First ‘podcast’

I have achieved what I wanted with my interview with geologist Dr. Beth Simons.

It has covered many points (although not all) and led to a new discovery for me – cathodoluminescence.

This is particularly used in geology and creates fabulous images, which Beth compared my work to. Somehow it feels as though this gives more credence to the outcomes my photographic techniques create. I plan to investigate this technique further to see how I can potentially incorporate it into my ongoing work.

Music courtesy of:

Transcript (approx.) – Harena Now Podcast with geologist, Dr. Beth Simons

JP: Today I’m joined by Dr. Beth Simons, a geologist and now working with Shelterbox which responds to humanitarian disasters worldwide.

Beth has also been getting involved recently with the number of art project in Cornwall that are connected to nature such as Cornwall’s Groundwork Tracing Granite project which is with the artist and quarryman David Paton.

Thanks so much for joining me today to have a chat about my work as well – lovely to see you. What I’d like to kick off with is your passion for geology.

BS: I didn’t really realise until my early twenties that I had an enthusiasm for rocks. I was looking for something to do at university and I saw this geology course and said to my mum “there’s a course all about rocks” and she said, “hang on a minute” and went up into the attic and brought down a massive box of rocks that I collected as a child. Clearly it has always been in my system but I never quite realised – it kind of went from there.

I do really like geology because to me it is the science of the Earth. It’s the science of everything; it’s how the Earth formed, how we live now, it’s just everything about the Earth, from the beginning of the Earth to current day with climate change and how the oceans operate, everything. You cannot do anything without geology. I found it a really fascinating science in that way so.

JP: If we have a little chat about science, photographic art and the environment today. We can chat about Harena Now, which is my photographic project looking at the global sand crisis which I think is an environmental issue that perhaps not everyone has heard about as yet. I would say most people are very aware about environmental issues relating to plastics in the ocean and that’s had some very fantastic coverage and some good things are happening around that but I think the sand crisis is an issue that hasn’t quite got the media coverage or exposure so I’m hoping my project, in a very small way, will help raise its profile and add a different angle – have you heard of the sand crisis?

BS: No, I hadn’t. In my mind I knew about sand mining, I knew about things like dredging of metals that go in smartphones and things and that really impact on sand – it’s all along the coast lines in places like Indonesia but no, I’ve never really considered sand as being in crisis before. You really stop to think about it and you realise that sand is used in so many different ways, particularly for construction it’s a big thing and some places don’t have much in the way of solid rock or aggregate; in the Middle East for example they use a lot of sand to make their buildings.

JP: The fascinating thing that I’ve learnt from research is around how for construction particularly, which is booming in various countries around the world, particularly India and Asia, it’s only certain sand that can be used because it has to be the rough sand and not the smooth that comes from the desert. Seabeds and riverbeds are the places that people will go, which is something I think no one would ever think about – you would think sand is sand and you can use any sand to build things with so that was quite an eye opener. I didn’t actually find out about it until last year myself. I was a little bit bored with mainstream news and started to look at different news channels and I listen to an Al Jazeera news story about it. It was like a light bulb moment and it really snowboard from there.

I did want to show you as well because you’ve been a geologist a book by Michael Welland who was a geologist. He wrote a book called Sand: a journey through science and the imagination. For me it was an amazing way to learn about sand. He even says at the end of it about potentially as environmental situations deteriorate on earth that it might be the life between the grains of sand that were the starting blocks of our world may be the only things left at the end of it. What do you think about when you think about sand because it’s been such a huge influence on civilisation and how we live our lives?

BS: It wasn’t until you told me about your project I started thinking more about project and how we use it and because it’s such a basic building material it’s been used by civilisations for thousands of years. People have been using sand to build, mixing mud to make bricks and now mixing with cement to make concrete. In certain communities people live on sand and rivers, it washes away and then they move to another sand island – we’ve always had that relationship with sand but perhaps I’ve never really considered it like that before. It’s a really fascinating idea that you just mentioned from this book that we could have started our lives with sand and life on Earth could end with just life in between the sand because that’s the only place it can be safe.

JP: I wanted to have a chat about my work and just explain to you a little bit around what I’m doing and how I’m doing it. I think one of the main things is, if you’re going to talk about environmental and human impact, is to try to minimise my own impact as a photographer. I tend to work in historical or alternative processes but I try really hard to minimise the amount of chemicals that I use in my work. Previously I worked very much with the cyanotype. These are made with the cyanotype process – blue and white – but these are just made in the ocean, made on the beach and the fabric is laid out and you just let the waves in the water come up and do their thing.

Now I’m using a process where I take out-of-date black and white photo paper that already exists, it’s already been manufactured, but I take that and rather it going to waste and being disposed of I use sand and UV and I create this original black and white paper image, which if you left out in the light would continue to expose or if kept in a dark box would still exist as is. I use my computer, which is obviously again made with sand so all that there’s all these juxtapositions I think to create work such as these that are all made at the beach. They are simply made with sand and manipulated by computer software and I think that’s really to show the human interference I can create something good, or not so good, it’s all about the impact that your choice of what you’re doing has.

They are not obviously pictures of the actual sand mining disaster that very abstract.

BS: Yes they are; I’m not going to pretend I know anything about photography or the processes but it’s really good that you explained it. Instantly in my mind I’m looking at them and I’m thinking geology things. I can see the shapes of the grains of sand and I’m wondering what that is, if it’s a mineral or a fragment of a rock type. They are really beautiful colours and it would make me stop and look because it isn’t image of sand mining or death and destruction and when confronted with images like that all the time in the news I think it’s almost like overload sometimes. To see an image of something completely different about something I’ve never really given much consideration to such as the sand crisis would make me stop and think a bit more about the impact I’m having because I own the technology that uses the sand.

JP: I think in the past few years there has been something called charity fatigue but I think there might be a little bit around photographic image fatigue in relation to environmental issues when they are very explicit. We live in a world where we are exposed quite easily and readily to as much information about disaster or wars and for people’s own sanity sometimes people need to step away from that. Carl Sagan said something along the lines of asking are there as many sand grains on the earth as stars in the sky, which I think is a nice juxtaposition in the sense of the work that when I stop and imagine looking at it is similar to when I look at images of the universe. I’m always quite i awe – that’s our universe – and if you walk out at night and look at the stars it’s like “wow”, so I want the same the sand.

BS: I really like this image, it has some kind of plant or seaweed in it’s a reminder it isn’t just about sand, there’s a whole other biological system associated with the environment where sand is and that image there, well it’s very explicit around that you can really see the seaweed in that one. I also look at this image as if I look at sand under the microscope as I can play with the colours on the microscope to get different effects but they do look like that. These images, particularly the ones with the bright yellows and blues – there’s a scientific technique called cathodoluminescence where you can get different minerals to present different ways but it produces images the colours like this so when I look at that I think of how I look as particulars rock under a microscope but that’s just the geology mind again.

JP: I have a microscope in the corner, perhaps we could have a look at some sand. That would be amazing; that sounds like good fun and absolutely would love to do that. It’s really good to hear that as a geologist you see that even though I’ve been unaware there’s anything like that [cathodoluminescence] exists. Fantastic, let’s go and do that. Thank you for having chat with me, it’s really good to get your input.