Below you will encounter two things:
- A proper image analysis of the photograph below.
- A copy of an image analysis worksheet I completed before I wrote this analysis. You will find that my writing in that worksheet is perhaps weak. It is meant to showcase my thought process as I read the image more than anything else.
A group of naked bodies lay on top of drying out seaweed. Their own persons are covered in a mess of fresh, yellow Sargassum. The white figures lifelessly curve and bend to form to the undulations of the dark, red seaweed below them. The photographer of this image, Spencer Tunick intended to create particular messages by photographing this scene. Taken in late summer of 2018 in Tulum, Mexico, Tunick captured a true image of the massive amount of Sargassum washing ashore on the Mexican Caribbean in the state of Quintana Roo. Ultimately, through the use of one point perspective, the composition of the bodies, and the racial make-up of the figures themselves, Tunick created an image that exposes the immensity of the Sargassum problem, the interconnections between humans and the seaweed inundations along the Mexican Caribbean, and the racial divides that distinguish the varying stakeholders concerned about the Sargassum. This gives way to a discussion concerning the global nature of environmental inequality today.
Spencer Tunick’s photograph uses one-point perspective to illuminate the severity of the Sargassum inundation. Tunick uses color and contrast to create a diamond shape in this photograph. One point of the diamond is where the viewer stands, the far point is where the sea meets the land in the background, and the other two points are found at the edge of the frame in the middle ground. The most forward woman in the scene creates the point of the diamond closest to the viewer. At her feet and at her head there is darker red Sargassum than what her body lies upon and what lies underneath the humans beside her. Her head aligns with the heads of the other people who lay in the background. Each head juts out a bit further to the right creating a 30° line ascending from the point. Their heads fall along the line between the lighter seaweed and the darker seaweed. The feet of the female focal point and the legs of the woman beside her also rest along the line between the lighter seaweed and the darker seaweed. Eventually, these lines hit the edge of the frame right in the middle ground and pinch back into a straight and long path of lighter Sargassum. This Sargassum ends at a vanishing point in the far background where the sea, Sargassum, and land meet. These techniques create one point perspective—a tool used since the Renaissance to convey the scope and size of a space (Figure 2). By creating this diamond, Tunick first opens our eyes to the scene of strewn-about people and then focuses our attention on the mass of seaweed that seems to endlessly go on beyond them. The Sargassum consumes most of the frame, and with Tunick’s one-point perspective, the viewer recognizes that this same image could be taken on any point along the beach. The ultimate effect is that the viewer must confront how all-consuming and endless the seaweed is.
The way that Spencer Tunick composed the figures in the scene further speaks to the interconnections between these massive Sargassum invasions and humans. The bodies mold and form to the undulations and waves created by the Sargassum resting upon the sand. If the Sargassum forms a small slope or hill, the person who lies upon it curves with the structure of the seaweed. Each person has a small patch of fresh Sargassum covering their torso as if recurring inundations begin to cover this crowd of people over. The result is that the humans become a part of the seaweed and its expansion over the space. It illuminates that in the mess of all of the Sargassum, there are humans who are connected to and a part of the reason why it is there. The composition of the figures also points to how humans are being impacted by this environmental phenomenon. Tunick arranged his subjects in such a manner that resembles sunbathers lying out on the beach. Their bodies lie at an angle as if they are following the sun. The people shut their eyes and bask. However, instead of resting on white sands, they are bending over aging Sargassum. Here, Tunick seems to be showcasing the impact that the seaweed is having on the tourism industry in particular. The Sargassum intercedes in allowing beachgoers to lie upon the white clean beaches of the Mexican Caribbean coast.
This nod to the tourism industry is further highlighted by the racial make-up of Tunick’s image which finally exposes the divide between the various stake-holders worried and consumed by the Sargassum invasions. Tunick chooses fair-skinned people for his image. In doing so, Tunick creates an image that is more believable. Who would one normally find sunbathing on the beaches of Tulum? Well considering it is a hot spot for hipsters from Brooklyn, it shouldn’t be so hard to imagine. Considering that the Mexican government sets aside money for the advertisement of Mexican tourist locations in many western nations, it shouldn’t be so hard to imagine. These starkly white figures tell us what kinds of people won’t be able to enjoy the beach in the face of Sargassum. But, this image also invites us to think about who is not in the frame. While fair-skinned vacationers sit on the beach, who is doing the labor that facilitates their presence there?
