31 days in transit – Aster Reem David

I’m a UK-based visual artist working with photography and moving-image. I’m originally from Pakistan, where I grew up until the age of fiftteen. In 2003 my family emigrated to the UK and it has been my home ever since. I’m currently based in Surrey.

I’ve always had a job alongside my practice to support my work and myself. It has been my gig from the outset. I have never worked as a freelance photographer, except for some odd assisting work here and there. I dedicate most evenings to my photographic practice, and I’ve made it work for nearly ten years now.

What’s your story?

I was introduced to photography almost a decade ago when a friend bought me my first camera, an Olympus OM10. I used the camera as my tool for reflections on my identity and mental health, drawing from scarred aesthetics of nature and landscape as a means of art therapy.

Responding to these themes informed by my lived experience, I’ve worked on several bodies of work – Silent Chaos (2014), Morph (2014), Labyrinth (2016), and Alternative Canada (2017). The results of my early explorations in these projects have lent their healing elements for a personal and emotional journey to recovery.

In January 2018, I spent ten days in Iceland on a solo trip. My entire time there was dictated by the brutal force of climate, yet I was deeply moved by the magnitude of the mountains and the vast stretch of the desolated landscape that made my existence minute.

I felt compelled to document not just the scale, but the fragility and degeneration of the Icelandic landscape. This experience reinforced my interest in climate change and a long-term, ongoing body of work titled ‘Salt and Light’ organically materialised.

In the last two years I have been creating work that responds to environmental issues – more specifically the themes of ecology, geology, place and landscape. I see my work as visual activism for climate change.

Tell us about ’31 Days in Transit’.

’31 Days in Transit’ is a documentary series that reflects on the intersections of geography, landscape and memory, and draws on a journey I took through Japan. The work explore explores interconnected narratives, often at odds at first glance, rooted in the landscape of Japan. Order versus chaos, stillness versus movement, man versus nature coexists in harmony in any given space and time. ’31 Days in Transit’ is also a visualisation of distance and memories of a place that has left the indelible marks on me.

In 2018, I reached a point of burnout. I was working extremely long hours and seven days a week most weeks.

The notion of being stuck in a dead-end job nagged at me every day, and it eventually took a toll on my mental and physical health. My photography was being neglected. The only thing I had going for me was that I was able to afford a getaway every so often, and so I did to restore myself. But, as soon as I would return to work, it was as though I never left.

After my trip to Iceland the same year, I felt reconnected with my work but I was so overworked that I could barely spare a minute for my photography. I knew things needed to change drastically, and so after I returned from Iceland, I found the courage to resign from my job of five years.

I’d saved up a bit of money for myself and decided that I’d go travelling for a month or so. Incidentally, I was subscribed to ‘Lodestars Anthology’ magazine at the time and had acquired a copy of their Japan issue. In there was a written piece with a double spread images of Jōmon Sugi (Cedar) trees located on the island of Yakushima that is estimated to be 7200 years old. That was it. That’s all it took to captivate me and I knew I was going to go to Japan. I spent any spare time I had when not at work planning my trip to Japan. My last day at work was February 28th and on March 1st I set off to Japan for a month.

I could write a whole essay on my experience in Japan but, for now, all I will say is that it lived up to all my expectations. It wasn’t easy in the beginning; after a fifteen hour flight and one hour train journey from the airport, I spent the whole day waiting in some park with my luggage for my Airbnb host in Tokyo. I cried and regretted my decision. But looking back, I know it was one of the best decisions I’ve made.

After my return I dived straight into job hunting. The stress of it all made me feel as though I never left, and I didn’t develop my film rolls from the trip until sometime in September. As I looked through my images, I instantly felt transported back to Japan. All the memories, good and bad, came flooding back.

I spent copious amounts of time scanning my films and reliving every memory. In all those moments of editing my images, I realised that this place had left indelible marks on me. I was a different person.

While working on the project, were there any moments that stand out to you?

I came to understand that I should’ve taken a lot more time to heal from my burnout.

The purpose of this trip was to recover while reconnecting with my love for photography, but as soon as I returned I dived straight into job hunting without any time for introspection as to why I left my last job. I didn’t allow myself enough time to reflect and weigh up my options.

The stress of being unemployed was overwhelming, since I’d never been in that situation before. I fell back into the same routine, and the regret I feel weighs heavy on me even to this day.

Recommend us something.

I am reading Heather Rogers’ ‘Green Gone Wrong: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Eco-capitalism‘. It’s a well-researched book that investigates green capitalism and the role corporate companies are playing in fuelling the climate crisis.

I’m also really into the Western genre at the moment, and I’m currently watching HBO’s old Western drama series Deadwood. This one is a little hard to get into at the beginning.

When I’m editing work, I usually listen to jazz playlists – they put me in a great mood. I listened to the Cinematic Chillout playlist on Spotify whilst writing this interview and it’s a great blend of music from film and television.

Finally, tell us about a piece of art that has influenced you.

Nick Brandt. Most of his work, but ‘On this Earth’ project in particular and ‘Cheetah in Tree’ to be more specific. My friend who bought me my first camera also introduced me to Brandt’s work, and that was my first introduction to photography in proper terms. I was so captivated by his work in East Africa’s desolate landscape, documenting the destruction of our natural environments and his deeply empathetic images of animals. In a way, he immortalises the disappearing earth in his work. I knew I wanted to follow in his footsteps and do the same, as I have a deep affinity with landscape, nature and the ocean.

asterdavid.com / @iamasterrdavid