On January 18 the Obama administration blocked the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would’ve moved bitumen and crude oil from the tar sands region of northern Alberta to refineries in Illinois, Nebraska, and eventually the Texas Gulf Coast. The pipeline’s advocates claim that it would create 20,000 new jobs and decrease America’s dependence on foreign oil. Its critics claim that employment figure is closer to 3,000 temporary workers and that the pipeline would represent a serious environmental disaster even if it never ruptured or caused a spill; getting the oil out of the ground, they argue, is already tearing up Canada’s boreal forest and would massively contribute to climate change. One thing that’s not discussed in the debate is the role photography has played in shaping the battle lines. Chances are, if you’ve seen photos of the mining operations in the tar sands region, they were shot by Canadian photographer Garth Lenz. Grayson Schaffer recently spoke with the 54-year-old Victoria, British Columbia–based shooter about his work.
Grayson: You get to chalk up last month’s decision as a win, right?
Garth: It was a great win. Of course, the Republicans can and will reapply at a later date, but one has to think that this is a very positive step. The same reasons that make the pipeline a bad idea now are going to make it a bad idea in the future—even if it goes around the Ogallala Aquifer [under America’s heartland]. There will always be a real risk of a breach in that pipeline. The bitumen contained in the tar sands crude pumped through these pipelines is far more corrosive than petroleum, so the chance of a leak is even worse. Plus, the pipeline would completely undercut initiatives for Americans to be pursuing their own sustainable energy sources.
Grayson: What exactly is the environmental movement fighting against? Is it the pipeline, specifically, or is the fact that this oil gets burned at all?
Garth: Well I think that depends on who’s doing the fighting. There are obviously a number of groups whose primary concern is the risk of a pipeline rupture. And then there are a lot of other people who look at these pipelines as the linchpin for expansion of the dirtiest most carbon-intensive fossil fuel on the planet. And the creation of that fossil fuel is predicated on the destruction of the boreal landscape under which it’s found. That part of Canada holds a significant portion of boreal forest, the most concentrated terrestrial carbon sink on the planet. In terms of climate change, it’s a double whammy. This is why NASA climatologist James Hansen feels that it is “essentially game over” in terms of maintaining a stable climate if the Tar Sands are developed, and environmental writer Bill McKibben refers to the Keystone pipeline as “a 1700 mile fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet.”
Grayson: Explain how you think your photographs may have affected this process.
Garth: People hear so many arguments back and forth, and it can become extremely confusing. I think there is a real honesty in actually seeing the physical impact of what a development project like this means on the ground. When you’re actually there and you see the scale of impact, you really realize that we’re changing the earth in a way that has never been done on this kind of scale. I think the photography brings that home and will compel people to do their own research into the matter and form their own opinions. I think photography has the potential to convince people that this is, in fact, a huge issue and worthy of their attention.
Grayson: In writing, everybody has an opinion, even if they try to present an objective version of a set of events. When you shoot the tar sands, are you thinking about how to cast each photograph in a light that supports your point of view? Is photography inherently more honest than writing?
Garth: I don’t know that I’m going to say to a writer that photography is inherently more honest than writing, though I imagine you’re a photographer as well. Especially in the digital age the honesty of photography is being questioned, but I try to make my photographs as honest a representation of what’s really there as possible. Photographs are compelling, they get people’s attention. I think that honesty is important.
Grayson: So how do you stay honest but still advocate for your cause?
Garth: I am definitely not trying to photograph with any particular agenda, that usually results in bad photography and bad journalism. When I am photographing, I am not trying to advocate for any particular cause. Of course I care about these issues but my work is really driven by an interest in the issue and its potential for producing the kind of aesthetic imagery I respond to, and in trying to tell a story. When I am in the field, my aesthetic perspective really kicks in and is the overwhelming influence in the photographs I produce. When you’re shooting from a plane, everything is happening so fast that you’re working on instinct and intuition. I’m really just trying to make a strong, powerful, beautiful image. There are images in my exhibit for which I have been criticized for making the Tar Sands look too beautiful. Those are some of the images that I am most proud of. I like the idea of challenging peoples preconceived ideas about what these landscapes “ought to look like.” The same exhibit also has a large print of some of the work done on producing dry tailings, which has the potential to have a very positive impact on that aspect of the Tar Sands’ impacts. Some people might prefer that I not show an image that shows some of the efforts being made to try and reduce the impacts but I think it is an interesting image and an important part of the story. At the same time, some of the images are pretty graphic and challenging. The overriding influence in producing these images and including them in my exhibit was that I found them interesting and compelling visually. I’m not really thinking, “Oh, if I frame a picture this way, people are going to think that.” I am really not thinking about how other people are going to respond the them, it is really more about how I am responding to the subject matter in the moment. My overall approach is pretty intuitive. Whether I’m on the ground or in the air, my aesthetic desires take over. I care about these issues a lot and that’s one of the motivating factors in photographing these kinds of industrial landscapes. But the fact is, I find the subject matter incredibly arresting and powerful, just on its own merit. And I think even if it weren’t for the fact that these are important issues that I feel compelled to communicate, I would still find this subject matter fascinating.
Grayson: Explain what the International League of Conservation Photographers does.
GL: The ILCP was created in 2005 to bring together the best practitioners of this kind of photography. The idea is that if we work together as a network, the impact of our actions would be a lot stronger. The ILCP helps photographers more effectively use their work to support environmental causes and organizations. They’re trying to raise the credibility, the standards, and the public awareness for this kind of work.
Grayson: Awareness? You mean that Keystone isn’t just an abstract talking point for talk radio hosts to bat around?
GL: Yeah, that it’s real, and that the photographers who are covering these issues are doing so with a very high code of ethics and a sense of integrity to communicate an honest representation of the threats.
Grayson: How do you pay for these projects? Flight time is not cheap. Then there’s your time, your equipment… How does a photographer get funding to do what is essentially activism?
Garth: For me, it comes from a variety of sources: fine art print sales, editorial assignments, stock sales, etc. I’ve been doing commissions for NGOs, fundraising mostly through folks who have supported my work over the years. Sometimes you have to be creative. My first work on the tar sands was in 2005 as part of a very large project that I conceived and completed for a coalition of groups working on boreal issues. In 2010 I made three trips to the area, mostly shooting stills for the documentary The Tipping Point. The producers helped cover the cost and air time, but I retained all copyright, which allowed me to produce a huge amount of material. I think I’ve been fortunate in that I recognized early on what a big issue the tar sands development was going to become.
Grayson: What’s the takeaway here for a photographer who wants to get into advocacy? And what effect can you actually have?
Garth: I think photographers can have a huge effect. Photography is one of the most powerful ways we can communicate both the fragility of the environment and the threats that unchecked industrial development present to it. That’s one of the reasons why, in all of my projects, I never just show the industrial landscape. You also have to show what that landscape was like before it became industrialized. The hope is to make people realize how important it is to protect the places that haven’t yet been impacted. The takeaway for photographers is that you have to really care about these issues. There’s not a huge amount of compensation. You have to be doing it for the right reasons because it’s a long haul.