The racial makeup of this scene does one final thing that exposes a function of environmental inequality of the postwar world. Tunick’s use of one-point perspective and the composition of his subjects highlights the extreme nature of Sargassum inundations and its connections to human causes. His choice of fair-skinned people illuminates who on the surface may be impacted by Sargassum. But we can read deeper into all of this. It would seem odd indeed that Tunick chooses only fair-skinned people for his photograph when he is documenting a scene in Mexico. The whiteness of his subjects’ skin makes for clear contrast between the people and the seaweed. In some ways, this counters the idea that the people become part of the Sargassum. If he had chosen darker-skinned people whose skin may have blended with the color of the seaweed, they could have seemed like even more a part of the landscape. But, perhaps Tunick chooses fair-skinned people to make one final statement about the genesis of the Sargassum emergency. This environmental issue is due to two main problems. Firstly, warming oceans and storm surges caused by global climate change create for higher rates of upwelling which bring rich nutrients to the surface of the water and cause higher rates of Sargassum growth. Secondly, stormwater runoff that is rich in nutrients from fertilizers creates a similar effect. Climate change is caused most significantly by wealthy, primarily white nations. Nutrient-rich stormwater runoff is also often emitted by similar places or least from nations charged with the task of growing produce and garnering other resources for those wealthy, primarily white nations. And yet, we know that the places and people that are most impacted by climate change and other actions of environmental degradation are those that contribute little to those problems. Further, they are often countries where black or brown bodies live en masse. Could Tunick’s image specifically be a photograph meant to mirror what the white world has done to the environment and the communities that have to face global shifts that they themselves did not create? As the world becomes more and more connected by the implications of climate change because the emissions of a few nations are impacting the whole globe, we begin to see that environmental inequality in the postwar era highlights the global connections comprised in our environment and what we do to it.
IMAGE ANALYSIS WORKSHEET
FOCAL POINT: Write down and describe the first site in the image where your eyes are drawn to.
My eye is first drawn to the woman in the center of the photograph right in the forefront of the image. She is laying at an angle that turns toward the viewer more so than the rest of the people in the image. Her body itself seems to lay on an incline with her head slightly higher than her feet. Where her body lays appears to be on a plain that is higher than the rest of the woman who lays right next to her. Her arms lay right by her sides and her legs lay flat touching one another. The woman’s feet are pointed. Her hair is ombred. Her black, brown hair makes way to a bleached blonde. Yellow, fresher Sargassum covers her torso and she lies with her eyes closed facing the sky. She lays in drying red Sargassum and to her right side lays around 20 other people.
DIRECTION OF MOVEMENT WITHIN THE PICTURE FRAME: Note where eyes are drawn in next, traveling from one place to another across the image. See if you can create a narrative from the string of visual scenes and relationships among component parts. What might the progression of visual elements mean?
My eye is next drawn to the woman that lays to the right of the first focal point female. She lays to the right of the focal point female’s legs. I then notice the assemblage of people who all lay to right of this second female figure. This group of people becomes the middle ground while the Sargassum beyond them becomes the background. The photographer has captured the people in such a way that the people farthest away from the camera have features that are less clear while the people in the forefront and middle ground have clearer features. He emphasizes this progression into space by showing the beach that lies beyond this group of people. The effect is that the viewer is provided with a sense of perspective. The Sargassum appears to just go on and on. The bodies are strewn about in such a way that their figures mold to the waves and ambulation that the Sargassum makes as it lays on the sand. As a result, their bodies don’t lay flat, but instead bend and curve along the seaweed. The figures as a result almost become a part of the Sargassum, left to bask and dry in the sun. This idea is emphasized by the fact that the bodies resemble sun bathers who lay out in the sun to soak up the UV rays. Overall, it feels like there is a narrative here about the pure mass of Sargassum that is washing up on the shores and the human connection and interaction with the Sargassum.
