Flotsam, Jetsam and Providence

Flotsam and jetsam constitute a kind of vernacular museum open to anyone who cares to walk on any shoreline whatsoever. In addition the sea undertakes a curatorial role, editing, cleaning and distributing. Of course you will find any amount of detritus inland, in public spaces and on the edges of major roads, but it is often contaminated with excrement and body fluids which the sea disperses. Roads often present us with Coca-Cola tins crushed picturesquely into low relief, and the Peugeot lion abraded by tires and grit. The sea's favourite, in my experience is the plastic sandal – and you wonder if you will ever find a matching pair, and what it might mean if you did.

Flotsam and jetsam allow us to reflect on the work of museums. We like to believe that items on display should be seen in context, with respect to religious practices in the 12th century or to Rococo taste in the age of Louis XIV. Secretly, though, we prefer to contemplate objects out of context either as fetishes or as forensic exhibits in a criminal case of which we know next to nothing. We can speculate and admire the bravura of BOP insecticide which boasts of its ‘rapid killing action' and of its ability to kill ‘all flying and crawling insects'. On a commercial shelf BOP would have competition from other braggart manufacturers as well as promotional literature which would probably moderate its claims or at least set them in a less totalizing context. Photography also plays its part, because it enhances scrutiny. Photographed, a thing or even a person becomes an object of attention as it never quite is in real life – when we are always distracted by passing traffic.

Why should representations matter to us? Flotsam and jetsam is, by definition, worthless because it has already been thrown away; and, roughly treated by the sea, it is likely to be non-functional. Perhaps the answer is that representation puts us in a different order of decelerated time in which, for once I have the opportunity to reflect on the BOP logo and the terminal significance of those concentric circles. Photography says that from now on I can really take my time and get to know those rust marks and indentations. As a medium it coincides with the onset of large-scale scientific enquiry in the mid-nineteenth century and has always worked hand-in-glove with research. From now on, these pictures of Yiannis Hadjiaslanis say, you can really commit yourself to disinterested research, to pure looking.

What about a comparison with, say, photographed grave goods from an ancient era? Would we look at those as intently? No, not unless we were specialists, for flotsam and jetsam are much nearer to our daily experience and they help us to reflect on our own predicament. Here, for instance, we have advice on shipwreck, in the shape of a Brazilian can of emergency drinking water: 700 ml, or two cans a day, if the ship goes down. That seems sensible, and in the process we have also learnt a bit of Portuguese.

Beachcombing is a way of consulting providence. You walk the shore and kick this or that piece of plastic debris and although it might turn out to be no more than an emptied tube of Polish toothpaste discharged by a freighter it might be altogether more intriguing. If we are lucky providence delivers something of value, something surprising and enlivening. Beachcombing, in this respect, has a lot to do with photography which, if you are lucky, turns up surprising finds and conjunctions (or symbols as you might say from the Greek original for a throwing together of things). It's no use dreaming of those convulsive and even paroxysmic discoveries which we learned about from the Surrealists, we have to be out there looking for them and if we look for long enough, and if good fortune is with us, they will turn up. The discovery might be of little more than a bottle of Gazelle Beer from Dakar with its promise of a foaming glass standing outlined on what might be either a beermat or planet earth, but it is a promise of better things to come. Photographers know that in order to gain access to the decisive moment they have to consult and to respect all the other moments too. Persevere and revelations will disclose themselves. Beachcombing and photography have a lot in common at the structural level for both concern themselves with providence and with luck and with the idea of being picked out for that special dispensation – which we all crave.

Ian Jeffrey

Note: Flotsam has connections with words such as floating and flotation, and was found in the seventeenth century in the context of maritime insurance. Jetsam concerns material thrown away, and is connected to the word jettison and to the French jeter.