Phillipa Klaiber is a documentary photographer, themes of anthropology, landscape and memory are central to her practice. Her most recent project, Vorest, ruminates on the ever-changing landscape of the Forest of Dean. I spoke with her about the process behind making the project and its links to sustainability.
What was it about this particular landscape, that moved you to create a project?
The project began with my fascination with the role of forests in myth and folklore, as well as the unique cultural heritage of this place. Forests have long been entwined with myth and folklore. They have enticed and inspired us since ancient times, creating stories that have been shared across cultures and centuries in oral and written language. In such stories, the forest has many forms. It can be dark and foreboding, a place that offers shelter or camouflage and in which the wanderer can find themselves, ultimately, lost. The forest is often spoken of as if it is another realm. It is a place where time and the co-existence of flora and fauna have their own rules, in which humans are a recent intruder.
In this forest, there is a collective desire among the inhabitants to maintain the ecological balance of their land. The cultural and natural values of this landscape are inescapably linked. Historically, the Forest of Dean has a rich culture of land use. The ancient boundary, known as the Hundred of St. Briavels, is observed in local law and defines whether someone is considered a true forester or not.
I grew up on the outer edge of the border to this forest that I have always wanted to call home, but never quite belonged. I am in some ways a forester and an outsider, able to move freely between the two. The personal connection I have with this place has grown immensely with the development of this project.
There is an appropriate mix of both colour and black and white film images. What was the reasoning behind this and are any of them archive photos?
When I was half way through the project, I looked through the archives of the local museum. Initially it was part of my research, but I discovered photographs that really resonated with me. It is an archive of professional and hobbyist photographers, spanning from 1908 to around the 1960s. Some will have been donated by the photographers or their families, others acquired from organisations like the Forestry school that no longer exists.
Every time I visited the archive, I collected copies of the photographs that I was most drawn to. I explored the collection as if I was photographing, choosing the photographs that I imagined I might have taken myself. Over the following months, every time I returned to the forest to photograph, I then allowed myself to be influenced by the archive photographs.
In the later stages of editing, I brought them together to create narrative strands between the archive photographs and my own, creating a visual conversation between the narratives of the past and the environment in the present.
The images are beautifully composed, the light in them has a warming tone, combined with a mixture of soft and full focus, it has led me to wonder how you created the work and what photographic equipment you used?
Landscapes are material. They are something we dwell, act, and think in. The material elements of landscapes create different experiences for us. Here, for example, there is a particular feeling of being surrounded on all sides when you are far from the threshold, and straying from the beaten path in an old woodland. Or, in the heathland, where the gorse is sharp and rough, and the ground is soft beneath your feet. All of these elements are material and tactile. I have tried to capture them in detail and in expansive panoramas that place you within the landscape. To do this I use a Hasselblad Xpan, which allows me to quickly change between a regular 35mm frame and a panoramic one.
Among the images, is a short piece of informative text. What was your process in selecting the text and deciding where to position it within the imagery, and is there a significance to these words?
It took some time to decide how much text to include, from when you first see the images and to find the right balance between fact and more poetic prose. Eventually, I found a balance that I was happy with, that I think gives just enough information and entices the viewer to find out more about the place through the photographs.
The Forest of Dean has often been called the Land Between Two Rivers. It is between the River Severn and the River Wye and has always been quite isolated because of the surrounding topography (the physical features of the land). The title of this work, Vorest, comes from the Forest dialect, a broad West Country accent with rapid speech. It is Celtic, Anglo-Saxon and Old English in origin, and shaped by the insular lives of mining communities. Many of the words and phrases are details or actions of the land, or rural working life; vorest means forest.
The theme of Issue 13 is sustainability and your project depicts how people interact with land and their desire to conserve it. Could you tell me a bit more about why this aspect was important to you to represent?
I am keen for this work to contribute to dialogues on ecology, climate change and modern social structure. Some important elements of that, which I touch on in Vorest, are the concepts of land ownership, the freedom to roam and future proofing local ecology. From what I have seen, in the Forest of Dean, these elements seem to be tied to the cultural history that is so important to foresters. A lot of the forests are publicly owned and managed, so there is a vast access to land and freedom to roam. There are also several publicly funded initiatives to improve the ecology of this landscape, with a plan that looks 100 years into the future. Preserving these environmental and social elements is essential in preserving the cultural history and the ecology of this community’s home and environment.
That makes a lot of sense, on a more personal and intimate note, what do you hope people will take away from this work in terms of their own thoughts around preserving and respecting the land around them?
Many of the people who call this forest home have a distinct connection to their environment, which is made stronger by its cultural value. This experience of being rooted in a natural place is not common, particularly in more built up areas. I hope to encourage the viewer to consider their own connection to their local environment and find ways to strengthen it. When we really experience our natural surroundings in our everyday lives, and form lasting memories, we are more likely to develop a lifelong relationship with our environment, and to care more deeply about its well-being.
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Sustainability permeates every aspect of our lives and is now a necessity, not a choice. Human innovation, determination and persistence is more important than ever and will ultimately decide the fate of our planet. In this issue, through photography and writing we explore insect-based protein, space colonisation, childfree people, the importance of payphones, the world’s largest blanket bog, support for artists, sustainable photobooks and Universal Basic Income.
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