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Zealous Amplify: Environment Award Interviews

By Polly Bates

@pollysportfolio www.pollybates.co.uk






Mithail Afrige 'Human & Plastic'



Zealous is a creative platform which connects talent to opportunity. Amplify: Environment is an award by Zealous designed to celebrate the most impactful works related to environmental themes. Zealous' Team are passionate about promoting environmental consciousness, as they explain:


"Our world is ever-changing, prompting numerous questions and discussions about our role within it. From the beauty of nature to the complexities of climate change, we want to explore it all. By recognising and sharing your exceptional work, we hope to not only support you but also foster meaningful conversations about the environment."

The Award also served as a fundraising initiative for their chosen charity, Arts Catalyst, who support communities in South Yorkshire and beyond to participate in creative experiences that increase ecological awareness, encourage positive social action, and open up new ways of learning about the world around us.


With cash prizes of up to £1,000, I had the honour of judging the final shortlist of applicants. The other judges and I were prompted to score the submissions on their impact, originality, and story. There was such an impressive scope of mediums, approaches, and concepts, which is a reflection of how important these conversations are. I spoke to Zillah Bowes, Sam Williams and Luminara Florescu about their winning works and practices.






Zillah Bowes

Based in Cardiff, Wales





1st Place winner of Zealous’ Amplify Environment 2024 Award, Zillah Bowes’

multi-disciplinary work frequently explores the relationship between the individual and the natural environment. ‘Allowed’ is a film which brings into focus the loss of biodiversity and natural life within urban spaces.

 

 Zillah Bowes 'Allowed' 2021. Photographic series and single channel moving image, 35mm. 3 min, 24sec.


Polly: Wild plants and flowers seem to make their own rules, yet your film ‘Allowed’ speaks of permission, as human intervention constricts their very nature. What inspired you to respond to these rebellious plants within urban spaces?

 

Zillah: When I first started to take the photographs on 35mm that would eventually become the film ‘Allowed’, I’d just moved back to the city full-time after being in the countryside working on projects for several years. It was during the COVID-19 pandemic: plants and wildflowers had been allowed to grow quite wild in parts of Cardiff without being cut, as in other urban environments globally. I began to notice them intensely, and even navigate by them when I was walking about town. I became interested to see if I could find a similar personal connection to nature in metropolitan spaces as in a rural environment containing a variety of flora and fauna.

 

I particularly noticed families of plants and tried to observe in myself if there was a difference between the experiential effect of an individual plant or a collective. I began to gravitate towards large areas of wild growth, which would have been there any way I’m sure, but which were perhaps larger, freer, having not been cut back. I started to rethink the word ‘weed’ as I learnt more about the importance of urban biodiversity to wildlife, especially pollinators such as bees, and how much potential there is for increasing biodiversity in non-rural spaces. Human intervention is a big factor in allowing this, for example in gardens and managed green spaces. I also began following campaigns such as No Mow May, which started in the UK and is now growing worldwide.


Zillah Bowes 'Allowed' 2021. Photographic series and single channel moving image, 35mm. 3 min, 24sec.

 

Polly: You have animated your wild growth photography throughout ‘Allowed’, with leaves swaying as if breathing and dancing within their environments. You are bringing animated life to these already thriving organisms. What were your ideas and processes behind the animations?

 

Zillah: Initially, I decided just to test the idea of animating my colour 2D still photographs into 3D moving image, working remotely with designer Danny Prothero. I didn’t know if it was going to be achievable, so we tried a single poppy to start. The first test looked interesting, and much more successful than I expected, so we decided to try and animate more plants until I had enough to see if they would cut together as a sequence. I continued like this, animating each image separately, incorporating them slowly into a first assembly edit.

 

My wish at the time was to make the plants as authentic as possible, so I was aiming for the animated movement to be relatively natural whilst also containing individuality and uniqueness of character. In the close-ups, we often just animated a single flower, grass or shrub but in the wides, we attempted different layers which was more complex and required several passes. I think I was just looking to make the plants seem alive, and now I wonder if perhaps I tried too hard because people often ask how I ‘filmed’ them! In a way, this may also be the result of viewers being drawn in by the plants and not questioning them. When I saw the first test, I had a sense of how they could be seen more as beings through this process. They’re called ‘plant-beings’ in the voiceover, and I was hoping for the animation to invite the viewer to relate to them as you might in real life, in a more 3D way.

 

Zillah Bowes 'Allowed' 2021. Photographic series and single channel moving image, 35mm. 3 min, 24sec.

