Chloe Dewe Mathews on her five-year project capturing the River Thames

The photographer explores our relationship with the river – which stretches over 210 miles long – by documenting the rituals and everyday acts that take place along its banks

“I’m using the River Thames as a vehicle to explore contemporary ritual in England today,” says photographer Chloe Dewe Mathews about her photobook Thames Log. Published by Loose Joints, the series captures everyday life along the banks of the river and aims to explore peoples’ relationship to water as “a space to think, dream and connect”.

“My interest came while I was shooting a project out in the Caspian region called Caspian: The Elements. I’d fly off to Azerbaijan or Kazakhstan or Iran, and I was making work about people’s relationship to natural resources, such as oil and gas and water,” explains Dewe Mathews. “Then I’d be flying back home to Britain, where I used to live just a few 100 metres from the River Thames. I thought, I’m making all this work abroad about our relationship to these natural resources, but actually I wonder what that relationship looks like closer to home, and how people in England are engaging with the river.” 

Morris Dancing on May Day Morning, 01/05/2013, 8.15 am, Oxford 80 annual 51°45’21.5”N 1°15’33.0”W, sunny. All images: Thames Log © Chloe Dewe Mathews 2021, courtesy Loose Joints

It was also an old photograph that provided the final jolt of inspiration for the photographer. “Very early on when I started researching into the history, I found a photograph which was from 1883. It was a really spectacular photograph of some Baptists all dressed in black clothing, and then there was just one woman who was being baptised in white clothing with a big audience watching. It was such a dramatic scene,” says Dewe Mathews.

“I remember thinking to myself that it’s a shame these kinds of things don’t happen in the English landscape anymore. So that propelled me to start looking into what does happen and if there were smaller rituals or acts of communion with the river, and whether they were secular, or non-secular.” 

Mudlarking, 10/01/2015, 10.00 am, Southbank 2 varies 51°30’31.4”N 0°06’26.3”W, mostly cloudy
Reading the Sunday Papers, 21/08/2011, 4.00 pm, Grays 1 varies 51°28’11.0”N 0°19’39.0”E, cloudy

Dewe Mathews worked on the project on and off for five years and has captured everything from the mundane to the eccentric, such as the ship-spotters in Tilbury, teenagers drinking in Southend-on-Sea, British Hindus celebrating Ganesh’s birthday at the river’s edge, and Pagan river rituals in Oxford, among many other things.

“I’m interested in finding people whose lives overlap with the river in a repeated way. But perhaps go unnoticed, so that you’re not aware of these stories so much,” explains Dewe Mathews. “So, for me, it’s an opportunity to recalibrate, or reconsider, the narrative and the public perception of what happens along the river, and update that to some degree.”  

Ganesh Visarjan, 27/09/2015, 6.15 pm, Richmond approx. 95 annual 51°26’55.4”N 0°18’21.9”W, fair
Blessing of the River, 08/01/2012, 1.30 pm, London Bridge approx. 120 annual 51°30’29.1”N 0°05’15.3”W, overcast

The photographer describes her style as “conceptual documentary” and it’s clear she has let the colours of the landscape dictate the tones and mood in each image. The Thames appears as murky pools or rippling stretches of water, but it’s the contrast between the lush grassy banks and tall trees in one image with the grey city skylines in the next that reminds the viewer of the vastness of the river.

What really brings the images to life though are the people in colourful costumes and ceremonial outfits that are peppered throughout the series, highlighting the peace and affinity we have with water.

Scattering of Ashes, 23/08/2015, 9.00 am, Southend-on-Sea 5 varies 51°30’53.7”N 0°43’17.5”E, sunny spells

The long-term nature of the series meant Dewe Mathews could dip in and out of it when she had time, but it also allowed her to return to annual celebrations and get a deeper insight into these cyclical activities.

“That time allowed me to return to certain places and get to know them better than if I had tried to do it all at the same time. It meant that I could shoot throughout the year, in all the seasons,” she notes. “I really enjoy those kinds of projects where you slowly accrue material over time. And then, however many years later, you have this wealth of material to start moulding and shaping in the next creative step.”

Ceremonial Boat Burning, 25/05/2013, 5.00 pm, Oxford approx. 50 annual 51°45’22.1”N 1°15’28.6”W, clear, sunny
Girls Drinking, 08/05/2012, 6.15 pm, Southend-on-Sea 3 varies 51°31’56.3”N 0°42’52.5”E, fine

Dewe Mathews wanted the book to reflect the constantly moving river in some way, so together with designers Lewis Chaplin and Sarah Piegay Espenon at Loose Joints, they designed it in a way so that images often bleed into the next page or are spread across several with the use of French folded pages. “You get these really lovely frames within frames, or moments that you suddenly focus on a different part of the picture that you might not have noticed if you’d seen the full picture” says the photographer. “So, for me, it was a really wonderful opportunity to be just as creative in the phase of the book design as the shooting.” 

Thames Log is a perfect blending of British eccentricity with ethereal landscape photography and emphasises how strong our attachment to nature can be. “We have a complicated relationship with our landscape in that we’re constantly damaging it, almost with every action we take,” says Dewe Mathews. “But there are also these small acts and moments, where people are appreciating and communing with the landscape. There is poetry and beauty in that as well. So I hope [Thames Log] conveys those stories, and makes us think about these spaces, which we should prize so highly.”

Thames Log by Chloe Dewe Mathews is out now, and is co-published by Loose Joints & Martin Parr Foundation, who will exhibit the work summer 2021;