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  • Writer's pictureSim Elliott

On Photography: Pavement botany; savouring pleasures felt finding beauty in the built environment.

Photography is many things: a profession, a hobby, what you do on holiday, an art form, a form of activism, a way of making scientific recording, and many other things. For me taking photographs is mostly a form of meaningful practical mindfulness, although I am also trying to both produce images that I feel are in some way beautiful, and that are are records of species that may be useful in promoting abundance and diversity thorough motivating conservation behaviours. Feeling a sense of meaning and purpose in my photography is an important aspect of my wellbeing; as is undertaking activities which are congruent to my values.

I experience anxiety and have OCD, so my mind is often racing with troubling intrusive thoughts. When I use my camera I weigh up the view, think about the composition, and consider different settings, and often take multiple photos of the same subject. When I am fully engaged in trying to make an image that I like my mind naturally stills, stops thinking about worrying things and focuses on the composition of the image. I have taken mindfulness courses, and attended mindfulness drops ins, and used guided mindfulness tapes, but I find mindfulness practices hard; when I am focussing on composing an image, I am spontaneously mindful.

I take two approaches to photography. Sometimes I go to a venue that I like and is of particular interest me (like Castle Hill Nature Reserve, Stanmer Woods, Widewater Lagoon or the Adur Estuary) and open myself to the experience, and photograph anything that tickles my interest. Or I have a small photography project in mind. Sometimes my mini projects yield great photos and capture my attention for ages, sometimes they are a bit of a flop - but I always think, nothing ventured, nothing gained!

This blog posts focusses on a small project I worked on during the first lockdown. I decided to photograph, at pavement level, the "weeds" that grow in the cracks between house walls and the pavement in the roads around Brighton.

I found that the "weeds" seemed beautiful when photographed full on in macro mode. especially when the backgrounds of walls or other objects (e.g. rocks, cliffs etc,) highlighted the plant, or one of its leaf, or one of its flowers, a bit like how Japanese print and paint artist composes a flower or a bird in a woodcut or painting, using blank space; although this only came to my mind after I took these photos, when I was doing some online research on Japanese nature art. The intentional or incidental relationship between photography and art history fascinates me; sometimes I am consciously trying to imitate a compositional style that exists in art history, but I think all photographs are unconsciously influenced by the store of images from art history that we hold with in our internal image store; every image is in some ways an art-historical palimpest.

A key thing for me in relation to photography and wellbeing is image processing. Savouring positive experiences really helps me maintain or re-experience the positive emotion I felt during the moments I was taking the photos.

This post is an act of savouring. These photos were mostly taken during the Summer of 2020. As the anxieties provoked by 2021's new lockdown started tainting my mood, I decided to revisit and savour some photos I took last year that I enjoyed taking.

Revisiting and re-arranging previous photographs is a form of distraction from any troubling thoughts. Some of my posts are all images, sometimes there are lots of words, some times they are a mix of a few words and images. Sometimes I write chronological accounts of walks, sometimes I focus on pattern, colour or form, sometimes I focus on a particular physiological, geographical, philosophical or sociological topic or concept - whatever takes my fancy at the time of writing. I experiment often with often no fixed view of how a post will turn out.

Many of the images in this post were taken in 2020 whilst taking lockdown exercise; on one walk I noticed a beautiful weed growing in a crack between the pavement and a house wall; so I decided to see if I could notice some more in Brighton; this widened into an interest in plants that grown next to rocks in he natural environment, on the face of chalk cliffs (the Undercliff Brighton)on pebbles on the beach (Brighton, Shoreham, Goring Gap), by walls in other towns (Lewes, Newhaven), and on/by archaeological remains (Tide Mills, Newhaven).

Most of these photos were taken before I bought the bridge camera that I mostly use now (a Nikon Coolpix P950) and were taken on the camera of my cheap mobile phone (an Honor 10 lite).

Identifying and naming "weeds" can also be an environmental and political invention; raising people's awareness of nature and the need to preserve it

Sophie Leguil, founder of More Than Weeds, stands over chalk names of plants on the pavement. Photograph: Jill Mead/The Guardian

A rising international force of rebel botanists armed with chalk has taken up street graffiti to highlight the names and importance of the diverse but downtrodden flora growing in the cracks of paths and walls in towns and cities across Europe. The idea of naming wild plants wherever they go – which began in France – has gone viral, with people chalking and sharing their images on social media. More than 127,000 people have liked a photo of chalked-up tree names in a London suburb, while a video of botanist Boris Presseq of Toulouse Museum of Natural History chalking up names to highlight street flowers in the French city has had 7m views.

Presseq told the Guardian: “I wanted to raise awareness of the presence, knowledge and respect of these wild plants on sidewalks. People who had never taken the time to observe these plants now tell me their view has changed. Schools have contacted me since to work with students on nature in the city.”

France banned pesticide use in parks, streets and other public spaces in 2017 and in gardens from 2019, leading to a surge in awareness of urban wild flowers in the country.

French botanist and campaigner Sophie Leguil, who lives in London, set up the More Than Weeds campaign to change perceptions of urban plants in the UK after helping to spread the Sauvages de ma rue (“wild things of my street”) chalking campaign in France led by Tela Botanica. She has won permission to chalk up Hackney’s highways and make chalk trails to highlight the forgotten flora at our feet and is asking other councils to allow the same.



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