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Along the coast of Jakarta, a wall attempts to keep the rising sea at bay. From within the city, groundwater pumping sinks the city. Calvin Chow spent a month on the wall, documenting a cautionary tale for other cities.

Off the shore of Jakarta, a man swims. Diving between land and the sea floor, he collects sunken bricks in order to sell them in the city. These particular bricks belong to a submerged Mosque, now part of the old Jakarta now claimed by the sea. Between Jakarta and the Ocean, the wall promises to keep the city safe from water and time – this sunken city was on the wrong side of the ‘fence’. Each year, as the water level rises higher, the wall seemingly sinks lower. Singapore-based photographer, Calvin Chow, spent a month walking along it.

From The Blindness of the Sea, 2019 © Calvin Chow.

“The wall is not a solution in my opinion, but more like a short term remedy,” Chow explains. Rising sea levels are a danger to many countries across Asia. Because of heavy rainfall and the accelerated melting of polar ice caps, SouthEast Asian islands are left especially vulnerable. Chow was looking for a location that clearly demonstrated the physicality of the threat. His project, The Blindness of The Sea, attempts to understand the barrier and its promises, while questioning the future of cities such as Jakarta.

“A wall is this structure that you can build higher and higher, but then what? To what point? How high can you build a wall?”

From The Blindness of the Sea, 2019 © Calvin Chow.
From The Blindness of the Sea, 2019 © Calvin Chow.

“I wanted to give a sense to how the wall obstructs, and how the wall is a signifier of time and division,” says Chow. Aside from dividing the city from its hostile sea, the wall also divides the city’s people. Communities of migrants and fishermen live alongside the construction, making a living through collecting sunken debris and fish. “They live in non-permanent housing made of shacks. They don’t have a proper sewage system, so they mostly live on rainwater. They pump water out from the well, which actually causes the ground to sink,” says Chow. Jakarta is facing a two-sided threat; from within, the ground sinks, and from the Ocean, the tides rise. “A wall is this structure that you can build higher and higher, but then what? To what point? How high can you build a wall?”

While the wall attempts to keep Jakarta dry, the city is also undergoing major structural developments in an attempt to attract tourism. Artificial islands are built offshore, while megamalls and new apartments overlook the Ocean, sitting only 50 metres away from the wall and its neighboring shacks. Jakarta is a city divided by wealth, with those living by the wall facing the highest risks.

From The Blindness of the Sea, 2019 © Calvin Chow.

Chow hasn’t been able to return to Jakarta due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but plans on continuing the project on the Thousand Islands, north of the city’s coast. He notes, some of the neighbouring islands have already begun to vanish. “The project has been me looking outward towards the sea,” Chow says. “But I think the second part needs to come from the sea, looking toward the land.”

Chow sees the wall as a doomsday clock, ticking on as the water rises. This isn’t a project documenting humanity destroying nature. If left as is, time and water will win this battle. “The sea is blind, and it does not care about what you put in front of it,” says Chow. “It will go over it. There’s really nothing much we can do to stop it unless we take actions and really understand the whole picture.”

From The Blindness of the Sea, 2019 © Calvin Chow.
Isaac Huxtable

Isaac Huxtable joined the British Journal of Photography in October 2020, where he is currently the Editorial Assistant. Prior to this, he studied a BA in History of Art at the Courtauld Instititue of Art, London.

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