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Chloe Dewe Mathews
When viewed from space, the Caspian has a distinct outline, like an upside down map of the British Isles, and roughly the same size. But the Caspian is no lake, nor is it an ordinary sea; surrounded by vast tracts of desert, hovering half way between Asia and Europe – though belonging to neither, the Caspian is a sea almost lost in the land. I set out to capture the spirit of the illusive region; picking out unusual, poetic and often humorous aspects of everyday lives.
Over the centuries, nearby Empires have come and gone, each leaving its mark: first the Ottomans, then Persians, Mongols and finally, the Russians.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1993, an oil boom brought fresh prosperity to the area. Ports such as Aktau sprang up on the coast of Kazakhstan, where in the cemetery migrant workers now construct elaborate tombs for a new oil-rich middle class.
Across the water in the semi-desert of Azerbaijan, in a sanatorium town called Naftalan, people bathe in unique, chocolate-brown oil, which is believed to have therapeutic properties. It was startling to see an industrial substance so associated with international politics, power and wealth, being used for health and relaxation.
While the economic relationships between Europe and Asia change and ecological conditions on our planet mutate, so do the fortunes sift of the disparate communities who live around this strange sea. Even today, the lives of these people are tied to the landscape as never before.
My work is a hunt for moments of potency; when the clutter of day-to-day existence falls away to reveal something uncomplicated, something essential.
After a degree in Fine Art at Oxford University, I worked in the feature film industry for four years. Although it was an exciting world to be part of, I found myself questioning its extravagance. I wanted to work on something quieter, more economical, where I had room for spontaneity and intimacy with my subject.
In 2010 I traveled overland from China to Britain, hitchhiking and camping, in an attempt to experience and capture the cultural shift that takes place as one moves from Asia to Europe. During that time I shot projects on the Uighur minority in Western China, the returning waters of the Aral Sea, and the Caspian.
My work has been published in the Sunday Times Magazine, the Independent, Foto8, Vision China and Dazed and Confused magazine, and exhibited in London, Birmingham, Buenos Aires and Berlin.