Photographer Chloe Dewe Mathews has spent five years documenting life along the Thames, from source to mouth, and examines the various ways we engage with the river.
Rising from the murky depths of the Thames Estuary, a cluster of rusting sea forts forms a unit like an invading army of crustaceans. A group of Morris dancers adorned in flowers and ribbons congregates outside a riverside pub, their profiles embossed by golden light.
At the water’s edge, a colourful procession gathers as two men prepare to immerse a statue of the elephant god Ganesh in the river. These are just some of the images that make up photographer Chloe Dewe Mathews’ book Thames Log, a five-year project that documents our ever-changing relationship to the River Thames.
Like all great rivers of the world, the Thames has served as a foundation for society for generations. In fact, evidence of human occupation around what is now London has been traced back to half a million years ago.
“The Thames is liquid history,” the 19th century MP John Burns once declared – an apt phrase as while civilisations have come and gone, the river has remained an enduring presence.Array
It has witnessed epidemics, fires and wars, and been the setting of some of the most pivotal events in British history, from the arrival of the Romans in 43 AD and the founding of Londinium, to the city’s ascent as an important trading port and emerging as the London we know today.
Having spent much of her career photographing in distant places such as the Caspian Sea, where her project Caspian: The Elements studies the human relationship with natural resources, Thames Log came about after she asked herself: why not focus on a natural resource closer to home? For Dewe Mathews, this was the river on her doorstep.
For five years the photographer has been wandering the length of the River Thames, observing the variety of activities and rituals that take place there, sometimes so familiar they are overlooked (commuters crossing London Bridge at rush hour), and other times so obscure, or private that they evade the public radar altogether (neopagan rituals and the scattering of ashes, to the eccentric 800-year-old practice of Swan Upping).
At 215 miles, the Thames is England’s second longest river after the Severn, flowing from the Cotswold Hills to Southend-on-Sea where it empties into the North Sea. To get a sense of the river’s true scale and shape, the best vantage point is from the sky (as immortalised in the EastEnders’ title sequence), but its depth and diversity are best understood from the ground.Array
Thames Log is arranged geographically as we follow the river’s meandering trajectory through Dewe Mathews’ quiet observations, starting at the river’s source. It is here that she meets a druid who has paddled a hand-crafted coracle from the source of the river to the mouth in a pilgrimage for peace.
The photo shows a scene that looks as if it’s been seized from the imagination of Kenneth Grahame (Wind in the Willows), as the man navigates his coracle boat across tranquil water. We next pass through Oxford – where the river is known as ‘Isis’ – and Dewe Mathews photographs a mass baptism, a scene that feels strangely alien in 2021 as people are seen packed closely together on the river bank.
We also encounter ship-spotters, who log the continual stream of vessels that pass through Tilbury, and mudlarks, who comb the city sludge for Roman and Saxon treasure. In Southend-on-Sea, a couple are pictured at dusk kneeling in the direction of Mecca for the Maghrib (evening) prayer.
A quarter of an hour before that same evening, Dewe Mathews pivots the frame and captures three teenage girls drinking on the waterfront. The juxtaposition of these two scenes captured in such close succession shows how the river is used for different purposes – and how its meaning can shift dramatically from one person to the next.Array
For some, the river embodies other world rivers. “Along the water, there are communities who see the river as a manifestation of the Ganges. They are looking into the water and saying, “this is connected to Mother Ganga” says Dewe Mathews in a video about the work.
“And physically it is connected; all rivers flow into each other. Therefore, Hindus can perform their celebrations or rituals on the Thames and it’s considered to be as worthwhile as travelling the huge distance to perform them on the Ganges.”
Oscillating between the micro and macro, Dewe Mathews maintains a respectful distance while bringing us up close to the events she depicts. In the book, which features french-fold pages, she’s able to link up disparate snapshots in time and display the pictures as a flowing, interconnected sequence, just like the river itself.
Alongside each image, Dewe Mathews records the exact GPS coordinates, as well as dates and details about the tide and weather, a practice that echoes the careful logging of the ship-spotters we encounter in the book. No more than a few words are needed to caption each photograph; instead Dewe Mathews gives precedence to the images, allowing the viewer to interpret the scenes visually.Array
Water – something so universal – has no need for language. The practices that take place on the Thames seem to translate to rivers everywhere. As Marina Warner reminds us in the book’s foreword, rivers are democratic in nature: “the river is a commons, its waters a site to which we all belong.”
Thames Log is also a testament of how strong our attachment to nature can be. Dewe Mathews’ quiet images communicate the river as a refuge, a source of peace and solace. Ironically though, it is humans that are polluting the river. In 1957, the Thames was declared “biologically dead” by the Natural History Museum due to the shocking amounts of sewage and industrial waste it contained.
“We have a complicated relationship with our landscape, in that we’re constantly damaging it, almost with every action we take. But there are also these small acts and moments where people are appreciating and communing with the landscape,” Dewe Mathews says.
Yet despite the grim statistics, environmentalists say that the river is the cleanest it has been in 150 years. Its waters currently hold 125 species of fish, and once-absent populations of salmon, otter and sea trout are making a comeback.Array
Dewe Mathews’ consistent long-term approach to projects allows her to document cyclical activities, and to revisit places, accruing material gradually over time; as a result her images represent the incredible diversity of ways people engage with the Thames throughout the year.
But even five years is not enough time to fully know the river. Greater change will take place and is happening this very moment. While seeming to stay the same, the river is constantly changing and so is our relationship to the water – a paradox that is encapsulated by Heraclitus’ famous saying: “no man ever steps in the same river twice.”
With a name derived from the Celtic word for “darkness” (Tamesās), the Thames has always been a source of intrigue, mystery and wonder. And perhaps that is part of its enduring allure and the reason we keep returning to its shores: the secrets and stories the water harbours that we will never know.
All full-width images are © Chloe Dewe Mathews 2021 courtesy Loose Joints
Thames Log is co-published by Loose Joints and Martin Parr Foundation.