Finding TAVY in Madagascar

Finding TAVY in Madagascar

 
WRITTEN BY LEAH ABRAHAM

WRITTEN BY LEAH ABRAHAM

“I want this project to sit in between the worlds of documentary and art photography. I don’t see why you can’t have a photograph that speaks to both parts simultaneously. And this has probably been the most divisive part of the project.”
— Barney Couch
 

TAVY is the name given to Barney’s dreamily evocative images that capture and document his long project working across Madagascar, and exploring its Environmental crisis. Appearing somewhat like snapshots for postcards, the 15 black and white photographs provide a restrained, intimate view of animals, landscapes, and faces that Barney came across or chanced upon during his work in the country. Madagascar is a nation “still developing” he tells me, and with almost no major press (aside from the acclaimed technicolour animation comedy by ‘Dreamworks’), there are several gaps to fill when it comes to having a general knowledge of Madagascar. “Most people know that there is an animal called a Lemur which is similar to a Monkey but isn’t exactly a Monkey. Most don’t know there are 106 species, and they all look quite different. In a way, the Lemur is the coloniser of Madagascar.” Initiating a creative project that makes use of his photographic skill, Barney uses the power of imagery to ground his research into Madagascar’s Environmental Degradation, and reflect the complexity of the subject to us. When asked about his choice of medium Barney responds; “I’m most confident using a camera. The day I started on this project was almost exactly 10 years after I started taking photography seriously. I think it takes about 10 years to get to a decent level with any sort of skill”. Barney chats lengthily about his growing attachment to Madagascar following his trip, moving towards an artistic documentation as a photojournalist, whilst offering some context behind his images.

“Madagascar is a country with a tumultuous political system ... Above all it’s a country where short-term interests often conflict with a sustainable long-term plan ... If you were to make a list of the world’s most biodiverse places, Madagascar would be in the top three, if not number one ... 92% of Madagascar’s mammals are endemic - meaning they are found there and nowhere else. Furthermore they are so adapted to island life they couldn’t live anywhere else, even if we transplanted them.”

“Madagascar is a country with a tumultuous political system”. “Above all it’s a country where short-term interests often conflict with a sustainable long-term plan”, Barney explains. "If you were to make a list of the world’s most biodiverse places, Madagascar would be in the top three, if not number one", he continues. “92% of Madagascar’s mammals are endemic - meaning they are found there and nowhere else. Furthermore they are so adapted to island life they couldn’t live anywhere else, even if we transplanted them.” The island’s state of paradise unveils at the hands of human peril. “90% of the island has been deforested, and it forests, wetlands, savannahs, lakes and reefs continue to be exploited, for local and commercial means. “The short-term solution to the people’s poverty is to make use of their environment: for charcoal, for rice, for fish, for meat. Most of this consumption tends to be unsustainable.” With 80% of its indigenous communities making less than $2 a day’ (noted by Barney) it would seem that immediate survival often outweighs the protection of Madagascar’s biodiversity. “You can’t possibly think so long term when you have no wood to cook your dinner on,” Barney tells me.

His photos are then visual anecdotes that become laced with the realities of a living crisis as the story is unfolded. In this way, does Barney see TAVY as a poetic reminder of the inner conflicts of the island? “I see this project as being both a record of what is there, and - if in 10 years the island is deforested right until the last tree, I’d like to say my pictures might inspire someone to go there or read more about the environmental issues and potential solutions for the country”. “I’ve always had two threads running through my life, photography and natural history” Barney tells me. “Working on a long-term project like this is a way of combining these things I’m deeply interested in.”

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ON HIS PHOTOGRAPHERS CRAFT

“I know how my pictures will look in all types of light, every circumstance. I’m very confident in my materials. I would have loved to do this as a documentary film, but I couldn’t. I wasn’t so confident in that technique, and it would require a lot more equipment. It’s a lot more complicated doing a documentary - you might have to sit people down and do talking heads, for example - and I wasn’t sure how feasible that would be. Photography lets me travel quite light, it’s a medium I’m intimate with. With a small camera like I use you can pretty much go anywhere, talk to anyone. It’s a passport to any situation. And that's one of the things that gives me a real thrill when I’m shooting.”

ON BEING THE STRANGER

“I’m an outsider in the country, but when I got a chance to speak to Malagasy people, they are very appreciative that I take such an interest in their country. I met a few tourists that had visited for 6 days, had said they’d done Madagascar, and to say you’ve “done” a country after 6 days is rather arrogant, I think. I’m hopefully going back in August for another month-long shoot, and I could see myself going back many times more. I’d much rather go shoot in one place many times than a load of other places once.”

ON HIS WORK ETHOS

“I’m even super cautious about sharing my work, with anyone or any publication, I like to really take my time over it. I’m much more concerned about making something that people will look at a many times than publishing it in as many outlets as I can find. I really dislike the isolating effect of social media and internet advertising. I’m more interested in making work that will touch a few people really deeply.”

“If I spend 10 years shooting this, and I make something really great, you can be sure that I will do as much publicity and advertising as I can! But I don’t want to share work that I’ve just made recently that’s pretty good but could have been better. For many photographers, they have to publicise their work often to get more jobs. I don’t work as a photographer, so I don’t have that restriction. And spending time on the internet doesn’t really fill me with joy - I don’t have to do it, so I don’t do it. That’s how I work.”

Find Barney’s work here

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