Pablo Bartholomew, Men by the River (1986/2016), 134x89cm
Pablo Bartholomew, Men by the River (1986/2016), 134x89cm © Pablo Bartholomew

Seven years ago, Pablo Bartholomew reached for a box on the top shelf of his cupboard and recoiled in horror. The film inside was damp. The box contained 30-year-old slides, or reversal film, from an assignment forNational Geographic, for which Bartholomew had photographed nearly 15,000 Bangladeshi men building the country's largest dam. The effort had been intense – the men had closed the mouth of the Feni River to control its flooding and create a freshwater reservoir for irrigation. But Bartholomew’s labour, as it turned out, had become food for termites.

“When I saw the damage, there was disbelief and anger,” the photographer said. “It was just debris. I was unable to deal with it for a long time. The box just sat there. Some time later, however, I did go back to it.”

Reexamining the slides, Bartholomew’s innate sense of colour and composition began to seek new patterns.

“The colours had morphed into each other to form these fascinating patterns and geometrical designs,” he said. “Some images had remnants of the figures that had been photographed, and another set was abstract, they emerged as images in their own right.” ... Memento Mori is Bartholomew’s attempt at resurrecting the corpses of those images. While the images cannot be saved, they have transformed. The photographs seem like abstract pieces of art, as if the army of termites that went to work on them was led by one with a particularly artistic vision.

"Some images that might not have seemed very interesting back when I took them, were becoming interesting now," said Bartholomew. "The aberrations, the circular blobs were throwing some things into focus, which might not have been my aim when I took the original picture.”

Looking at the photographs is a bit like cloud gazing – as the mind traces shapes with what the eye sees, recognisable shapes emerge. In one image, a woman stands with a cloud over her head in an otherwise cloudless sky. In another, two men are hard at work, encased in a bubble, the faint outline of a boy walks on the beach, his fishing net flying behind him like a cape.