Confluences: On Calvin Chow

On Calvin Chow

Words by Madeleine Bazil

Welcome to Confluences, a column on art, kinship and life.

"Once Beating Heart is not only a story about water and climate change,” writes Zoe Harrison for the British Journal of Photography about Calvin Chow’s photo essay, which looks at the communities living on the shores of Tonlé Sap in Cambodia – Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake – and how climate crisis and other environmental factors impact their lives. “It is a story about inequality, education and geopolitics, and how all of these issues intersect with one another.” Chow is an artist, photographer and director with an interest “in the relentlessness of things, of time, of space, and everything in between”. His work behind the lens “traces between nature and humanity”. Once Beating Heart looks at this sense of interconnectedness: how human ecosystems and natural ecosystems interact and complicate each other.

Chow spent 16 days travelling via boat from village to village, meeting people and listening to their stories. After Tonlé Sap was hit by a devastating drought in 2019, Chow recalls wondering if he was the right person to tell this story. “I knew that if I were to tell the story… I needed to spend as much time on the lake as possible, in order to look deeply into the nuance embedded within the lake and the issues involved,” he explains to me. So began a research process that spanned most of 2021, as he spoke with people on the ground in Cambodia through video calls and texts whilst he was in lockdown in Singapore. Through this process, he says, “I began to see that there was a space for a voice like mine even though the Tonlé Sap is not where I call home.”

Every day the irrevocable link between the natural world and humanity becomes increasingly clear. Like life itself, the stories that we tell and share also do not exist in siloes: their plurality or diversity is essential. In every village – in every person – lives a story worth amplifying.

I’m reminded of the way contributor Anna Souter describes Sámi culture in Issue #10 as “based on human-nonhuman reciprocity and interdependence”. This awareness and sense of mutual engagement ought to always be the case in all cultures; after all, that connection exists whether we acknowledge it or – more detrimentally – not. Chow’s other ongoing project, The Blindness of the Sea, sees him similarly focusing on this theme of interconnectedness. In it, he looks at a seawall in Jakarta, Indonesia and the constant, relentless incursion of both time and water on the built human environment. “For the past few years, I have looked for a thread that bound me to where I call home,” Chow tells me. “The same issues related to water we face in Singapore despite the city’s wealth such as rising water levels and access to water are similarly felt across the region from Indonesia to Cambodia. This has been the impetus for my work, telling the story of water in a region that is dependent and surrounded by it.”

Our current issue’s theme, diversity, can be interpreted in many ways: one of them being diversity of perspective. How do our lived experiences shape how we see the world? And how do the natural and built environments in which we are immersed shape our relationships to place, to the Earth, to each other, to ourselves and our own wellbeing? These are questions that have nuanced answers, and therein lies the value of powerful storytelling: to amplify a diversity of voices and perspectives. As Sheila Watt-Cloutier says in Issue #10’s No Word For Nature, storytelling is a way to “remember who we are”. I’m drawn to Once Beating Heart because it allows the communities of Tonlé Lap to do exactly that. “I believe that creating work that resonates requires an open and attentive listening ear,” Chow explains. “This is how I try to approach my work, no matter where I am or who I am speaking with.”

Every day the irrevocable link between the natural world and humanity becomes increasingly clear. Like life itself, the stories that we tell and share also do not exist in siloes: their plurality or diversity is essential. In every village – in every person – lives a story worth amplifying. As Chow puts it: “I believe that we as human beings ought to first and foremost experience the diversity of the natural world in order to understand the constructed world better. From diverse voices in the digital world to diverse opinions in the political arena, I hope that we as a species can learn to understand each other’s voices, no matter how contrary to us they may be. From listening to the birds outside my window in Singapore during lockdown to the sound of silence while drifting in the middle of the Tonlé Sap in the early morning, seemingly diverse experiences often find a meeting point. They met in my body, my heart was open and I felt free."

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Words by

Madeleine Bazil

Madeleine Bazil is a multidisciplinary artist and writer interested in memory, intimacy, and the ways we navigate worlds - real and imagined. She c… Learn more

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