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As the world becomes increasingly aware of our interconnectedness through both a shared health crisis and a common call to address structural inequality, the interdependence of the natural world offers a fascinating study of the intricacies of coexistence. For some insight into biodiversity, more specifically plant life and its origin as seeds, we reached out to photographer and author Anna Laurent. Her work with Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in the United Kingdom, seed banks and independent projects in Iraq and London pairs both captivating imagery with educational content. In her hands, seeds, plants and flowers are far more than ornamental, they are central to life itself.
Spread from the book The Botanical Wallchart by Anna Laurent
DUGGAL ART SCENE: Since the inception in 2009 of your ongoing project Dispersal–a photographic exploration of seed pods, seed dispersal and plant structure–a global urgency in regard to climate activism has taken root in our collective consciousness. Considering this context, what is the importance of safeguarding forests and plant life specifically within the larger planetary ecosystem?
ANNA: The preservation of every plant species is critical to the health of any ecosystem, since plants are integral — as food, protection — to any living organism in the ecology. The disappearance of a single flowering plant in a habitat can be devastating, for the insects that rely on it for pollination, and the animals that depend on it for fruit. Arguably the most important reason for protecting biodiversity (or at least the one that gets attention in global discussion & recognised as an urgency) is as a food source for humans. Our climate is rapidly changing, which means that some species will not have time to adapt to cooler, warmer, drier, or wetter habitats. We will need to cultivate new varieties of plants — for grain, for fruit, etc. — to grow, which requires an existing genetic diversity. This is why seed banks are vital, and especially the Svalbard Seed Vault, where I exhibited in 2019.
Photograph by Anna Laurent from the Flora: Exploration to Extinction series.
DUGGAL ART SCENE: Flora: Exploration to Extinction, your art installation at a hotel in London, brings issues of climate change and biodiversity directly to the public. The overall beauty of the piece coupled with the romance of plants and flowers as subject matter acts as an enticement to introduce viewers to a stark reality. Can you tell us a bit about the project–its concept and goals?
ANNA: Flora: Exploration to Extinction is a public installation that visualises a threatened global biodiversity, immersing viewers in a landscape of flora interrupted by silhouettes of extinct and endangered species. Cascades of flora display an ecological utopia of abundance, interrupted by silhouettes of extinct and endangered species. The densely-collaged utopia conveys an ecological interdependence, while recognising the false illusion of limitless global resources. The aesthetic is both nostalgic and hyper-modern, conveying irreparable environmental losses and an imperative to reevaluate our relationship to the natural world. At the time, I was researching the depictions of plants in the nineteenth century, a period of global plant travel & exploration, when we portrayed flowers as objects of beauty that could be moved & grown anywhere in the world. I considered this the beginning of our modern relationship to the botanic world, and then contrasted it with our present day, an age requiring a new perception of plants, where their ecologies and population are not limitless and must be recognised as such. For the silhouetted plants, I chose species from around the world whose populations are now threatened by human-driven changes in their ecologies.
Photograph by Anna Laurent for Kew Gardens.
DUGGAL ART SCENE: In the wake of protests inspired by George Floyd, countless aspects of Western societies are reckoning with lineages of structural racism, even botanic gardens. Alexandre Antonelli, Director of Science at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew—where your recently completed a commission—recently wrote in The Conversation, “At Kew, we aim to tackle structural racism in plant and fungal science...In my own field of research, you can see an imperialist view prevail. Scientists continue to report how new species are ‘discovered’ every year, species that are often already known and used by people in the region – and have been for thousands of years.” Tell us about your commission photographing endangered plant species and the experience of creating interpretation panels for the project?
ANNA: I was commissioned by Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew for a series of portraits featured in their historic Temperate House, renovated in 2018. Working with scientists at Kew’s Herbarium in London, and at the Millennium Seedbank in Wakehurst, I retrieved from archives the seeds & fruits of rare & endangered species, cultivated in the Temperate House, and highlighted in interpretation panels. All specimens were either collected by Kew’s team or shared by other collectors (over the last hundred years or so). I was especially pleased about this project because I had proposed it to the interpretation team when I heard that the Temperate House would be replanted with endangered species. I had already been working with Kew to photograph specimens from their Herbarium, so I was a bit familiar with the range of species in the historic collection. I proposed that photographs would both bring these dried collections at Kew to the public (generally the Herbarium & Seed Bank are both limited for special research), and highlight seeds & fruits, which are such an important phase of a plant’s life cycle, as they are the future of the species, yet we are often more familiar with the plant’s flowers.
Image from the Iraqi Seed Project. A local artist has repurposed a discarded weapons canister into a symbol of regeneration, pouring forth local stone fruit. Throughout the region, whether by public art installations or agricultural initiatives, it’s easy to see how plants are metaphorically and literally wielded to represent renewal despite persecution.
DUGGAL ART SCENE: Lastly, in your work as a photographer and writer for the documentary and educational initiative, The Iraqi Seed Project, founded by Emma Piper Burket, are there any takeaways from your interactions with the land and its people that have illuminated your understanding of our current climate crisis?
ANNA: “No friend but the mountains” is a Kurdish expression that speaks to the integral relationship between people & land, especially for a pastoral culture that has always relied on its own soil. My work on The Iraqi Seed Project illustrates the connection between biodiversity & cultural heritage. The loss of the former is the loss of the latter. Iraqi Kurdistan is a region in northern Iraq included in the modern-day Fertile Crescent. Today, after years of war, sanctions & climate change, the land that once fed the world, where our staple crops originated & the first location of cultivated wheat and seed saving, is suffering from contaminated soil and neglected and destroyed land. Many species are now extinct or endangered, and their food is now imported from other countries. This is a devastating adjustment to a people who have relied on their land for agricultural self-sufficiency and numerous varieties of trees, spices, fruits and grain that have all been integral in the Kurdish people’s cultural heritage.
View work from the Dispersal series and a text index of all species, listed alphabetically by scientific name here: www.annalaurent.com/dispersal
HEADER IMAGE: Photograph by Anna Laurent from the Dispersal series.