Review by Brian F. O’Neill •
Bron is the first monograph by photographer Zindzi Zwietering (Netherlands), released in 2022 by Dutch publisher The Eriskay Connection, who have been releasing wonderfully designed and thought-provoking books across the course of their catalogue. This publisher has been a model of using the book form to open new possibilities between what might conventionally be considered “academic research” and “fine art.” For example, Arturo Soto’s fantastic 2022 release, A Certain Logic of Expectations made the PBJ list of interesting photobooks this past year. To this end, their releases consistently resist the vein of the exhibition-cum-photobook lineage and Bron is, quite delightfully, no different.
I will begin this essay with some context regarding the subject matter, which will provide a framing of the questions with which Bron engages. Zwietering’s approach to Bron was quite intelligent. In some analytical ways, it is not dissimilar from books like Caio Riesewitz’s Altamira (which addresses one of the most profound dam struggles in the history of Brazil), which also tackles an issue linked to climate change. What the books have in common is that they also do not obfuscate the conjoined issues of the human domination of nature, as well as processes of financial and cultural accumulation and dispossession that are at work. That is, they grasp how, through such processes, that the notion of an abstract climate crisis has emerged. Furthermore, much of this is in line with the scholarly literature on such topics. And we can make a link here to how photobooks have tried to address similar themes.
In recent years, I have noticed a slow swelling in the market for photobooks and other artistic approaches to the myriad questions presented by climate change – heat waves, increasing population pressures, a certain scarcity of resources upon which the contemporary model of human and societal existence relies. As photographer and visual artist Anastasia Samoylova has rightly identified though, many of these crises can be relatively quickly categorized into a series of tropes, and furthermore, it remains common for photographers to represent the problem with a series of well-worn visual reference points – melting glaciers, megafauna of land and sea, certain kinds of pollution bearing down on the landscape. In fact, Samoylova has arguably been the most widely recognized and celebrated fine art photographer of this issue in the past few years, despite what I have described elsewhere as certain analytical limitations emerging from the execution of her book Floodzone, which was released by German publisher Steidl in 2019. Indeed, it is increasingly clear that the theme of generalized climate change has gained a strong foothold in the art world in general and in photography more specifically, and often with an emphasis on responses to a catastrophic future (this is also visible in the emergence of climate fiction in cinema) for a popular culture reference, think Christopher Nolan’s Tenet) and literature (e.g., The Water Knife). This has occurred in a parallel intellectual/aesthetic formation to that of the interests of scholars working across the environmental humanities. All this informs the concept of Zindzi Zwietering’s Bron, as the book is aimed at a specific dimension of the climate crisis – water crises:
“The countdown to Day Zero signified a countdown to chaos. The crisis made news headlines across the world: Cape Town was set to be the first major city to run out of water in its entirety. What would happen if residents turned on their taps and no water came out? When Day Zero would be reached and the water would be shut off, water collection points would be phased in and residents would have to queue for their water rations. Nobody knew what would truly happen if it got to this point. Panic was predicted” (back cover).
Day Zero was officially demarcated by the government as April 12, 2018, and around this time, Zwietering spent two months on-site, in Cape Town, South Africa to document what many thought would be profound consternation. However, quite sensibly, Bron is not a reportage adventure, and the book is all the better for it: in fact, analysis of the event gives credence to what Zwietering observed – that Day Zero was, in many ways, a momentous media event that had a tendency towards less engagement with material conditions of water scarcity and drought than in news-making in and of itself. Smartly, it is from this critical standpoint that Bron begins, with subtle design features to indicate the presence of the countdown (e.g., descending page numbers).
From the very beginning of the book Zwietering plays with the predicted sense of unease and the observed calmness of the place. To my eye, the unease is visually represented by the occasional use of pink toned papers, which are often used to great effect to show some desiccated aspect of the landscape, of a palm tree, some brush, and all lacking water – perhaps the first visible signs that something extraordinary was about to happen. At the same time though, we see pictures of everyday life (construction sites continue to go up, people walk the streets and converse with neighbors and friends), such that “a semblance of serene acceptance appeared” (71), despite the fact that residents were getting by on a bare minimum of water. Therefore, the text of the book wants the reader to understand a sense of social solidarity around the issue, that residents “did what they felt they had to for as long as it was considered necessary,” which is rather remarkable compared to California or other western places that have recently imposed such restrictions, when we understand their responses historically. But, back to Bron.
While Bron tells of the collective responses to the crisis, it also tells a broader, and more biting truth, that water scarcity is brought on by an overproduction of water that is created by class desires for luxury goods and services (hence the images of dry pools, for example). Although the text says as much on page 66, entitled “Back to Basics,” there is a real discernment of the fact that resource scarcity is a social construction brought on by the way capitalism structures our relation to nature, in other words, it is not a natural fact.