 

Polly: A hypnotic and lyrical narration takes us on a journey through a city. Quotes in the film which I found to be particularly moving are:

“I can’t call them weeds anymore, they’re like friends” and “As I spot each plant-being for the first time, I wonder, if they’ll get cut or pulled out, and I look for them the next time.”

We quickly get used to our everyday environments, and these consistencies can feel like home. Metropolitan spaces are constantly transforming, so having this fascination and relationship with weeds in the cracks of our path is a very interesting sentiment. How did you approach writing the spoken story, and what quote resonates most with you?

 

Zillah: As my initial enquiry into the plants was about noticing their effect on me, as well as noticing them, I decided to note down my observations at the same time as taking the photographs. I also write poetry as part of my practice and followed my process for this type of project: writing notes out of observation, often in a physical space, trying to capture its rhythm and sense. I eventually developed these notes into the first draft of a poem. Once I’d started to sequence the animated images in the edit, I began to record myself speaking different versions of the poem and cut phrases together with images. The poem had a line through it, a movement, which followed a journey through the city, naturally creating a loose narrative.

 

I re-edited and re-recorded the poem several times to find the right tone of voice - it ended up best half-whispered! I also worked with sound designer Maiken Hansen to create a cohesive soundscape, bringing the spoken journey into one continuous moment. The editing process was perhaps more like working with music than narrative, finding the rhythm and emotional beat for each section. In a way, the film conceptually hinges around weeds not really being weeds, and I intended to give space around your first quote, after which the voiceover quickens a little. I think I was hoping for this expanded moment to allow the viewer to join the speaker in re-evaluating the plants, being curious about them and what might happen to them, perhaps finding a connection or affinity with them.



Zillah Bowes 'Allowed' 2021. Photographic series and single channel moving image, 35mm. 3 min, 24sec.






Sam Williams

Based in London, United Kingdom




2nd Place winner of Zealous’ Amplify Environment 2024 Award, Sam Williams’ film Deep in The Eye and The Belly is an ongoing body of work entwining stories of cetacean bodies with imagined oceanic futures, in which these bodies become shelter for humans who returned to the oceans in the wake of climate collapse.



Sam Williams ‘Deep in The Eye and The Belly (Chapter One)’, 2023. Single-channel video with sound.

 

Polly: I could ask you 100 questions about your film ‘Deep in The Eye & The Belly’, as it is a truly unique and illuminating work. So instead, I will focus on Chapter One of the five Chapters.

 

Chapter One tells a story of obsession with power and dominance through the real-life tale of a man who purchased a beached whale carcass, which later became a home for grotesque dinner parties and a “venue for discussions of power”. How did you come across this tale, and when did your interest in whales begin?

 

 

Sam: Thank you, I’m glad you found it interesting! As you say, this is the first of (currently) five Chapters. It weaves together several whale stories and is narrated by a character speaking from a future time in a post-climate collapse, ocean-centric world. They are recalling conversations they had about these whale stories in order to give some context to the following Chapters, but also to root the films in some factual histories. I had been researching ‘around’ whales for quite a few years. I grew up close to the Thames Estuary in Essex and had been making work about that landscape, and became interested in the whale strandings that would sometimes occur. I was also doing small bits of writing about bodies inhabiting or being ingested by other bodies, and so the many stories and folk tales of people being swallowed by whales came up again. Then, some years ago, by chance, I came across an article about the Malm Whale which is held in the Natural History Museum in Gothenburg, Sweden. There was a photograph of people sitting inside the whale’s body, which is preserved skin stretched around a wooden frame. They are not only inside the body, but they are sat at a table laden with food and drink.


Sam Williams ‘Deep in The Eye and The Belly (Chapter One)’, 2023. Single-channel video with sound.

 

I went to Gothenburg to talk with the museum curators, look at the archive photographs, and of course, film and go inside the whale myself. What’s interesting is that the whale was closed to the public in the 1930s (after, as the story goes, a couple were caught ‘behaving indecently’ inside) but there is a collective misremembering of local residents who say they have sat inside the whale for tea and coffee in their youth. The museum curators say this can’t be the case, but the whale forms a central part of the communal memory of a certain generation in Gothenburg nevertheless.

 

The whale remains closed but is opened only for Christmas to house Santa and as a backdrop for local election speeches, the “discussions of power”. Interestingly, the word ‘val’ means both ‘whale’ and ‘election’ in Swedish. You describe the dinner parties as ‘grotesque’ in your question, but the film tries to be observational rather than judgemental about these events and practices, aside from a few snarky comments from the narrator. Instead, I am fascinated by the desire to inhabit these bodies, the desire for ownership, the desire for power, and so on.

