FloodZone: A Photographer Living at the Forefront of the Climate Crisis

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The South Florida capital of Miami is known for its glamorous lifestyle. But that reputation betrays reality, as rapidly rising seawater means trouble for the city’s diverse population. Anastasia Samoylova photographs boarded-up buildings, flooded pools and bright advertising hoarding, exploring how the city continues to expand, even as the foundations sink.

Words by Hudson Brown

Photography by Anastasia Samoylova

Miami is on the frontlines of the climate crisis. By 2060, the Atlantic Ocean and its network of interconnected rivers and canals are expected to rise up to one metre. This precarious outlook is already having an impact, with inland properties rapidly rising in value. For low socio-economic communities set some distance from the water like Liberty City and Little Haiti, gentrification is becoming a major problem. At the same time, wealthy residents living along the city’s famous waterfront have expanded their sea walls and installed hurricane-proof windows, as tidal flooding becomes a daily concern.

The warning signs have been evident for years, but the municipal government has been slow to act. Streets with porous limestone foundations are being physically raised and new pumps are being installed to hold back the encroaching waves of Biscayne Bay. These works to avoid catastrophe are taking place in clear view, yet day-to-day life seemingly carries on as normal. This is what captured Russian-American photographer Anastasia Samoylova’s eye when she first moved to Miami three years ago.

“The whole culture and the psyche of the region are in denial, knowing major change is imminent but wanting to carry on as if it wasn’t.”

On Samoylova’s arrival, she describes what she saw as a “very specific public iconography.” Everywhere there are both physical and metaphorical signs of tourism, leisure and a booming but fragile property market that has become symbolic of the South Florida capital. With hints of the luxury lifestyle often associated with Miami found on nearly every street corner, Samoylova was struck by the unsettling optimism of this imagery when you consider the city’s potentially devastated future.

“The gap between image and reality is stark, but not just at the level of representation,” says Samoylova. “The whole culture and the psyche of the region are in denial, knowing major change is imminent but wanting to carry on as if it wasn’t.”

“Miami has a reputation for shallowness, for surface, for the thin seduction of facades.”

Anastasia’s eye for the built environment can be traced back to her education at Moscow’s Russian State University for the Humanities over a decade ago. Studying architecture and interior design, she first discovered photography when capturing the three-dimensional models she designed. Less formally, she spent two years working as a window decorator for an upmarket furniture brand. Every couple of weeks she would create new compositions of furniture, lights and accessories within the specific limitation of the window frame. This low-key education on structure and simplicity informed her Miami-based project, FloodZone.

“[Miami] has a reputation for shallowness, for surface, for the thin seduction of facades. It was swampland less than a century ago so there’s not much history. And on that basis people assume that the lives lived here are shallow too,” says Samoylova. “They’re not – or at least not all of them. The visitors come for the allure but the permanent residents have lives as complex and contradictory as anyone. And for me, the crisis faced by the area brings this into sharp focus.”

“At the heart of the photographs was an interest in the small and telling details.”

In the early days of FloodZone, Anastasia was hesitant to describe what she was doing as a ‘project’ at all, feeling that some environmental-based stories become “over-strategised” and appear forced. Instead, she took to the streets of her new tropical home during what turned out to be the hottest Miami summer on record; wandering speculatively as her camera was drawn towards the pastel colours and lush accents. When Anastasia flicked back through her images, common threads and motifs soon emerged. The focus was clearly on the inner lives of the city’s residents, who seemingly ignore the threat of an oncoming crisis, despite it appearing with increased frequency and austerity.

“Southern Florida is undeniably photogenic. It’s extraordinarily beautiful. But there’s a feeling of anxiety, of dread, of uncertainty. That’s what fascinates me – the trouble in paradise,” expresses Samoylova.

German photobook producer Steidl published FloodZone in 2019. It was a highly collaborative process, as Anastasia strived to avoid “crude metaphors and overly symbolic imagery.” She worked alongside renowned writer and curator David Campany, who helped guide FloodZone in a direction that maintained the project’s enquiry into the climate crisis, while preserving the core focus of Anastasia’s images. “We both agreed that what was at the heart of the photographs was an interest in the small and telling details,” says Samoylova. “From there, I shot more consciously, and David helped with the selection and sequence.”

“While crises tend to turn art into activism, I feel there should also be room for complex work.”

Anastasia wanted FloodZone to be far more than just a simplistic look at a dire future. Instead of capturing the catastrophic, she focussed on creating a brooding psychological portrait of what it’s like to live at the forefront of the climate crisis. When asked about the potential power of photography to reveal society’s most pressing issues, Samoylova says it’s a vital question that doesn’t have a clear answer.

“There are no formulas as to what kind of visual approach has power, whatever that means,” says Samoylova. “But the space of art, and the book form, are much slower and hopefully more reflective, more experimental, and because of that the whole question of power and efficacy becomes more diffuse. While crises tend to turn art and artists into activism, I feel there should also be room for complex work.”

Samoylova draws on a range of influences, including those from her birthplace and the Russian avant-garde movement. A particular favourite is the work of Natalia Goncharova and her depictions of rural Russian culture through vibrant paintings, drawings and costume designs. “[Goncharova] was fearless and thought nothing of launching into a whole new area of art. She avoided formula and managed to balance rigour with great fountains of invention,” explains Samoylova. Anastasia also admires the “restraint” shown in the documentary photographs of Walker Evans and Evelyn Hofer, while William Eggleston and Harry Gruyaert’s appreciation for colour is another source of inspiration.

Leading back to her own work, Anastasia talks of her admiration for the ‘everyday’ photograph and what it can articulate about society as a whole. This curiosity has been a constant in Samoylova’s work, including her ongoing project, Landscape Sublime. For this work, she seeks out copyright-free images of natural wonders online and crafts them into three-dimensional collages. She then recontexualises them through photography with the purpose of drawing attention to their romanticised similarities and exposing what we are encouraged to want from landscapes and still images. Considering Landscape Sublime alongside FloodZone, Anastasia’s nuanced interest in the commonplace becomes immediately apparent.

“I’m not just interested in the greats, or my own version of the pantheon, but also the idea of the typical image, the populist image, the clichés that proliferate in visual culture today,” explains Samoylova. “I like the challenge of pushing these, incorporating them and twisting them into something else. This was also something Evans mastered – the clarifying and critiquing of the vernacular of the age in which one is living.”

FloodZone is now a complete book, but the story is far from finished for Samoylova. She plans to visit other states in the American South, seeking out different perspectives on the intersection of routine life and our collision course with climate change. FloodZone is also being presented in a series of solo exhibitions over the coming months, including at the USF Contemporary Art Museum in Tampa, the Galerie Caroline O’Breen in Amsterdam, and at the Biennale für aktuelle Fotografie in Mannheim, Germany. Meanwhile, Landscape Sublime continues with the installation of a 60-foot, 12-part panorama commissioned by Miami International Airport.

As more major cities around the globe become directly impacted by the shifting climate, people will have to adapt in a variety of unseen ways. FloodZone showcases an early example of this conflict, as the climate crisis comes to the world’s doorstep.

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Anastasia Samoylova

Anastasia Samoylova is a Russian-American artist who moves between observational photography, studio practice and installation. Although her work takes many forms, a central concern is the place images occupy in our understanding and misunderstanding of the world.