Meet the Roehampton student using her photography to highlight the dangers of air pollution

Earlier this year Roehampton Student, Dominika Solowiej, spent two weeks in Beijing producing a photo series capturing the impact of air pollution in China.

Earlier this year Roehampton Student, Dominkia Solowiej, spent two weeks in Beijing producing a photo series capturing the impact of air pollution in China. Titled ‘. . . _ _ _ . . .’ (‘SOS’ in Morse code) the images depict the stark conditions suffered by those in the Chinese capital, but also a possible glimpse of a future in the UK’s biggest cities if they fail to deal with increasing levels of air toxicity.

We caught up with Dominika to find out more about the series.

See also: Air Pollution — the Invisible Killer

When did you decide you wanted to do a photo series exploring pollution and overconsumption in China?

Everything started a year ago when I met people who studied business and Mandarin at the university. I became close friends with them so automatically it was hard not to hear about Mandarin or China itself. I became more interested in culture, politics and environment of the country. I started doing my own research and at this point was already considering a visit there. What caught my attention the most was obviously the problem of pollution. I knew about it before, but the more research I did I was more shocked what I was discovering. So I think it was about August-September when I decided I want to go and see it for myself.

Do you have any personal connection to the country?

No, not really. However, because of this project, I feel like I know much more about the country and its culture now than ever before. I learned and experienced a lot and could never do that just through reading and researching.

How long did you spend there photographing? What areas did you visit?

Given I was in my last year of study at Uni and didn’t want to miss too many lectures, I planned my trip around my study leaves. I researched and gathered data of ‘best’ and ‘worst’ times to visit China and worked out what would be the best for me and what would benefit the project the most. So at the end, I spent 14 days in October and then again 18 days in February.

My trip was focused on Beijing and wanted to explore this city in details. But I have also visited rural areas on the outskirts of Beijing.

“I directly wanted to highlight what is like to live in a highly polluted country, wanted to show others struggles that Chinese people need to overcome on daily basis.”

In your blurb, you state that the ‘project engages directly with ideas of truth and representations of the everyday life of ordinary people; comments on what’s known but hidden.’ Can the elaborate on these ideas?

For me, photography is all about showing the truth, telling stories with pictures. I was never interested much in taking photographs just for the sake of it being pretty. I always wanted to draw attention to subjects that needed to be noticed by others. Also, I have always been very much interested in human nature and documenting everyday life — life of ordinary people who most of the time don’t get to share their stories.
 In this project, I directly wanted to highlight what is like to live in a highly polluted country, wanted to show others struggles that Chinese people need to overcome on daily basis.

I think the most shocking for me was the fact how bad the problem of pollution actually is. We hear about it I would say quite often but seeing it and experiencing it is something different. I feel like media
 don’t highlight the issue of pollution enough. Stating just the basics and not going into details.

How did you meet the participants you took portraits of?

Unfortunately, most Chinese people don’t speak English and my knowledge of Chinese is less than little. I was limited to ‘Hello’ ‘Thank you’ ‘My name is…’ ‘Goodbye’ and ‘Chicken’. Luckily, I had my boyfriend and friends who played a huge part in my project as they all learnt Mandarin and were on exchange program in Beijing at that time.

I didn't have much of a strategy of how I wanted to approach people so I decided to just take my camera, go out and see if I can actually get something. In general, finding people in masks was the easiest task to do, especially on highly polluted days, however getting them to participate was a little bit harder. My boyfriend was the one who was approaching people, briefly explaining who we are and what I am doing, without going into too much detail. Unfortunately, I could just stand, nod and smile. And then if we were lucky enough and people wanted to participate, I would take few quick photographs. We had to repeat this process every single time. Some people didn’t need much of an explanation and agreed straight away, some started asking more questions and got really involved in a conversation but didn’t want to be a part of it. There were days when I would take 10 portraits and days when I would only take 1 or 2. Lucky enough I had enough photographs at the end and was really happy with the results.

“After seeing my images people were shocked and couldn’t quite believe. Some were even asking me if I altered the images for the sake of the project, but all images are true and accurate.”

What do you hope people will come away thinking after viewing the series?

As I mentioned before, I don’t feel like media doing enough to highlight the problem of pollution. Everyone knows the issue exists but no one actually knows how bad it actually is. After seeing my images people were shocked and couldn’t quite believe. Some were even asking me if I altered the images for the sake of the project, but all images are true and accurate. After seeing and experiencing what it’s really like to live in China I wanted to share it with people, hopefully, make them more aware of the issue, highlight how bad and terrifying it is.

And also maybe make them more aware of their actions. As I elaborate in this project, the pollution in China is the effect of the consumption and exportation of their cheap goods. So hopefully, after seeing this project people will stop and think for a second. As I am aware, pollution is a huge global issue and making project like this won’t make much of a change but everything starts with something. I simply wanted to share what I gained, learned and experienced.

You can find more of Dominika’s work at http://dominikasolowiej.photodeck.com

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