 

I don’t venture too much into whale hunting in the film but at that time the whale body would have been something used in many aspects of daily life from soaps, lanterns, corsets, and so on. People were dismantling, using and inhabiting the body in so many ways. In the film, I am trying to talk about this desire and suggest that one of the only ways to ‘survive’ the situation we are faced with is to adopt a more non-human-centric way of thinking.

 

Sam Williams ‘Deep in The Eye and The Belly (Chapter One)’, 2023. Single-channel video with sound.


Polly: The film speaks of the parallels between “Extreme violence to kill, followed by extreme care to preserve”. I love visiting the Natural History Museum, but now, I am left feeling uneasy, questioning why. Although artefacts found in the Natural History Museum are displayed under the scope of education, they are merely socially accepted displays with not much difference to a hunter hanging taxidermy trophies in their home.

Has this work changed your perspective and relationship with museum archives?

 

Sam:  So aside from working with the museum in Gothenburg, I was also fortunate enough to work closely with Richard Sabin from the Natural History Museum in London. During our talks, while walking around the Research Collection of the museum (which is not on public display), I was struck by the contrast of the often very violent ways the animals, in this case particularly whales, were procured through hunting with the very careful methods used to preserve the dead bodies.

 

Of course, the museum now has very strict rules in place about how specimens enter the collection, and they are careful to frame historical specimens as being representative of a historical practice. In addition to this, there was also a discussion about the desire for ‘the real thing’ versus the accuracy of such taxidermy, particularly in the case of cetaceans. They are very hard to preserve because of the composition of the skin, with even small specimens deteriorating rapidly over time.

 

In efforts to halt this deterioration there had been attempts at painting, coating in chemicals, stitching and so on to the point where any ‘real animal’ was barely visible. Plastic models are often more accurate in the way they can show the shape of the body. Cetaceans were often taken from beaches where they had been stranded and due to the pressures of their bodies, were already misshapen. Scientists of that period had no accurate way of knowing the postures and proportions of a live whale. So, through this exploration of the whale body and museum practice, questions of authenticity, power, violence, and bodily representation are raised. As well as many other questions! It really did end up as quite a sprawling text.


Sam Williams ‘Deep in The Eye and The Belly (Chapter One)’, 2023. Single-channel video with sound.


Polly: ‘Deep in The Eye & The Belly’ blends documentary truths playfully with fantastical futures. How did you approach the research and writing of the film?

 

Sam: Most of the work I make is about the entangled relationships between species and different ways of communal survival, or what community means in the precarious times we live in. During my research, the whale became a good image to talk about these things through, and it is always good to have some factual stories to hold together the more fictional or speculative parts of the writing. So the film isn’t really ‘about’ whales, but utilises them as a powerful image to talk through many ideas about environment, entanglement, oceans, power, desire, queerness, death and so on.

 

I’m not really sure that answers your question! I suppose I have an ongoing research thread that I engage with regularly, and then when the idea for this project presented itself, I then focused on more specific cetacean, oceanic and museological research on which to ‘hang’ my other interests.

 

Writing-wise, this was my first time writing monologues for people to actually speak on film. In the past, texts have been more essay-like or abstract, and so while some of these qualities are retained, they are also written from the point of view of a particular character or set of characters. Chapter Four presents a long monologue which is actually improvised by the performer, Seke Chimutengwende. I set the framework for the character - the situation, point of view, background research and so on - but didn’t know what would be said until we called “Action!”. This film is set to a choreography, which I made, and has a different feeling to the other Chapters. Oh, and Chapter Three is a song, a little musical interlude. It might sound a bit chaotic, but I hope it hangs together.

 

 





Mithail Afridge Chowdhury

Based in Dhaka, Bangladesh




3rd Place winner of Zealous' Amplify Environment 2024 Award, Mithail Afridge Chowdhury is a documentary and street photographer. He has documented complications through social, environmental, and political changes, such as the Rohingya refugee crisis, the Climate Change effects on Bangladesh, and the river crisis around Dhaka city to name a few.



Mithail Afridge Chowdhury 'Human & Plastic'


'Human & Plastic' responds to the fact that Bangladesh is one of the top plastic-polluted countries in the world. Bangladesh generates approximately 3,000 tonnes of

plastic waste per day. Most of it ends up in landfills and waterbodies, causing serious threats to the environment. Environmentalists estimate that plastic takes over 400 years to decompose, meanwhile existing in soil and water, which often turns into leachate, contaminates food and the water we drink, therefore entering the human body. A report published in September 2018 revealed that in 2015, approximately 234,000 people died in Bangladesh due to environmental pollution and pollution-related health hazards, including plastic pollution.


