Madeleine Bazil

Madeleine Bazil is a photographer and writer based between the UK, US, and South Africa. Her documentary work puts a focus on societal and individual memory of collective cultural trauma, interests stemming from her experiences in the NGO/nonprofit space; her praxis lives at the intersection between journalism and fine art in the pursuit of honest and captivating storytelling.

WATER[LESS]: Meditations in an [Environmental] Emergency

With WATER[LESS], I am preoccupied with the concept of existential contradiction, of living in opposition with oneself and one’s geographic situation. Cape Town is in imminent danger of becoming the first major city in a ‘developed’ country to run out of water; the water crisis stems from man’s mistreatment of nature, but it has been exacerbated by political mismanagement and party infighting over many months – valuable time wasted during which funds and resources from the top down could have been mobilised.

This February, the City of Cape Town finally began construction on three seawater desalination plants intended to mitigate the issue. None of the three are completed yet as of the time of this writing. For this project, I focused on one of them, located at the V&A Waterfront. A gentrified pedestrian area of yachts, shopping malls, upscale food halls, and luxury hotels in the heart of the city, the V&A is a Disney-esque bubble of ‘development’. In my personal opinion its existence exemplifies the act of building for the sake of building rather than for any distinctly positive purpose. The thing that bothers me the most is that the V&A is a huge tourism hub in spite (or perhaps because) of the fact that it bears minimal resemblance to the rest of the city. For many tourists, shuttled directly in private cars or Ubers from the airport to the 5-star waterfront-facing Southern Sun Hotel, these overpriced quays comprise the breadth and depth of their perception of Cape Town – no time and space for contemplation of the sharper edges of abject poverty, cultural innovation, or the uncomfortable, fascinating intersection of the two.

If you keep going further down East Dock Road, however, there is an eventual petering out of development. One final luxury café – Tasha’s, with a decorative, Instagram-friendly gold Vespa planted out front beside the velvet-roped patio – and then a large carpark and a roundabout and then it all gets a bit quieter until ultimately you reach the eerily deserted end of the waterfront’s peninsula. There is actually quite a bit more land out here than you would think, given the sheer density of building just a thousand meters away. Here there is a helipad, where companies offering helicopter tours of the city park their crafts, and past that is a recycling centre. The sidewalks fade into dirt. Opposite all of this, behind a chainlink fence and a cheerfully colourful banner explaining the scientific process behind seawater conversion, is where the City is constructing one of its desalination plants.

Generally, my documentary photography puts a focus on societal and individual memory of collective cultural trauma, interests stemming from my experiences in the NGO/nonprofit space; my praxis lives at the intersection between journalism and fine art in the pursuit of honest and captivating storytelling. This body of work expands on those themes of memory, existence, and trauma – I consider WATER[LESS] to be a meditation on the cause and effect of large-scale ecological trauma, an up-close navigation of the grey area of environmental flux where human negligence meets human impotence in the face of environmental reality. In considering the desalination plant’s construction site in close relationship with the waterfront area of which it is an uneasy extension, these images are intended to highlight the complicated and inextricable connections between humanity and the environment – particularly striking in a nation as much an example of combined and uneven development as South Africa.

Cape Town Deputy mayor Ian Neilson said in January that ‘we do seriously suspect this is the new normal, that there has been a change in the climate… Without rain and without significant additional supply measures, we will not survive.’ Shot on 35mm Portra 400 film, my choice of analogue format speaks to the impending permanence which this transitional societal and environmental moment manifests; ultimately, I hope that this body of work raises and exemplifies crucial questions of blame, responsibility, and collective reckoning as Cape Town moves forward.

To view more of Madeleine Bazil’s work please visit her website.