SPATIAL RELATIONS: Look to see if there are any spatial divisions in the image that reflect different zones of activity.
I think the three spatial zones that exist are the foreground, made up of the woman closest to the viewer, the middle ground, made up of the people that lay to the right of our focal point, and the background, made up of unending Sargassum. There are not necessarily any different zones of activity. Fore and middle ground feature figures that lay unmoved which mirrors the bare seaweed in the background.
COLOR: Note which features share the same color. Which ones are brightest, darkest, and dimmest? Can you make any judgements about these differences, including how the elements may be understood in relation to the others?
The image is brightest in the center. The sides of the image have a darker quality to them that cinch in to almost create a V formation whose point begins at our focal point female. That V is made more obvious by the fact that the focal point female’s head lays in line with the heads of the people to the right of her. Each head juts out a bit further to the right creating the angular line of the V ascending from the point. And each head lays along the line of darker color to the side of the image. The path of seaweed in the background is similarly a lighter red color which further helps the eye trail down the beach. The humans are a pale color which contrast with the dark red brown of the Sargassum. The yellow seaweed that rests on top of their bodies creates another contrast. It’s a color that is darker than their bodies but not as dark as the seaweed below them. Finally, I should add that it is interesting that the photographer only chooses white subjects. Did the artist maybe feel that, for the purposes of this project, people of another race would not have been able to create the same color contrast as their skin may have blended in with the seaweed better? Would he have been able to create the same affect? It raises important questions since white people are not the only people who frequent these beaches.
SCALE/SIZE: Compare the sizes of the various visual elements. Larger size generally correlates with greater importance.
I wouldn’t necessarily say that any figure here is larger than the others. I think the way the artist uses color and the way they arranged the bodies is really what helps create the focal point. I suppose as we go back into space, the bodies in the back look a bit smaller, but not significantly as the people in the image are likely not taking up that much space on the beach. The distance from the person in the front to the person in the back is likely not very great.
CONTRASTS: Note how some visual elements play off each other. These contrasts serve to accentuate differences and/or exaggerate the separate qualities of each. Conversely, little contrast can communicate likeness or similarity
The two women in the front are distinct figures because there is dark red seaweed between them and their white skin is stark in relation to the dark seaweed. However, I will say that as you go into the middle ground of the photo the people are harder to distinguish from one another because in many cases you can’t see any of the dark seaweed between them. Instead some of the bodies do sort become just one heap of people laying on the seaweed. In the background differing shades of the red seaweed denote that the seaweed sort of rolls along the sand. You can see the contours of the sand mirrored in the way that the Sargassum rests on it.
INDIVIDUAL ACTIONS & DETAILS: Write down any other details that don’t seem to fit a pattern yet seem important for understanding the image.
I have not yet notes that the ocean on the left on the image and the white sand and vegetation of the right of them image further help to create progression into space down the beach. In the way back of the image the land and the sea meet which helps to create that tunnel vision down the beach.
ABSENCES: Can you think of something that is conspicuously missing from the picture?
This is a beach, so I suppose it is quite odd that other than these naked bodies resting on the seaweed there is no one else in sight. I further suppose for the average person looking at this image it would seem off that there is not really much sand to be found on the beach.
VALUES & MEANINGS: List some of the values you think the image maker is expressing through these visual relationships and elements. Try to state a takeaway message or two that you can then verify with other sources.
I think the photographer is making a message firstly about how immense this problem is. He is showcasing that there is endless seaweed. It is taking over our beaches and our places of leisure. Secondly, I think he is making a message about the human role in creating this environmental disaster. The seaweed is not separate from us, but instead actually a part of our daily actions. We can choose to shut our eyes and continue sun bathing on the beach, or we can choose to do something. I also find it interesting that he only uses white figures. I have to further add that I think he’s making some kind of message about the people who typically lounge on this beach versus those that actually live and work in this region. Finally, I find it interesting that the strip of seaweed sits between the sea and the land. It seems like the artist is using the seaweed to make a statement about how land and sea are in fact intertwined.
WHERE TO GO NEXT: List other sources you can turn to find out more information about the image.
The sources below relate directly to this image as well as to work that the artist has done on similar topics in the past.