“The effects of fracking have long-term consequences: I wasn’t going to be able to document them in a traditional way”
Spanish photographer Norberto Fernández Soriano’s project, Hythloday, began with the landscape. Studying for a master’s in photography at UWE Bristol, he planned to make work about land and the psychological impact it has on its people. “I come from Extremadura, where the landscape is really different, really harsh,” he explains. “I started looking into these ideas of nature and human activity: how one affects the other, how the landscape changes our view of nature, how it shapes our behaviour.” It was this early research that led him to the controversial issue of fracking, a subject which turned his interest on its head: society directly impacting the landscape, rather than the other way around.
In early 2019 he made contact with a group of activists, located near the UK’s fracking trial site, who were dedicating their lives to protesting the site and the environmentally harmful drilling taking place there. When initial messages felt too distant, he took his van, drove to the camp, and introduced himself in person. He proceeded to stay with the group several times throughout the year, attending protests and learning about their work. However he soon realised that a simple documentary approach would not suffice: the substance of the project Soriano was beginning to conceive was something invisible. “The effects of fracking have long-term consequences: I wasn’t going to be able to document them in a traditional way,” he says. “I didn’t know how to give voice to this impact that doesn’t exist on the surface.”
While researching, he learned of Thomas More’s Utopia, a satirical novel depicting a fictional island society, whose title (translated from Greek) means ‘nowhere’. Soriano began to see parallels between More’s text, which used fiction to reflect on the real social problems of his time, and the path of his own work. In the book, a sailor called Raphael Hythloday returns from Utopia to tell Thomas More’s character about his experiences. Soriano felt himself to be occupying a similar role, an explorer returning with tidings of an unknown place, and hence the project got its name. “I’m playing with this idea of fiction to portray a problem in the future that is happening in the present,” he says. Hythloday became a means of exploring and experimenting, visualising different future realities; the name hints at an attitude of discovery, of reflection on alternative possibilities for a life.
Soriano took his visual cues from magical realism, using different film stock, in both colour and black-and-white, to create a hazy, fractured portrait of a community, emphasising an atmosphere of uncertainty, moods flitting between hope and despair. His subjects have their eyes downcast, their backs turned, their gaze facing away. Soriano offers an outsider perspective of a community absorbed by their work, “their fight, their belief, their fears, and what fracking means for society”. They seem to be looking around towards different possible futures until, in the last image of the work, a man looks towards us, light and shadow dappling across his face, his eyes wary.
Alice Zoo is a photographer and writer based in London. She is interested in the processes by which people construct meaning for themselves, often focussing on its expression in ritual, celebration, and recounted memory. Her work has been exhibited in public institutions such as the National Portrait Gallery, Royal Photographic Society, and Royal Albert Hall, and published in British Journal of Photography, FT Weekend Magazine, The New Yorker, and elsewhere.