“Plastic is a generic and ubiquitous material that may end up choking the planet, and in turn strangle us”
Jackie Nickerson’s latest photobook, Field Test, makes for uncomfortable viewing. Weeds are fastened against a wall with duct tape, subjects’ heads are bound tight with cellophane, bodies are cocooned in tarpaulin. For the viewer, many of the images elicit a feeling of claustrophobia. For the American-born British photographer, the work is a meditation on how plastics inhabit the modern world – or rather, how they suffocate it.
“Plastic is a generic and ubiquitous material that may end up choking the planet, and in turn strangle us,” says Nickerson. “I decided to make images of individuals with everyday materials that act as a metaphor for this asphyxia.”
She points to examples such as the huge floating rubbish dumps piling up in the Pacific Ocean: “It is deeply upsetting looking at how [plastic] is killing marine life. It is obscene. It has got to change.” However, this is more than just a tirade against plastic pollution.
Field Test (published by Kerber Verlag) also highlights how indispensable the material has become to humanity – an issue brought into even sharper focus by Covid-19. Subjects’ faces might be shrouded by industrial mesh, but they are also shielded by surgical masks beneath. Some wear protective gloves and hospital scrubs. There are even Polaroids of healthcare workers in full PPE.
The timeliness is not lost on Nickerson, but Field Test was conceived and shot long before the pandemic. In fact, she came up with the idea in 2014, when she travelled to Liberia to cover the Ebola outbreak for Time magazine. “I became very conscious of the processes and protocols around healthcare,” she says. “PPE played a really important part in that.”
“These are plastic materials that protect, but also obscure identity. That lack of personal identity creates a kind of psychological stress”
Nonetheless, she is keen to stress that she is not ambivalent when it comes to plastics. “I just like to address both sides,” she says. “It runs through all of my work.” Terrain, a 2013 series focusing on farming in sub-Saharan Africa, is made up of arresting and at times celebratory portraits of anonymous labourers, while simultaneously bringing up issues around food security and subsistence agriculture. Faith, completed in 2006, paints an austere yet intimate picture of Christian communities at a time when child sexual abuse charges against the Catholic Church were prevalent.
But where these projects focus on people, offering glimpses into their subjects’ lives, Field Test does the opposite. In one image, a figure stands alone in a field, their face and top half concealed by a billowing sheet of black. “These are plastic materials that protect, but also obscure identity,” she explains. “That lack of personal identity creates a kind of psychological stress.”
It is an anxiety which, for Nickerson, appears to compound the existing worries about plastics and the environment. With this removal of individual qualities, the artist looks to broaden the scope of the work further still. “Are we looking at a person or an inanimate object?” she asks. “Do retailers, politicians and social media companies think of us as individuals or as commodities?” Arguably, the book implies, the answer is both – it just depends who’s profiting.