Roger Coulam came to study Environmental Science at Newcastle Polytechnic and was immediately drawn by the warmth and pride of the people of the North East of England, quickly putting down roots. After living in different parts of Newcastle and Gateshead he now lives five minutes from the sea in Sunderland. He describes it as an area that gets under your skin. We recently spoke to him about a project that has taken him 6 years so far, and he is still not convinced it is completely finished.
I have not formally studied photography or art but learn as much as I can from mentors, peers, books and the Internet.
“The Blast” is a half a mile long section of the County Durham coastline, which until 20 years ago was part of the Coal Coast, one of the most industrialised parts of Europe. Dawdon Colliery sat on the cliff top here for 84 years, dumping millions of tonnes of coal waste straight onto the beach and into the North Sea. A major clean-up began in 1997 but pollution remains.
A plateau of coal slurry and landfill lies along the base of the cliffs and the “sand” is made of pyrites. Strange objects still appear on the beach, some from landfill, others from the slurry, whilst rare chemicals form vivid yellow crusts, and blood red pools, the largest of which is known locally as Red Lake.
This place has become an important part of my life and I have walked and photographed around there for almost a decade. It is a space I know intimately and one that appals and enthrals in equal measures. It can be a strange, frustrating, empty and desolate place, but the pollution and the final traces of heavy industry are vanishing rapidly as time and tides scour away our violent marks.
As my understanding of this area as a cultural landscape has developed, my work has partly become about how we walk and move through a space, about how that makes one feel, and what can we understand from our responses and the experience.
Whilst walking my regular route alone through The Blast, I have always collected small objects of interest, wondering how they might inform future generations about the place and the culture. With future archaeology in mind I gather artefacts, to see what they might reveal once I take them home and make simple images with them. This allows me to view the objects in a different context whilst helping me to retain a connection to the place they came from. Just as local people have mined the landfill for jewellery, and the beaches for coal, sea-glass and copper wire, in a small way I too continue to mine “Blast” for whatever items the relentless tides or recent human activities have left exposed.
My relationship with Blast Beach on the County Durham coast has informed and almost guided my practice for at least 6 years. “The Blast” is where I have visited to collect materials for many of the camera-less works I have made during that time, and it is where I go to walk and think. It is an important part of my life and I know the area intimately, so I felt compelled to make a collection of pictures about the space.
Many of my early images were a hysterical response to the industrial pollution that blights the Blast, and it took me years to see much beyond that. But more recently as I began to notice positive environmental changes, I tried to take a more sober and topographic approach. The pictures were still a response to how I felt within the space but I wanted to try and describe that in a variety of ways.
Like many local residents I am personally attached to the Blast, and understand how important old industrial areas still are within the community, particularly to those who worked in them or whose family members were killed or injured at Dawdon Colliery. For this reason my pictures had to be true to the place, and presented in a way that would be recognised by anyone familiar with the Blast.
This project has been very different to anything else I have done mainly because it has covered almost ten years of my life. It has also forced me to consolidate many of the different types of images I have made during that time, and is the first time I have combined lens based images with those made using a flatbed scanner.
Many of my recent projects have involved found objects and I have always been fascinated by the items we gather and how they might connect us to a place, or how the smallest of objects can suggest larger themes. And the Blast is a place where you always pick things up as industrial and cultural items are revealed by the tides – those I have gathered over ten years are a crucial part of the story. However I didn’t want to photograph them in situ as this was done so well by Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen in “Coal Coast” (towards which this project tips a hat). Instead I wanted to change the context of my finds and to explore them visually, and there is much to be learned by the handling process.
Apart from that whilst walking the Blast I often wonder what would be left if our society ended today, and how our lives might be interpreted by the people of the future. How would they read the cultural objects they found scattered and washed up on the beach? How would they evaluate our relationship with our environment?
My pictures of Blast Beach on the Durham coast have always been a response to how I felt about being in the unique space and to my concerns over the damage our species has brought to the place for several centuries. I have never experienced anywhere quite so enthralling and (often) appalling, and felt I needed to explore this visually, to try and understand it. So, much as the work is about a specific place it is also about our ongoing relationship with the environment.
The idea for The Blast has evolved and matured over several years. I have walked and made pictures there for nearly a decade and it’s part of my life – “my beach”. The objects that I have gathered there have always been important to me, and I wanted to find a meaningful way to connect them back to the place they came from. Whilst walking there I often wonder what would be left if our society ended today, and how might our lives be interpreted by the people of the future? How would they read the cultural objects they found scattered and washed up on the beach?
I hope that this little overlooked part of the coastline might have a story to tell that is relevant elsewhere. And when one realises how many people died or had their lives ruined as a result of the industry that thrived here, it is hard not to want to record a small part of the areas story. Sometimes as the tides scour away the worst of the pollution it feels almost as if nature itself is glossing over a problem that should not have existed in the first place. But there is only so much “glossing” that nature can do to support our unsustainable lifestyles.
Controlling my outrage over the pollution I saw on the beach was difficult and seeing past that even harder. But a few days of careful editing and planning late in 2015 gave me a strong idea of what I had to do.
Initially though I had two very large bodies of work that had to come together. One camera less set made with the objects I had gathered, and the conventional images made outdoors with a range of cameras and formats. Consolidating this is a manner that is true to the place has been an enjoyable headache.
My favourite part has been the challenge of finding connections between the hundreds of diverse pictures I have made, and then filling in the gaps that appeared as different narratives evolved.
The hardest part has been editing out so many pictures that I am emotionally attached to.
It was important that this work is not just a collection of pictures of the worst environmental damage I could find. This would be dishonest as the Blast’s ecosystem improves daily, and a lot of organisations and individuals contribute to that. The passing of time and the signs of positive environmental change are there in the pictures for those who look closely, and as we have reached a point in human history when our relationship with our environment is precarious, some hope and optimism is required.
The project is far from finished so it is hard to identify long term aims. It would be great to expand it and take it further through community involvement, and to share and exhibit the images. I can’t tell people what to see in the pictures, but it would be good to start a dialogue.
Even though I am not done with the Blast I am working on several ongoing projects. I am unsure what will dominate my time in 2017 and try not to dictate my direction too much.
Name: Roger Coulam
Title: The Blast