Zwitering and water governance scholar Lize Swartz (who is responsible for much of the text) recognize as much too in the section titled “The Cost of Water” – that water is a sector through which we can see the injustices of society laid bare and, because “for those with diversified water supplies, day zero may never be reached” (emphasis added). While the authors do not use the language of racial and class struggle, here, they describe the situation of the water crisis in Cape Town well as a venue in which a “social chasm” emerged in this context (66). This point is poignantly made by the combination of image and text on pages 65 and 64, where we see two obscured images of borehole diggers (most of the labor we see in the book is the labor of black bodies – as the text explains, the capacity to pay for the digging of private wells is a development of wealth and privilege – it is expensive, time-consuming practice, and, in fact, quite speculative). Furthermore, Zwietering shows not only her ability as a sequencer of images with an understanding of how meaning can be appropriately constructed visually, but more importantly, how text and image can inform one another through suggestion and articulation.
Indeed, moving through Bron, one is struck by the emphasis on the material practices of the water crisis. We see labor plainly, unadorned – the maintenance of the existing infrastructure and monitoring of flows plays alongside the aforementioned digging of new wells. The images are not overly stylized, but serve as a record, i.e., as an archive of this historical moment, taken through the lens of a critical and interpretive eye. The emphasis on the materiality of water is further emphasized by the inclusion of a number of tables and figures – as beautiful, if stark visual representations regarding the accounting of water that begins to go on in such a crisis. Rightly, they reveal how the state makes the resource and its citizens legible, to use James Scott’s concept, through the infrastructure (e.g., 56).
The emphasis on the mundane, banal features of the crisis are consistently explored throughout the book. For example, we witness the various water jugs and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) contraptions used to regulate flows and to collect water for various purposes. The diversity here of such representations, often interspersed with excellently executed portraits, indicates a real rigor to this work as well. Zwietering made great use of those two months spent in the city, to get to know people, the issues, and the questions that the crisis raised above and beyond what the news media portrayed. Furthermore, Swartz’s text is just as well observed as Zwietering’s images. For instance, on page 46, we see a subtle image of the textures of some pipes and buckets snaking themselves around a house, or apartment building, which in and of itself is unremarkable, if not for the fact of its pairing with the text that reads as follows:
“Water is often seen as blue. But it is also grey and black. Water users come to know this during the crisis by handling water themselves. They learned that greywater is water that is slightly dirtied, for example due to showering, and that cannot be consumed. Water becomes greyer the more it is used, and it is called black when it cannot be reused any longer.”
To be sure, it is wonderful to find a book as well written as it is photographed. But, what would a review be, without some level of critique? The text is written almost entirely objectively. Although it tends to wish to emphasize the material conditions of the crisis and to speak to people’s plight – the manner of written representation offers a contemplative feel. This affective quality makes the images and text match well, but one lacking aspect is the need for quotations or something to make clearer the fieldwork aspect – what of the interactions we see? Likewise, the authors tell us of the worry and unease in Cape Town, but we are only left to feel it visually, but not experience it though the thoughts and words of the city’s subjects. Be that as it may, Bron is, overall, a great starting point for any scholar or photographer wishing to begin understanding the possibilities that alternative book forms might offer and as a means to reach a wider audience for their work. Furthermore, it is a prime example of how generative a collaboration between an artist and scholar can be.
As the reader reaches the end of the book, we finally begin to grasp the meaning of Bron (source, in Dutch – is this not also a subtle recognition of the colonial dimensions of the issue?). On pages 22 and 17, the reader encounters a desiccated landscape surrounding the Theewaterskloof Dam – the biggest supplying Cape Town. Around it, we see dry tree trunks, sand, and concrete strewn about. Is it now dysfunctional(?) the reader wonders. Through the image pairings, Zwietering brings to life a scene that must have been utterly unremarkable, while also so important to the infrastructure network of the region.
Bron’s conclusion then transitions to a narrative about the cyclical nature of things, i.e., of life and the water system. By 2020, the dam was overflowing again. The rains had come. The infrastructure we build to control nature, Zwietering seems to be saying, is always inadequate though – here the images change – for example, we see a dramatic rush of water (page 13), and so, life springs back. But Zwietering and Swartz have crafted a more intelligent book than the long popular and common sense logic of “renewal” espoused most impressively, and sadly, by Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park and more egregiously in State of Fear. For Bron’s authors, the concern is in the way that water remains an “out of sight out of mind issue” – there is a distance that was closed by the water crisis. And this gap, they seem to argue, should have been more generative of a collective consciousness on the topic. Nevertheless, a sense of unease often remains, they assert, as the city now faces the memory of the crisis combined with new and increasing climate change threats.
There are few books I have come across in the past few years that tackle the suite of issues at play in Bron – visual and textual representation, climate change and water, human dispossession, politics and economics, and all in a beautifully considered package. I hope that more books in the vein of Bron are on the horizon, and I hope that they will make a difference for other scholars, photographers, and maybe even citizens and decision-makers. Why not?
Brian F. O’Neill is a photographer and Sociologist
Bron, Zindzi Zwietering
Photographer: Zindzi Zwietering, born and resides in Amsterdam (NL)
Publisher: The Eriskay Connection (Netherlands) copyright 2022
Essay: Lize Swartz
Stiff covers, 230 × 290 mm, 84 pages, Edition of 750, print and production by Drukkerji (NL), binding by Patist, Den Dolder, ISBN: 978-94-92051-87-5
Design by Lyanne Tonk
Articles and photographs published in the PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s). All images, texts, and designs are copyright of the authors and publishers.
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