Photojournalist Matt Writtle – encouraging change and river sprites

Matt Writtle is an award-winning photographer, living in Chesham. A successful photojournalist, he has been featured documenting news, social and humanitarian issues in The Times, London Evening Standard, The Guardian and New York Times, among others.

His first monograph Sunday: A Portrait of 21st Century England was exhibited at The Elgiva and we are delighted to welcome him back with his new exhibition, which explores the relationship between humanity and the environment in the English hinterland.

View of Chesham from Nashleigh Hill © Matt Writtle

“The River Meadow at the Pile of Stones” takes its name the first recorded reference to Chesham. Keen readers of our website will know that Chesham’s Old English name Caesteleshamm means “the river-meadow at the pile of stones”, and it is the town that gave the River Chess, a rare, natural chalk stream, whose source springs in Chesham, its name, not vice versa. Matt has spent two years documenting our Chiltern Hills town and the areas surrounding the Chess, and says his images “reflect the impact, balance and transition humanity has had on the town since the first settlers arrived in 8000 BC.”

The Elgiva was keen to find out more about Matt’s motivation and experiences; the lockdown has highlighted the beauty and frailty of our natural surroundings for many, with the threat of HS2 and housing developments on many Buckinghamshire residents’ minds. The environment seems to be under constant threat; the UK has failed to reach 17 out of 20 UN biodiversity targets agreed on 10 years ago, with some experts calling the present time a “lost decade for biodiversity”, and in documenting our region’s precious and rare chalk streams, Matt hopes to encourage change.

“By illustrating the history, geography and sociology of Chesham through photography, I want people to pursue their own creative adventures, develop a sense of pride in their community and be mindful of their impact on the environment during their daily lives,” he told us. “Politicians are our representatives, not our masters, who, above all else, are frightened of losing votes. If we as a society shout loud enough about the environment, they have to listen.”

Higham Road in Chesham © Matt Writtle

His vocation is clear. “I want people to feel educated, inspired and mindful of the precious state of our environment,” Matt explained. “Humanity came to Chesham in 8000BC – why? Because of the pure ’gin-clear’ nutrients of the chalk streams. For centuries it has sustained us and our industry; but, as is so commonly sad with humanity, we have over-used our resource.

“For the majority of 2019 the Chess was dry. Over abstraction and winter droughts caused by climate change have added to the strain already facing these precious eco-systems. We all expect the Government or our civic leaders to take care of this, but that isn’t happening quickly enough, and we all have to play our part to protect that which is precious.”

And Matt is aware of the potential environmental devastation the HS2 high-speed rail network could cause.

“Experts fear the Chess and Misbourne could disappear forever,” he told us. “Just to drill through our chalk aquifer needs 10 mega litres of water a day. Where is that going to come from? Even if the chalk streams survive, what will the long-term effect be? Not to mention the damage to ancient woodlands and the wildlife that sustains. And for what end? To shave twenty minutes off a train journey to Birmingham in an age where, sadly a pandemic has proved, virtual communication in business is perfectly viable.

“I would love people to vote with their feet and campaign against this absurd proposal which should have been started in the north of England, where it’s needed, in the first place.”

Bury Pond in Pednor, Chesham © Matt Writtle

Matt explained that everyone has a responsibility towards their environment. “We all have smart phones capable of taking decent photography, and we all have access to social media, so, in an age where the vast majority of the planet is ‘posting’ imagery, why not steer it to a cause or highlight an injustice,” he told us. “I’m no better than anyone else, I have just been fortunate enough to have received guidance in how to do it.”

 


“Patience is key. One has to wait for nature to reveal its beauty…”


 

Matt Writtle is well-known for his portrait photography, but photographing the environment brings a different set of challenges.

“As a photographer you are more in control of the situation on a portrait photoshoot,” he explained. “When photographing the environment, you have minimal control. Patience is key. One has to wait for nature to reveal its beauty, and this is something I find challenging, exciting and ultimately more rewarding. You can wait for hours, then for a few seconds the sun might reveal itself then vanish. In a fast-paced world, it slows me down, and that is a good thing.”

Photojournalist Matt Writtle explores the Chiltern countryside with his sons © Caroline Taylor

Matt moved to the town in 2016, and says the local landscape holds an emotional appeal for him, helping him to discover and fall in love with Chesham and the surrounding areas, emotions that have only deepened since the birth of his children.

“It really is quite a unique and wonderful place, especially the river,” he explained. “A new-found friend remarked to me that she thought the river sprites had gotten me. I think she is correct.

“As a parent you want to love, provide and protect for your children. By discovering the area we live, perhaps more intimately than most, I understand the character, culture and dangers that it could pose, but also the opportunities and adventure it provides.”

And what does the future hold for Matt?

“I have been floating an idea around my head for a while now,” Matt revealed. “I love rambling and want to walk the Ancient Ridgeway. Not the national trail from Avebury to Ivinghoe Beacon, but the whole route from Lyme Regis in Dorset to Holme-next-the-Sea in Norfolk. It’s the oldest road in Britain and the original trading route, so in a post Brexit world, I’d like to follow the footsteps of the past to find the direction of the future by photographing the people and the landscape as I travel.”


The Elgiva Gallery opening times:
Monday – Saturday: 10:30 – 3pm
The gallery is fully wheelchair accessible.

The River Meadow at the Pile of Stones is available to order at here or from The Elgiva Box Office.

30th September 2020

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