Research project in collaboration with Magnum Photos.
2009 – 2012
It seems to be an accepted fact that the sea level will rise dramatically before the end of the century as a result of climate change, partly through the fault of us humans. Prognoses vary from a few decimetres to a few metres.1 Moments before the Flood (working title) is a visual, photographic investigation into how Europe is coping with a difficult-to-gauge threat. The coasts of Europe are the areas in which the repercussions of this threat will be felt. This is the zone in which the mainland no longer feels as “main” as it once did, where the Old World is foundering and where the future is a threat to the past. Whether it’s the rocky coasts of western Ireland, the salt marshes and mudflats off the northern Netherlands, the harbours of the Baltic Sea, the volcanic coasts of Iceland or the beaches of the Aegean Sea, Europe’s coast seems to be decidedly unstable. The coast is the question mark of the mainland. And that’s what makes it so fascinating a subject for photographic research that tries to depict uncertainty. This project doesn’t just focus on a possible future hazard; it also takes in the various forms of coastal protection in Europe throughout history and how today Fortress Europe copes with other swells and floods. The 65,000-kilometre-long coast of Europe is dotted with useless coastal defences from bygone days. Many represent enormous investments in materials and man-hours, but most never served any purpose, either because the “enemy” didn’t show up, or, when the enemy did appear, the construction proved hopelessly outdated. When the Germanic people invaded the Roman Empire the once-famous Limes were quite insignificant. And even the Atlantic Wall failed to stop the Normandy Landing. Before the Flood poses the question: is Europe prepared for the possible dramatic rise of the seal level and to what extent will its efforts eventually prove futile? Are the dyke reinforcements and sea defences the new variants of the old forts and defence lines? Perhaps there’s a parallel here with the much vaunted millennium bug that was expected to turn all computer systems on their head in 2000. Eventually the threat was not so serious, or was it perhaps because we were so well prepared for it? To a great extent, this research programme is all about this latent tension, the incapacity to define just how real a threat actually is and how efficient are our defences against it. For four years I want to spend four months every year travelling the coasts of Europe. The type of photography I have in mind (and which I have already been somewhat experimenting with during the preparatory phase) focuses on empty landscapes, desolate beaches, deserted hotels, wintry piers, bleak harbour cranes, disconsolate cliffs and dramatic cloud formations. I aim to consciously document ominous images of doom, in true David Lynch style. The tension in the images will not depict catastrophe but the exact opposite, the absence of catastrophe. This subdued tension can make tragedy of trivia. I don’t want to photograph the disaster I want to photograph the disaster waiting to happen. And I want to ascertain to what degree the waiting and the accompanying fortifications are giving structure to the definition of Europe in this new millennium, in the same way that Kavafis’ famous poem, Waiting for the Barbarians, served the wellbeing of the civilised people. Like Godot gave credence to absurdity by not showing up at all. Before the Flood will try to be an outstanding photographic work about waiting, portraying the uncanniness of the indefinable and the uncertain. It literally makes Europe uncanny.