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Panoramic freshwater photographer Paul Stewart’s first solo exhibition opens in France

July 17, 2012

As the summer holidays in Europe begin, the thoughts of freshwater scientists and managers turn to lazy days hanging out by lakes and rivers soaking up the cultural ecosystem services they provide! Paul Stewart is an artist and photographer who has made this his life. His first solo exhibition opened Sunday in Le Pouliguen on the Atlantic coast of France. The BioFresh blog asked Paul about the inspiration for his work.

BioFresh Blog: You’ve been photographing rivers and wetlands for years. What is it that draws you to freshwaters as a subject of your art?

Paul Stewart: The short answer is simply that every river or wetland is a great story.

I grew up near the Eden River in Cumbria and as a boy those endless summers were invariably spent in the river cooling off in cut-off jeans, floating on an old tractor inner-tube or swinging off a rope dubiously attached to an over hanging tree. …or taping my mother’s cutlery to a stick and rolling stones to skew and butcher some eels.

As a rower in my teens we’d spend many weekends attending regattas on the Tyne and Tees. Water just seemed to be cool and I’d spend days fishing the stream at the back of the house. A short rod and reel, a hook and a worm and a couple of pieces of shot to take it to the bottom. I’d be back at tea time. It was all so simple.

These are beautiful memories and perhaps they are the basis of my fascination with water. I loved the solitude, the sounds and of course the catch. I still love walking along a river especially in a city. In an urban situation it’s the only place where you can see far rather than just across or down the street.

BFB: Your panorama photos are truly remarkable, but why have you chosen to focus on this medium?

PS: Well thanks a lot. Panoramas appeal to me both from a technical point of view – the craft of shooting multiple images stitching and fusing exposure – and from the perspective of creating an arresting image either as a final exhibition print or as a piece of interactive media.

Panoramic media is essentially mathematic: a constant 360° x 180°. In man-made environments the final image may have the function of illustrating a city square or the interior of a building but it’s frankly quite boring to look at in print. The environment doesn’t follow these repetitive ‘boxes’ at all and this is the part that excites me as a photographer. The point to remember is that when taking panos you aren’t doing any cropping whatsoever. You shoot everything, everywhere. Revealing details and having an awareness of my complete surroundings is a technique I revel in. In many cases I’m only a few centimeters from the subject matter that will come to dominate the final image. This can create a real wow factor in print and when one explores and navigates the image online. In the print versions I seek to tease a viewer’s perceptions. Water always plays a key role in the composition either from its presence or from its absence.

BFB: Congratulations on your first solo exhibition. What is the issue behind the title “Site Ramsar 999 – Zone Humide du Cambodge”

PS: It’s the first time that this portfolio has been formally shown in Europe. Ramsar Site 999 has already been successfully exhibited in Phnom Penh and during the Phnom Penh Photo Festivals.

This Ramsar Site is officially called, ‘The Middle Stretches of Mekong River North of Stoeng Treng’. It’s an absolute jewel and a feast for the eyes, but it’s a real mouthful and with 999 being the UK emergency telephone number I thought the stars had aligned not only for great imaging but also memorable promotion material.

I’d traveled this section of the Mekong when traveling between Laos and Cambodia in the late nineties and was just staggered at the flora. It just had to go in the diary for a future visit where I could get off the boat and explore at my own pace on foot. At that time, in the 1990s, the river was the only official international thoroughfare. I remember my passport being stamped on either side of the river in rickety stilted shacks with friendly customs officers.

Then I had no idea it was a Ramsar listed wetland [BFB at that time Cambodia hadn’t recognised the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance]. I had no idea what Ramsar was. It just looked like nothing I’d seen in my whole life. It was and still is pure magic to me.

The site itself is not threatened by any particular issues in the short term. It is home to some extremely poor communities and some are benefiting from recent community based tourism initiatives. It is also home to the most Northerly pods of Irrawaddy Dolphin. Problems will arise however if the planned mainstream dams are built in the lower Mekong basin. Of the eleven penciled in so far. The Stung Treng dam may well swallow this site completely in the years to come.

BFB: Do you think art can play a role in efforts to save freshwater life and if so how?

PS: Photography already plays a crucial role in highlighting the catastrophic losses in freshwater habitat and biodiversity. Highlighting it is not enough though. It’s old school, like a newspaper reporting on something. It’s past tense. The damage is already done.

Imaging is an integral part of collective and effective communication across all broadcast channels with the exception of radio. It should not be considered, in my opinion, as just a supplemental addition but it should be nurtured and supported as a part of the commons.

What it looks like matters.

BFB: …and finally, what are your plans for the future?

PS: I’d give my right bollock to shoot all the Ramsar Sites. What a thought! The portfolio of Ramsar wetlands is truly impressive. In panorama it would make a fantastic online and offline experience as well as a valuable future resource.

There is synergy with my work and their objectives. If my images help in creating a wider debate or a conversation on value and role of wetlands then they will be of real value. I have no formal link with Ramsar but they have been enthusiastic supporters of my work and I very much appreciate what involvement they have had. Unfortunately, to my knowledge, they don’t support imaging financially.

Obviously for me to continue to explore wetlands and the story of water I need to sell my work and producing limited edition prints is a traditional method to achieve it. Being an artist, especially one using digital imaging, there is a challenge in terms of legitimacy within the ivory towers of photography who seem to still favour established approaches This will change over time as they embrace the digital age.

Paul’s show “Site Ramsar 999 – Zone Humide du Cambodge” runs from 15th July to 31st August at Gallerie Hasy, 21 Grande Rue, 44510, Le Pouliguen, France. It is open Wednesday to Sunday 10-12.30 and 15.30-19.30. Google maps here.

We encourage readers living or holidaying in France to drop by and maybe think about how these sort or aesthetic and artistic values of freshwater systems fit into the ecosystem services framework. We wish Paul every success with his show and his wonderful dream of photographing the world’s Ramsar sites!

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