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by Alice Oliver

Freya Najade's lens uncovers the unexpected allure and tranquillity concealed within East London's Hackney Marshes. In conversation with Alice Oliver for Sola Journal, Freya reflects on her formative years in Germany, her instinct-driven photographic practice, and the metamorphosis of her surroundings into powerful visual narratives.

Freya's affinity for capturing the delicate balance between nature and urbanity shines through her project 'The Hackney Marshes.' What began as casual walks with her dog evolved into an artistic exploration of this serene expanse. The series deftly portrays the marshes' dual identity – as both a pristine refuge for contemplation and a landscape bearing the marks of human interaction. Freya's photographs celebrate the constant cycle of life, illuminating the marshes' seasonal transformations and inviting viewers to experience the poetic interplay between growth and decay. Through her lens, she unveils a world where beauty and imperfection coexist, forming an intimate testament to the marshes' profound allure.

AO: Could you tell us a little about your early life, where did you grow up, and how did that environment shape you and subsequently your practice?

FN: I grew up at the edge of a small town in the middle of Germany. The road I was living on was coming off a main road. The main road had quite a lot of traffic as it was a connection to the nearby autobahn. It was lined by gas stations, takeaways, garages and a used car dealership. My road was very quiet though, there were six houses on it, and we kids would play all the time outside, also mostly without adult supervision. My house was surrounded by fields and one of our neighbours had a farm with pigs and cows. I loved spending my time there and helping the farmer.
Nature was really an important part of me growing up. I ventured alone to nearby rivers and lakes, through fields always looking for an adventure or to find things that were thrown or left – we called that treasure hunting. For me it was paradise at the time, but in essence, this nature was often broken by industry lining the horizon, or a river smelling of urine or by the noise of the nearby main road. It was mostly not completely picturesque. I think that is probably one of the reasons I feel so drawn to the marshes and ‘in-between landscapes’ in general and love exploring them. In a way I repeat in my series ‘The Hackney Marshes’ and also in ‘Along The Hackney Canal’ what I did as a child, venturing to nature, that can be incredibly beautiful but is not quite perfect.

AO: Can you tell me a bit about how your photographic practice started? What were some elemental moments in your photographic education that helped or hindered the shaping of your practice?

FN: I liked photography from when I was very young, but I discovered my real passion for taking pictures in my twenties when my father gave me one of the first digital cameras - I just started shooting away. I was actually studying to become a special needs teacher at the time. After I graduated as a teacher I went to the US and lived for a year in San Francisco where I took photography classes at City College. I realised then that I love photography and that I wanted to do it professionally.
I started working on a portfolio and applied for a Masters course in Documentary Photography at the University of the Arts in London at London College of Communication. For me that year doing my masters was essential for my practice and a dream come true to focus for one year full-time just on photography, being surrounded by other like-minded people, getting feedback on my work, and having access to facilities such as the darkroom, scanners etc.


After university it was hard as probably for everyone in this field, trying to understand how to make a living while continuing to develop my own practice. Spending so much time looking for work, I actually stopped doing any, which was probably one of my worst moments in my creative development. Initially, I went then back to part-time teaching in a special needs school, which allowed me to focus again on my practice. Over time I worked more and more commercially, and I faded out the teaching to just solely concentrate on photography again.

AO: Your project ‘The Hackney Marshes' explores the unexpected beauty and sense of peace found in the marshes of East London. What initially drew you to this location and inspired you to document it through your photography?

FN: To photograph the marshes in East London was not a project that I had planned, it was rather a project that happened. I knew the area a bit from working on my previous book ‘Along the Hackney Canal’. A few months before that book came out, I got a dog, and I started going almost daily for walks on the marshes as they were also very close to my flat. They are such an expanse of greenery, and few people used to go there, so it was this incredibly peaceful place to recharge. There is a sense of wildness, the nature is not super trimmed and in parts feels unkempt and neglected, but then I also encountered beauty in a very traditional and almost romantic sense with beautiful flowers, butterflies flying around or an incredible sunrise. I was quite drawn to this juxtaposition, firstly as a visitor but then also as a photographer. So eventually I started taking my camera with me on a more regular basis. I wanted to capture this place, that soon became my favourite place in London.


Then the pandemic happened, and the marshes became a great refuge for many others during this time. Initially, it was very strange to share them with so many. It felt like a well-kept secret got out, but then I also started really enjoying capturing these strangers and my encounters with them.

AO: Could you talk about your creative process while photographing the Hackney Marshes? Do you have any specific techniques or approaches that you employ to capture the essence of the location and evoke a certain mood or emotion?

FN:  My approach to capture The Hackney Marshes was very intuitive, especially because I didn’t start the series with the objective that it would become something like a book or an exhibition. Essentially, I started it for fun, it was me walking around with my camera and photographing anything I was drawn to. This could be a bush or weeds besides a path or disposed ice cubes next to a parking lot. Generally, my rule to photography is that my subject matter needs to touch me in order to be able to touch others.


In this series I never really set out with the intention to evoke a certain mood or emotion, I rather wanted to express my feelings about this place and the things I discovered or people I encountered. I wandered around and looked closely at my surroundings, almost with a heightened sensitivity. Things I took for granted and that I might have passed by many times: shadows and light, colours, reflections, the changes in nature, things I found, animals that surrounded me and of course people. When editing I was very much looking for a lyrical quality in my images, I felt compelled by images that are almost poems themselves. That’s also why I feel I didn’t document the marshes as such. This is very much my personal account of them.

AO: The juxtaposition between the natural beauty of the marshes and the urban landscapes of London is a central theme in your project. How do you capture and convey this contrast through your images?

