Falling for the stars: why one Polish photographer wants us to look at the night sky with awe

27 January 2022

When Polish photographer Emilia Martin first moved to the Hague for her studies, there was one thing she noticed immediately: a mysterious yellow glow emanating from the ground. “It was so huge,” recalls Martin, “that I mistook it for the sunrise.” It had taken her 11 hours to drive from Poland to the Netherlands: “At that point, it must have only been midnight. The experience was so strong that it really caught my attention.”

She later discovered what that glow was: light pollution from a vast network of commercial greenhouses that cover 93 square kilometres of the country. The Netherlands is the world’s second biggest exporter of food — an impressive feat for a country of modest size — which the Dutch have achieved by constructing high-tech greenhouses. (The Dutch were lauded for their horticulture and sustainability efforts by David Attenborough in his 2020 documentary A Life On Our Planet). However, this increase in food production has added significant levels of artificial light to the dark skies, making it one of the most illuminated countries in Europe.

On her evening walks by the sea, Martin wondered about the last time she’d seen the stars. Growing up in industrial Silesia, she had gotten used to skies perpetually blanketed with smog. Her most vivid memories from childhood were of summer months spent in her grandmother’s village near Skarzysko-Kamienna in eastern Poland. She largely passed her days — and even nights — outdoors, sharing a common interest with her grandmother. “It was a very usual thing for us to stroll and look at the Milky Way above us. The village had a wonderful clarity. The nearest city was an hour’s drive, and it was too small to create any light pollution. Seeing falling stars was so exciting. I remember it as something truly miraculous,” Martin says.

Her series Far from where the darkness lies encourages us to navigate the night not by street lamps but by starlight

In the Hague, that absence of that starry, nighttime magic didn’t hit her instantly: “It was more of a slow realisation.” Her MA in Photography and Society at the Royal Academy of Art in the Hague gave her a chance to speak with a legal organisation that specialised in environmental issues, who were looking for artists to expand their work. “I immediately knew I wanted to work with the topic of light pollution. I think all of us don’t expect to see the stars anymore. It’s easy to think ‘it’s probably a cloudy night’ rather than dive into the real-life issues that might be causing it. It’s such a fascinating starting point for a photographer, who works with a light-based medium.”

Martin describes the resulting project as “a love letter to darkness”. This sentiment is reflected in the enchanting and abstract nature of the images, which are tied together in a dreamlike sequence. We see the wonder of the Milky Way and the creatures who live under it. Owls, bats, and other nocturnal animals leap out of the dark and in front of the camera lens. The series, titled Far from where the darkness lies, encourages us to navigate the night not by street lamps but by starlight, with Martin’s return to childhood pursuits translating into playful visuals.

Before she shot the images that are now part of her story, the photographer took a traditional, documentary route. “I shot hundreds of photographs in the greenhouses [in the Netherlands], but felt they weren’t what I was looking for. I was frustrated — I wanted to talk about something that’s invisible, which is challenging with a medium that relies on visibility. That’s when the project changed radically.” One of the first images she experimented with was a ripple effect in the water layered over with a constellation photo taken by a NASA satellite. “It’s a simple image, but it was groundbreaking to me,” she describes. “It was the first time when I allowed myself to create something surreal, something new, and yet still based in reality. It made me realise that if I wanted to talk about themes beyond visibility, I had to expand my way of using photography.”

Another turning point for the project was research carried out by psychologist Dacher Keltner — which Martin encountered in an article on light pollution in The National Geographic — who found that clear starry night skies incite positive human behaviour, make us kinder, less materialistic, and more interconnected. This isn’t a new theory, says Keltner: “Philosophers have written about how a big beautiful sky makes you feel like you’re part of something big, like it’s sacred, like it’s purposeful.” Immanuel Kant, for one, was famously in awe of the starry heavens above us.

“It made perfect sense to me,” says Martins on Keltner’s studies. “It helped me realise that what I was truly interested in was not a journalistic work about greenhouses, but a story about something more layered, informed by psychology, and linked to my own feeling of loss. With that shift in thinking came the shift in the visuals that became poetic, gentle, and personal.”

Besides making us better human beings, the starry skies can also help us survive tough times. “Nostalgia For The Light is an excellent documentary by Patricio Guzmán, set in Chile,” recalls Martin. “One of the protagonists was a prisoner in a concentration camp during the Pinochet regime. The Atacama desert where the camps were located is a popular place for observing stars and home to the biggest world observatories. He recalls how the prisoners spent their nights stargazing and how this was one of the most powerful, beautiful, spiritual memories he has and how it helped him survive this traumatic, difficult time.” Martin was so moved by what she experienced that she is currently expanding her project, this time by exploring the connection between stargazing and escapism. “Through my study on escapism, I’ve realised that it is a form of political commentary.” While she does not call this project “political or activist”, she says it is a response to critical real world issues away from the damage of light pollution — including the crisis of democracy in her native Poland.

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