Photography for sustainable development: Eliška SKY’s human sculptures point in the direction of change

4 min
Six upright bodies, shrouded in red sheets from head to toe, cling on to each other, pulling away from a figure on the right, which is near naked, except for underwear, red stockings, sleeves and a headdress.

Canon Ambassador, Eliška SKY, asks whether we are “parasites of the earth” in a stunning and surreal exploration of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

An eye that seeks (and finds) the eclectic, the colourful contrasts, the geometric plays. A heart and mind that look at global inequality, at social protest, sustainability. And a hand that knows exactly when to press the shutter button. Canon Ambassador, Eliška SKY, is not just a photographer or an artist.

She’s a catalyst.

Hers is the business of bringing about head-on collisions between the real and the surreal. Of making them clash, interact, play with each other. And ultimately emerge to deliver powerful and unapologetically bold messages.

Her latest series ‘Parasites’ is precisely that. A stunning and surreal interpretation of destruction, action, fear, and hope, bidding to inspire a world of change.

When vision meets concept

“I wanted to play with symmetry,” she says. “For a long time, I had this idea of a mesh of people together and creating a structure.”

But that’s a complex challenge to explore, especially if you don’t have a concept behind it. And until recently, that’s all it was for Eliška – a vision that needed a subject.

Then, an opportunity came with Canon’s Young People Programme. “As a Canon Ambassador, I was teaching a workshop at Chelsea College of Art and we were working to themes from the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs),” she explains.

“That’s where it sparked – to join these two ideas.”

Eliška had never previously encountered the UN’s 17 goals, an interconnecting network of strategies urgently calling for global action on poverty, inequality, and education, as well as environmental threats to land and oceans.

But the more she learnt, the more this idea of human structures grew in her mind.

“Are we parasites of the earth?”

People are always key to Eliška’s work. But looking at the scale of change needed to meet the development goals, she suddenly wondered: what role do humans have in creating these problems? And what role can they play in solving them?

It was important to me to show that we have the power to make a difference and to make a change.”

“I asked, ‘are we parasites of the earth?’,” she explains. “That’s where the idea came from to recreate the shapes of a beetle or a parasite in many of the pictures.”

However, just as the SDGs don’t point the finger of blame but signpost the direction of change, Eliška wanted to use her work to do the same.

“It was important to me to show how we have the power to make a difference and to make a change,” she says.

On the left, an image of dancers in short white dirty leotards, draped over the branches of dead trees and grass. On the right, two dancers dressed in bright white dresses stand in a green field against both a real blue cloudy sky and a painted blue cloudy sky on a backdrop that is underneath and behind them. One dancer supports the other above them as they hold the wooden sails of a windmill.

© Eliška SKY

Fire and wind, humans and land

The first three studies in this body of work (a description that has never been more appropriate), were showcased at the 2022 Global Good Awards. They explore the three SDGs that resonate most with Eliška: affordable and clean energy; reduced inequalities; and life on land.

Every image is painstakingly designed and choreographed, resulting in a multi-layered emotional and intellectual experience for the viewer. Costumes and props were made by hand by Eliška and her shoot stylists, as well as student designers from Central Saint Martins, who were given a rather unusual brief.

“I asked the students to use upcycling to create the whole collection,” she tells us. “So, all the pieces I think are interesting and useful.”

Each shoot took place in London’s Epping Forest, where she and her team turned a group of dancers into dramatic, powerful forces meshing into their surroundings.

“I wanted somewhere we could celebrate the beautiful nature around us,” she recalls. “Last summer was so hot that there were fires all around, even in Europe.

We can make changes in our lives and be more thoughtful about how to not harm, how to support sustainability, how to support causes like education.”

“And at the location for the shoot you can see there had been some fires too. You can see the dead trees behind the dancers.”

That’s where Eliška’s message truly transpires. The dancers’ dramatic personification of the deadly fires is showcased right beside another one of Eliška’s artwork, a portrayal of wind as a clean energy choice.

Their pairing is symbol of the human-environmental dichotomy of cause and solution, endlessly stacking against each other.

Seven bodies, in leotards of cream and brown, their faces covered in masks of plaited hair, form an arch with their combined bodies.

© Eliška SKY

Eliška’s call to action

The final image of the trio – the reduced inequalities goal – is really where the ‘Parasites’ title comes to life.

Here, the dancers intersect with each other to create a symmetrical structure that mimics the exoskeleton of an infesting insect.

From their bodies, lumps and bulges come out like with insects. It’s Eliška’s emotional message to humanity and its role in tackling these issues.

“It’s a stretch, but we have the power,” she says.

“We can make changes in our lives and be more thoughtful about how to not harm, how to support sustainability, how to support causes like education. I want people look at it and think and be more mindful about their actions – and I hope that my series will help them do that.”

Discover more about Eliška SKY and her work in her Canon Ambassador profile.