“The water is witness, it carries the DNA”

Reading Time: 3 minutes

To mark the opening of London Nights, the Museum of London’s major new photography exhibition, we present the first in a series of FullBleed films profiling photographers featured in the show. First up is award-winning photographic artist Chloe Dewe Mathews, whose video work – London River Burning –will be on show for the first time as part of the exhibition.

The banks of the River Thames are awash with activity. From crowds of businessmen flooding across it on their daily commute, to flocks of mudlarkers hunting for treasure on the rocky shores. For the past five years photographer Chloe Dewe Mathews has been documenting the many ways that people interact with this body of water. The resulting project, Thames Log, chronicles her observations and experiences, providing an insight into the myriad rituals and activities taking place along it. A new FullBleed film, produced in association with British Journal of Photography and the Museum of London, reveals the stories behind the images.

What I’m often interested in is how we project meaning onto different materials,” says Mathews. “For example, this vast mass of water means one thing to one group of people and something completely different to another.” Growing up in close proximity to the Thames, Mathews initially believed the rituals which had once taken place along the river no longer existed. However, as she began to explore, the photographer encountered individuals and whole communities engaging with the vast water source.

Suffocated by what Mathews refers to as the “sterile, white-walled environment of art school,” her interest in documentary photography stemmed from a desire to directly experience the world and learn in an experiential manner. It was during a trip to the Caspian Sea that the photographer’s interest shifted to “using the raw materials of a region to talk about the people within it.” The resulting work, Caspian, documents the effect of the region’s burgeoning oil industry on its people and landscapes. This theme extends through all of Mathews’ work and is epitomised in Thames Log, with the photographer using the river as a point from which to explore the people engaging with it.

From 2000 pilgrims collected alongside the Thames to a lone druid paddling its length, the FullBleed film explores the array of people that Mathews encountered interacting with the river. “Chloe’s images are a collection of individual stories but together they give you a sense of the power of this river. The photographs slowly pull you in,” says FullBleed’s commissioning editor Jude Edginton, who directed the film. “From a film maker’s point of view, the river was the perfect location to shoot,” he continues, “we followed Chloe on a cinematic journey down the Thames’s shingle beaches, shorelines and over London’s most iconic bridges. I have a great respect for her dedication to presenting the river from a fresh perspective.”

“Having spent a number of years photographing people and their relationship with the Thames, I was always personally fascinated with the water itself  this beautiful, luscious, glossy substance,” reveals Mathews as the film draws to a close. Turning her attention to the river rather than the people engaging with it, Mathews began to envision it as a vessel for stories. “The water is witness, it carries the DNA,” she explains. Deciding to follow one of these stories, a tragic moment in Thames history, the work transitioned into a video piece, London River Burning. This will be on show for the first time at London Nights.

Explore London after dark at the Museum of London’s major new photography exhibition, London Nights. The exhibition is open to the public from 11 May to 11 November between 10:00 am and 6:00 pm Monday to Friday. Get your tickets today! 

This editorial was produced in partnership with Museum of London. Please click here for more information on sponsored content funding at British Journal of Photography.