Photographer Chloe Dewe Mathews brings the environmental and cultural facets of the five countries bordering the Caspian Sea to viewers in the recently-opened exhibition, “Caspian: The Elements.” In October 2018, Mathews published a book under the same title with 125 of her photographs. Now, 30 of those photographs are being displayed at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology in a captivating exhibition.
Mathews spent five years traveling through Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan, capturing the lives of their peoples and the various unique landscapes surrounding the sea, while showing how natural resources influence the regions and their inhabitants. Each nation has different ways of using their resources and varying climates, but the Caspian Sea still unifies these countries.
The exhibition provides an immersive experience for the attendees, showing all the distinctive landscapes of the five countries with three large murals on the walls. Each mural is approximately nine feet high and 24 feet wide, and on top o f the murals hang the photographs above their “appropriate environments.” The three installments in support of Mathews’ photographs depict the many properties the sea holds at the core of the region. With the center wall exposing oil lying on the water’s surface and the other walls displaying a cave inside a massive rocky protrusion without a visible top and ice floes, visitors will be “immediately aware of the variations of the earth” connecting the moments shown in the photographs with the Caspian Sea.
The photographs primarily show the lives of the residents of each country in the process of their daily activities and working and partaking in spiritual activities, such as weddings and other religious practices. Others reveal the variety of terrain and differing topography of the land.
The images of working persons in the industries of their regions include fishing in Russia and constructing ornate gravesites in Kazakhstan. A prevalent resource in many of the photographs joining the countries together is oil, which on a broader scope, shapes the planet. But in these countries, oil also shapes the personal little things in the daily lives of the culture as well as the landscape around them.
In Azerbaijan, oil extends the typical uses familiar to most individuals outside of the country. To some of its residents, naphthalene oil is believed to have health and healing benefits. In “Albina Visilova, a regular visitor to the Naftalan Sanitarium,” Mathews captures a woman sitting in a bath of the black dense liquid. From her neck down, the subject of the picture is covered in oil, like a full body jacket. Whether these baths actually help those participating or not, the practice shows how diverse the use of oil can be, giving it more positive connotations outside of the negative effects on the planet’s condition and political discourse regarding the resource.