Environmental Introspection

The relationship between humans and nature is a theme we’ve seen crop up in a number of recent exhibitions, from Human/Nature: Encountering Ourselves in the Natural World at Fotografiska New York to Soulscapes at Dulwich Picture Gallery. This perhaps reflects the ways in which we’ve become more attuned to the environment in recent years because we’ve seen countless headlines about the catastrophic impact of the climate crisis – from devastating floods to destructive wildfires. It is also becoming clearer that the outdoors is integral to our wellbeing, with recent research from King’s College London highlighting that biodiversity is key to our mental health. These topics intersect in the works of Svante Gullichsen, Joanne Vestey and Alnis Stakl, three photographers Albumen Gallery will host as part of this year’s Photo London programme. Each brings their unique artistic approach and perspective to speak on concepts of mental health, urban landscapes, environmental connection and the remedying power of nature.

Svante Gullichsen (b. 1994) is a self-taught artist living in Helsinki, Finland, who explores mental health through photography. Striking compositions show him posing nude within the Finnish landscape, hidden by stacks of logs and lush undergrowth. We see a contradiction between humans and nature visually in the vulnerability of bare skin against the raw forest environment. However, there’s also a sense of comfort because the outdoor setting is able to help the artist express details about his inner world. In one scene, he is accompanied by his double in front of a gushing waterfall. Here, Gullichsen examines the challenges of the human mind. He states: “making art is a venting system: a world where I can openly discuss my own issues and thoughts. I used my work to talk about difficult and even taboo subjects – now for a few years, I’ve been working with images that tell a story about living with severe OCD.”

British photographer Joanna Vestey (b. 1972) is known for working across photography and sound to explore traces of time, stewardship and the presentation of information. Vestey presents the 3 Days | 2 Nights project to explore the links between the mental health of individuals and how we operate in social contexts. She does this by exploring the concept of “Forest Bathing,” which is a Japanese relaxation practice called “Shinrin Yoku.” It’s a way to de-stress by simply walking quietly amongst the trees, and enjoying the sensory experience of this setting – from the scent of the fresh air to the sound of birds flying overhead. Vestey’s photographs present us with the visual splendour through twisting branches and verdant foliage reminiscent of key forest photographers, such as Neil Burnell and Michelle Blancke.

Alnis Stakles’ (b. 1975) practice is also dedicated to exploring surroundings but through our human-made interventions. The Latvian lens-based artist looks at architecture to explore the theme of mental health, paying attention to visual representations of trauma, loss and memory. He shows this through the sense of social and individual alienation that we see in buildings and urban planning during the brutalist Soviet era. After the fall of Soviet Union in 1991, many of these districts lost their functions and deteriorated into deserted sites – ghostly areas haunted by the people that used to populate the space. Stakle highlights this eeriness in foggy landscape shots, where imposing trees and structures dominate the scene.

Svante Gullichsen, Joanne Vestey and Alnis Stakl are three artists that focus their cameras on the natural and built environment to investigate what these settings tell us about ourselves. Each vantage point – from mental health to architectural remains – has the theme of humanity and nature at its centre. Their work inspires reflection as we think about how we relate to our surroundings. It is also a testament to wider conversations about the importance of green and blue spaces and why we must protect the planet.  

Somerset House, Photo London 2024 | 16 – 19 May


Words: Diana Bestwish Tetteh

Image Credits:

  1. Svante Gullichsen, Covered by forest (2016)
  2. Alnis Stakle, Not even something #28 (2013)
  3. Joanne Vestey, Cabilla, Cornwall (2023)
  4. Alnis Stakle, Not even something #28 (2012)
  5. Svante Gullichsen, Crossing the Rubicon II (2020)