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Photography student uses seawater processing to expose hidden pollution on UK beaches

Published: 07 June 2024

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A woman standing in front of a wall of photographs

Prior to studying Photography at York St John University, Dee Aitch was a successful microbiologist for 20 years. She worked in agriculture and environmental samples, before moving into food analysis and water testing.    

This background and her passion for wild swimming and surfing have informed her photography in a unique way, leading to her beautiful and challenging project Wish You Were Here? The work captures the British seaside in a way never seen before, shot via pinhole camera and developed there and then using seawater collected at the same time.    

The resultant images are equal in size, printed in the dimensions of the traditional seaside postcard, but that is where their uniformity ends. Depending on what is in the seawater, temperature, additives (seaweed, sand or other toxins), changes occur in the process which lead to a spectrum from blacks, whites, greys, to yellows, beiges and browns. Dee maps these visual outcomes with public water quality reports from the day, to gain a deeper understanding of what is behind the effects.   

Dee Aitch, Masters in Fine Art (MFA) student, said: “During the project I set myself a challenge to document the state of the sea, whatever the weather and conditions on each visit. The pollution and temperature changes are the most prominent elements that impact on the images.     

“I have a background in water testing analysis and understand concentrations, dilutions, and most importantly, faecal contamination - the bugs that make us susceptible to stomach upsets such as E.coli. In this project, the yellower images all occurred during the summer months when the weather was warmer and there were higher levels of E.coli in the areas visited.    

“This, combined with the higher temperature, affected the chemistry: as the water evaporates in the processing liquid, it turns a darker yellow and ages, adding to its patina effect.”   

So far the project has taken in beaches across the North, including: Morthoe, Woolacombe, Newquay, Scarborough, Filey, Sandsend, Saltburn, Markse by the Sea, Fleetwood, Lytham St Anne, St Annes Beach, Robin Hoods Bay, Runswick Bay, Redcar and Fraisthorpe.  

 But her ambition is to keep going after completing her MFA.    

She said: “There were so many places that I did not even get to visit, and the water quality has not improved, despite a government promise to penalise those utility companies not complying with their promises not to dump sewage. With an election coming up and the potential of a new government, the importance of the waterways and access to them is as vital now as it was at the start of my research.    

“People depend on these spaces for their mental wellbeing, and access to them is critical in a busy world where people want to be safe when they break away and enjoy time off from work and life and spend time at the beach with friends, family or alone.”   

Dee has named the University's winner of the Chryalis Arts Development: Ecolological Practice Award for 2024. Her work, and that of other emerging artists at the Art Degree Show Exhibition, highlight how York St John continues to be a beacon of artistic excellence, providing a nurturing ground for creativity and innovation in the arts. The MFA programme is designed to foster creativity, critical thinking, and technical proficiency among its students. It offers an interdisciplinary approach, allowing students to explore various mediums and techniques while honing their unique artistic voice.  

Dr Tilo Reifenstein, MFA Course Lead, said: “Our MFA students graduate as independent, self-sufficient creative practitioners who have a comprehensive grasp of their own practice and how it can function in the professional world. Their ability to drive and reinvent their practice into the future shows a mature understanding not only of theoretical frameworks but also how they can be mobilised to impact the real world.  

“One of the programme's key strengths is its emphasis on individual mentorship and personalised guidance. This support enables students like Dee to push the boundaries of their creative practice and achieve their artistic goals.” 

For more information on Dee Aitch and her work, visit www.deeaitchphotography.com/about  

To learn more about the MFA programme at York St John University, visit   Postgraduate Courses: Fine Art, Illustration and Photography

 

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