FN:  I capture the natural beauty of the marshes by focusing on their pristine moments, such as a blooming meadow, beautiful wildflowers or berries, intensely autumn-coloured leaves, a heron stalking through the river, all these moments and reasons why I am in awe with the marshes. But at the same time as mentioned above, I feel so drawn to them because they are not just this perfect place. The marshes are a huge expanse of greenery in the middle of East London, and I really wanted to convey this and their urbanity. So it was for me important to capture also the traces of humans, may this be through painted or carved-in trees, or through disposed tangerines and ice cubes, or through the built environment such as an underpass or a metal fence in which a branch is entangled. By shaping a narrative in which these images are interwoven side by side I am hoping to convey this contrasting landscape.

AO: The constant cycle of life and the beginning, ending, and renewal of things are themes you explore in your project. How do you visually represent these concepts in your photographs? Are there specific elements or moments that symbolise this cycle for you?

FN:  Going for walks almost daily on the marshes made me witness the constant transformation of nature and the cycle of life. It seems pretty basic, and these are things we all know, trees lose their leaves and then barren trees eventually grow buds, blossom and turn again into lush leafy woods. But when paying close attention, it really becomes a small wonder. No day seems like the other. While the book is not a chronological documentation of the seasonal change on the marshes, it was for me important to include images from different seasons, so the topic of beginning, ending, and renewal of things becomes one aspect of the book. Images that symbolise this cycle for me are e.g. the colourful leaves in autumn or the barren trees next to a path in winter, the flowers on the marshes in spring or an image with very densely layered greenery with bushes and trees in summer.

AO: Some photographers prefer to work with photobooks and publications, while others feel that exhibiting their work is the most effective way to resolve and expose their work. Based on your own personal practice, what do you think suits your work best, and how have you come to this conclusion?

FN:  I tend to imagine my work in a book format. A book allows me to order my images into a narrative, to create moods by juxtaposing certain pictures and also to combine images with text.

In fact, since my first self-published book, which I produced during my masters called ‘If you are lucky, you get old’ and that editing process, I always lay out my work-in-progress as a book. Usually, I use a very simple book software. I do this even if I have no intention of publishing it, but this way of editing really helps to make sense of a project – to shape a narrative by playing with edits and with text. Probably also one reason for this is, that I am a bit of photo book junky in general. I love photo books, because of their tactile quality, the feel and look of different papers, the binding, the quality of the cover, the size. Ideally, this really adds and elevates a series. Also, looking at photo books is a very intimate experience, one tends to look at the work by themselves, probably in their own comfort zone and in their own pace.


However, of course, it can be also very powerful and touching to visit a photography exhibition. When I am invited to exhibit my work, I also really enjoy re-editing and re-thinking a project for a specific space and exhibition. It’s a completely different way of thinking and approach to share photography and to engage an audience.

AO: ‘The Hackney Marshes' was beautifully published by Hoxton Mini Press recently. Can you tell us a little bit about the process of turning a body of photographic work into a book? What messages or emotions do you hope viewers take away from experiencing your photographs in this book?

FN:  I really liked working with Hoxton Mini Press on my previous book ‘Along the Hackney Canal’ and I've also enjoyed working on ‘The Hackney Marshes’ with them. It has been in both cases a great collaboration of being able to voice my own ideas but also to have their creative input. This applies to all aspects of the book making e.g. deciding on the size, cover image, paper and cover material, layout, sequencing, image choices etc. At some point when working on a project I usually reach a dead end, so it was very helpful to be able to hear others’ ideas.


With this book and my images, I would like to take the viewer on a journey to the marshes and hopefully to make them understand my appreciation and love for them: this sense of freedom and peace, the power of nature, but also the urbanity of them, the variety of people that come and visit and the traces they leave behind, the damage done. And also this tension of beauty and neglect, lightness and melancholy.

AO: As an emerging woman photographer, do you have any advice to offer others on gaining exposure and making a name for yourself, in what is considered quite a male-centric industry?

FN:  There are so many different challenges to becoming a photographer, regardless of your gender. But it is true photography is certainly a male-centric industry, which I feel even more strongly in the commercial world. I wouldn’t have specific advice for just women photographers, though, except just keep going!


I found the two biggest challenges in photography are on one hand to have the time and money to continue with your own practice and then on the other hand to get your work actually seen and noticed. One should always be very selective and evaluate very carefully where to place your work, as there are so many outlets in the industry, which are just counting on the desperation of photographers to give their work for free or to even pay money for exposure.


Generally, I've had good experiences with portfolio reviews, they are quite expensive, but they are a good way to get in contact with publishers, editors and curators and also with other people from the photo industry with whom it is usually difficult to meet up, also it is a great opportunity to get feedback on your work. It is especially important here to research well, which reviewers you are actually interested in and whether your work fits their outlet. Also, photo competitions can be a good way to get your work noticed. However, the same applies as above, one needs to select very carefully where one applies. One should really pay attention to what the prizes are and who the judges are.


In terms of earning a living when you start out, I think assisting is a good way to earn money and to get some experience, but as mentioned earlier for me it also worked initially really well to have a part-time job doing something completely different that allowed me to push my own practice further.

AO: Finally, please can you share with us some of your favourite photobooks or bodies of work that have influenced your practice?

FN: A great influence for me has been in the past Alec Soth with his works Niagara and Sleeping by the Mississippi. Grays the Mountain Sends by Bryan Schutmaat is one of my all-time favourite photo books and his photography has been influential to my practice. I love the book Untitled Youth – by Fumi Nagasaka and find her portraits of young people very inspiring. Also, I like very much the work of Jamie Hawkesworth e.g. The British Isles or Preston Bus Station. This list could go on, but I will stop now!
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