etched into the stone.”

A journey across the Sea in a shipping container ensued and Chloe ended up in Azerbaijan where she came across the town of Naftalan. A sanitarium town, people visit from all over the world to bathe in its crude oil, believed to have myriad health benefits. On opposite sides of the same body of water existed two contrasting, yet complex relationships to the very same resource. “That was extraordinary and really shifted my perception of the region,” Chloe explains. As she returned to the Caspian for the following five years, she documented situations which resonated with each other: “I was seeking out stories that raised questions about the human relationship with natural resources in a much-coveted territory.” A comprehensive and personal look at her journeys through the region, these stories have now been collated in Chloe’s recently released book Caspian: The Elements.

A compelling series of photographs, the book travels to the far corners of the Caspian Sea in order to examine the diversity of its peoples’ connection to the land. Its pages explore the contradictions that exist within these connections and how they are rapidly changing and adapting as humans continue to exploit the natural world. As these contradictions and similarities stack up and overlap, a narrative emerges, presented in three distinct chapters. The first, titled Oil, Gas, Fire opens with Chloe’s images of Naftalan, bodies coated in the coveted thick, brown oil indigenous to the semidesert region of Azerbaijan. From here, we travel to Iran with images that document the Zoroastrian people for whom water and fire are agents of ritual purity.

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Albina Visilova, a regular visitor to the Naftalan Sanitorium. Azerbaijan, 2010

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The Flame Towers, completed in 2013, are the tallest buildings in Baku. Their surface is covered with LED screens that, when illuminated, give the impression of flickering flames. Azerbaijan, 2015

In the second chapter, Rock, Salt, Uranium we witness the pilgrimages made my worshippers to Shakpak-Ata, a remote rock-hewn mosque in Kazakhstan and the entrance to a small cave, believed to be to have been the home of the pagan goddess of fertility and womanhood, now a shrine for women who are trying to conceive to visit. In one image, a woman bathes in the orange salt water at Lake Baskunchak in Russia. In another, two men relax in the Ishker hot springs whose water’s healing benefits are sometimes attributed to the radioactive building material which surrounds it.

“There was a woman I met in Baku who calls herself a transpersonal therapist using shamanic principles,” Chloe recounts. “She lived in the capital city but would go out to Gobustan, a national park famous for its petroglyphs: ancient engravings of figures, symbols and animals on rocks.” The woman, Chloe continues, “would go there to perform these rituals”, providing an interesting glimpse into how the ancient myth of the landscapes still pervades. This tension between new and old exists throughout the book, which constantly flip-flops between the dangerously destructive way humans treat the landscape, and the innate respect instilled in us through mythology.

Baku, in fact, is perhaps the location in which this tension is most evident. It was here that Chloe met Rufat Aliyev, a BP geologist who grew up in the Balakhani oil fields on the edge of Baku, an area which has been home to hand-dug wells dating back to the tenth century. Although employed by one of the world’s largest oil companies, Rufat spends his spare time travelling hundreds of miles from Baku to gather crude oil source rock, onto which he paints landscapes featuring oil rigs, lit by the setting sun. His work, in turn, a documentation of the change he has witnessed in recent times.

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The “Door to Hell”. In 1971, Soviet geologists were drilling in the Turkmen desert when the land gave way beneath them, leaving a 70-metre wide, noxious gas-emitting crater. They ignited the gas and tried to burn off the excess, but the crater has been abalze ever since. Turkmenistan, 2012

It was change that struck Chloe the most when visiting Azerbaijan’s capital. “The city was developing at an alarming rate. There’s one photograph I’ve included of the Fire Towers, which were completed in 2013. At that stage they were the tallest building in Baku, but not for long.” The monumental structures, which are covered in LED screens so as to resemble flames licking the sky at night, are akin to developments which have taken place in areas like Dubai. An interesting observation of the modern contemporary relationship to these materials, they are perhaps more representative of our growing reliance on them, and the greed and over-consumption which has ensued as a result.

The final chapter of the book is Water and we find ourselves in Russia on the shore of the Volga River on the morning of Epiphany. Every year, members of the Russian Orthodox Church plunge themselves into the river’s icy water to remember Christ’s baptism under the blessing of a priest who declares the water safe – and even healing – to enter for one day only. “I met all sorts of people down at the water’s edge,” the photographer recalls, “I’m used to cold water swimming where I live in England and it attracts a very particular kind of person. However, on the Epiphany in Russia, there was a huge variety of people gathering to immerse themselves in the icy water – washing away their sins from the year before.” While this gathering is borne from religious ritual, it’s undeniably affecting to witness the belief in the elevation of this one body of water.

Much of the joy of Caspian: The Elements is in these individual stories. They are fascinating and wide-ranging but also soon become familiar. They are stories of higher powers, of communities coming together, or beliefs which transcend generations.

The three chapters were chosen by Chloe to highlight the similarities in these stories which are connected by their pervading element, not their geographical location. By doing so, she renders the individual countries as insignificant, instead, uniting the area as one whole, highlighting a collective experience from across the Caspian. “Juxtaposing apparently unrelated photographs allows people to make their own connections between images,” she explains of the decision. “The captions I’ve written give fairly basic information about my photographs. But by arranging them in a particular order as a book, I hope that visual relationships form between images that create a larger narrative sequence, transcending the specific information provided by individual captions.” The result of these considered pairings, on a basic level, is a demonstration of the ubiquitous elements of the Earth which connect us all. The natural resources of this area, but also in much of the world, dictate the traditions of old but also the societies of new. They are the reason, in one book, Chloe was able to document women caressing the limestone of a Mosque while praying, alongside young boys splashing into the sea as offshore oil rigs loom in the distance. The juxtaposition of these kinds of images, at once imbued with humanity’s frailty and arrogance is undeniably humbling, and somewhat overwhelming.

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Bathers at the Ishker hot springs. The walls around Ramsar’s numerous medicinal baths were built with local stone, and the healing benefit of thewater is sometimes attributed to this radioactive building material. Iran, 2015

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Yanar Dag, the “eternally burning mountainside” is fuelled by a steep natural gas that allegedly ignited in the 1950s by a shepherd who dropped his cigarette. Azerbaijan, 2012

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Every winter, on the day of Epiphany, members of the Russian Orthodox church plunge themselves three times into the Volga River to remember Christ’s baptism. Russia, 2012