In 2010 a 10-month hitchhiking trip from China to Britain took photographer Chloe Dewe Mathews to a part of the world she’d never seen. Now she is taking others there with her photographs.
Backed by the Peabody Museum’s Robert Gardner Fellowship in Photography, Dewe Mathews returned to the five countries bordering the Caspian Sea between 2010 and 2015, documenting on film the culture, customs, and inhabitants of the area, where deep reserves of oil, gas and other natural resources are inextricably linked to life.
The photos from those travels became the subject of Dewe Mathews’ award-winning book “Caspian: The Elements,” published in 2018 by Peabody Museum Press and Aperture. An exhibition of the same name featuring close to 30 of her evocative images will be on view Saturday through Feb. 7, 2020, at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology.
“I just became very interested in that area, wandering up and down taking photographs of people relating to the sea, coming to this body of water for various reasons,” said Dewe Mathews, whose research-intensive documentary projects often reflect people’s relationship to the landscape. Her work matches the mission of the Harvard fellowship — named in honor of the late author, anthropologist, and documentarian Robert Gardner — to help an established photographer “create and subsequently publish through the Peabody Museum a major book of photographs on the human condition anywhere in the world.”
While traversing Iran, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Russia, and Iran, Dewe Mathews let the elements guide her lens. Struck first by the region’s abundance of oil and gas, she initially sought out “unexpected stories” that could help explain “the effects and consequences of this great potency in the region.” A type of brutal beauty defines much of what she found. Haunting pictures from Naftalan, Azerbaijan, show men and women bathing in crude oil at the local sanatorium, a practice said to carry medicinal benefits.