Mithail Afridge Chowdhury 'The Climate Man'


'The Climate Man' features Sulaiman, a 47-year-old plastic collector living at Ashulia Bazaar, Bangladesh. Every day he looks for plastic bottles and plastic goods in a waste dumping yard in Ashulia. He then sells the plastic items to recycling factories. Sulaiman supports his family whilst also acting as a 'climate hero', as he is saving recyclable plastic from landfill.







Luminara Florescu

Based in Somerset, United Kingdom




Public Vote winner of Zealous’ Amplify Environment 2024 Award, Luminara Florescu is a multidisciplinary artist who embraces gentle protest and creative activism. As part of her Artist Residency at Somerset Film, Florescu created an Immersive Film Installation that explores the profound act of resting in nature.



 Luminara Florescu ‘Social Gardening (The Mind at Rest)’


Polly: ‘Social Gardening (The Mind at Rest)’ features a triptych of 3 screens with varying films and soundscapes, as you invite the viewer to decide which restful experience they will become entranced on. How did you approach orchestrating different experiences for each film? 

 

Luminara: In orchestrating different experiences for each film within the triptych of 'Social Gardening (The Mind at Rest),' I adopted a multifaceted approach aimed at engaging the viewer's senses and facilitating their immersion into distinct restful environments.

 

I considered the atmospheric elements of each film, ensuring that they conveyed a unique ambience conducive to relaxation and tranquillity. Whether it was the deep purple, buzzing lavender field or the oat field swaying in the wind or the dream-like quality of the film depicting human beings within these environments, each film was created to evoke a sense of calmness and introspection.

 

I paid close attention to the visual composition and aesthetics of the films, especially to colour, light and camera angles to create emotionally resonant imagery.  I sought to captivate the viewer's attention and draw them deeper into a restful experience.

 

I also collaborated with Somerset Film’s creative technologist, Daniel Birch to develop bespoke soundscapes tailored to enhance the mood and atmosphere of each film. From ambient nature sounds to more ethereal music, the audio accompaniment was carefully integrated to complement the visual narrative and evoke a sense of serenity and tranquillity.


 Luminara Florescu ‘Social Gardening (The Mind at Rest)’

 

Finally, I embraced audience interaction as a means of empowering the viewer to actively engage with and shape their restful experience. By inviting the viewer to choose which screen to focus on and encouraging them to immerse themselves fully in the sights and sounds unfolding before them, I aimed to foster a sense of agency and ownership over their journey towards relaxation and rest.


The approach to orchestrating different experiences for each film in 'Social Gardening (The Mind at Rest)' was rooted in an understanding of sensory perception, emotional resonance, and interactive storytelling, with the ultimate goal of providing viewers with a transformative experience.



 Luminara Florescu ‘Social Gardening (The Mind at Rest)’

 

Polly: You were inspired by the ‘Right to Roam’ custom, and I can’t help but feel that this is a very dystopian way of vicariously experiencing nature, especially as someone who lives in a city that doesn’t have access to the luscious fields featured in your films. As there is a continued threat to woodland and wild land areas, how integral do you believe these natural havens are for both biodiversity and mental health?

 

Luminara: The 'Right to Roam' movement, which protests to grant individuals access to certain private or public lands for recreational purposes, indeed carries a profound significance, especially in our increasingly urbanised world.

 

The importance of natural environments for mental health cannot be overstated. Studies have consistently shown that spending time in nature can have profound benefits for psychological well-being, including reduced stress, improved mood, and enhanced cognitive function. In an age where many of us are constantly bombarded by digital distractions and urban stressors, the restorative power of nature becomes increasingly valuable.

 

Preservation of wild land areas and woodlands is also undeniably vital for biodiversity. These natural havens serve as habitats for countless species, playing a crucial role in maintaining ecological balance and supporting various ecosystems. As human activities continue to encroach upon these areas, the threat to biodiversity intensifies, underscoring the urgent need for conservation efforts and sustainable practices.



 Luminara Florescu ‘Social Gardening (The Mind at Rest)’

 

However, it's essential to acknowledge the disparities in access to nature, particularly for those living in densely populated cities or areas without nearby green spaces. Addressing these inequalities requires concerted efforts to promote urban green initiatives, expand public parks, and advocate for policies prioritising equitable access to natural environments.

 

In essence, the preservation of woodland and wild land areas is not only crucial for biodiversity but also indispensable for promoting mental health and well-being. As stewards of the planet, it is incumbent upon us to recognise the intrinsic value of nature and work towards ensuring its preservation and accessibility for present and future generations.




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