Since 2016, Russian-American photographer Anastasia Samoylova has been capturing images of sea-level rise in South Florida in quiet — and often surprising — ways.
Instead of whipping winds, she might capture a nest of an absent animal's eggs, just barely hanging over the water level of a canal. Rather than a destroyed home, a snapshot of a car; one window reflecting an adjacent green lawn while the windshield sun visor shows the image of breaking waves.
Subtle symbols, but with a lasting impression.
This week, Samoylova’s book "FloodZone" is being released in the United States, following its release in Germany. The book is a culmination of mornings and afternoons spent wandering the streets of Miami Beach and surrounding areas, as well as select other trips to coastal areas like southern Louisiana.
And on Friday Samoylova’s first solo exhibition for the "FloodZone" project opened in Tampa at the University of South Florida’s Contemporary Art Museum.
The work that would turn into "FloodZone" began shortly after Samoylova moved to Miami Beach seeking change from upstate New York, where she was teaching photography at a university.
“All I knew is that I needed to record what was happening and where I was. It was really a means to process my relocation in this environment,” she says. “After [Hurricane] Irma, I realized that this is going somewhere and living in flood zone comes at a cost.”
A newcomer to the subtropics, she didn’t plan properly and ended up having to begrudgingly stick out the 2017 hurricane in her Miami Beach apartment, within a mandatory evacuation zone. Some of the photos from that harrowing experience ended up in the final form of the book, like the silent but haunting image of her son wading through a flooded Miami Beach garage. The feeling of apprehension stuck with her.
“There is this expression, climate anxiety. And I noticed this is a real phenomenon among my peers here — the uncertainty of what to do with it. So this is what I'm aiming to portray,” says Samoylova.
The trepidation is the point. Here we are, going to work, heading to the gym and catching up with friends, like any other day. But the signs of impending sea-level rise abound when you train an eye to the details of our everyday lives along a threatened coast. And for Samoylova, those details — an upscale residential neighborhood flooded during King Tide, two feet of damp green moss hanging over the bottom of a building — tell a more interesting story than the traditional photojournalistic images of a disaster in the making; the palm trees bending in the wind, the waves lapping well over the edge of a sea wall, faces dripping with tears in response to the excruciating loss of property.
“We see way too many images of disaster already, where we become sort of immune to suffering. And I really didn't want to do that with my work. I wanted a slower narrative and images that are more contemplate and that take a minute to unpack,” she says. “In moments of catastrophe what it visually looks like is something that is going to be resolved. These are temporary events that I wanted to avoid, and instead point to the everydayness of this experience of life in places like this.”
Before becoming a sea-level rise photographer, Samoylova worked on other fine art that often took the form of paintings and intricate collages.
The aesthetic of the collage still permeates much of her work, with many photos featuring images within images — often with corporate prints showcasing large-scale developments of the future, surrounded by the stubborn elements that contradict the sales pitch.
Samoylova was born in the former Soviet Union in 1984, and lived in Russia until 2008. Recently she says that she’s found an unexpected parallel between her life during the fall of communism and this corporate imagery that her work critiques in the West.
“My grandfather worked in a big community, communal farm. It was socialism still. And I remember there were these big posters promising this beautiful life and how we were all building it together, and it all seemed quite utopian,” she says. “In 1991 when the Soviet Union fell apart, it also felt like that imagined image — that imagined life — fell apart.”
For Samoylova, the creeping reality of sea-level rise points to a similar fall from the ideal. A promotional image of a coastal development framed by rusting scaffolding. Another showcasing a construction site that already has a flooded foundation.
“I’m really critical of what imagery — especially photographic imagery — does to our collective memory and how we imagine places based on the images we see of those places, more than the reality,” she says. “In coastal areas that are being pushed with a tourist agenda and for further real estate development, we see images promising an even more beautiful life.”
“There’s this illusion of another reality that is so promising, so intact and solid and worthy of investment. Even though we as locals know how vulnerable it is, and how fragile this environment is,” she says.
The photographer’s work in South Florida has already started to segue itself into another “parallel” project: Samoylova is starting to work on a "FireZone" series, looking at real estate development in natural areas that are prone to increasingly destructive wildfires, namely in California. And in the meantime she is continuing her sea-level rise work, shooting photos along the rest of the East Coast and starting to do work in coastal Texas.
“This is very much an ongoing project,” she says. “The book is just the first iteration of it.”