by Grayson Schaffer

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.

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  1. Nice interview. Garth is also a fellow Blue Earth photographer. I wish him all the best. He’s a wonderful photographer, passionate and very articulate.

  2. Really great photographs; really sad image.

    It would be interesting if NYC ran some of these images on the subway, like the current anti-soda/sugar campaign.

    “Your AC is sucking the life out of the earth.”

    • Totally agree Fred! The work has been shown in galleries but it I feel it really needs to be seen by the masses in public places, like Bertrand’s touring exhibit of “The Earth From Above.”

      Thank you for your comment.


  3. Fascinating article. Good interview. I think conservation photography is really important. (I have a 27 year old son named Grayson, by the way. For years we never encountered the name. Now I’ve seen it more often. Pretty cool name.)

  4. The implication of the photos is that they are before and after of the same site. Is that the case? Should be explained if it is or is not.

    • JT,

      That would be the implication by these pairs, and I immediately thought, “how don’t you see that they are pairs?”. Now, after studying them I don’t think they are.

      Grayson, can you ask if they are shots of before and after of exactly the same view? Not of the same general area, but the same ground (within reason of course, I realize that these are aerials.)

    • What do you think?? Oh wait one is from Canada and the other Mexico????He is showing the true scope of the damage being done in Canada……yes the “after” shot doesnt look anything like the “before” shot.

      • It IS misleading if viewers think that they dug up a river and it is now a pit, when in fact, they didn’t dig up a river.

        Have you been to the Oil Sands? I have. A lot. There are many sides to this story and the only real truth is that until people stop relying on fossil fuels, this will continue. But, you might be surprised that after they take the bitumen out of the sand, they reclaim the land and it looks exactly like it did before, a swamp, with scrub growth.

        • Thank you for your comment Victor. Just to clarify, the images were never intended to be interpreted as before and after. However the intact images are representative of what is there before the mines. Although major rivers are not dug up, forest are clearcut, wetlands cleared and dredged, and then replaces by mines, where that is the method of extraction. the majority of land replaced by mines is wetlands. No attempt is made to replace wetlands. The Alberta government has certified 0.15% of land distrubed as “reclaimed.” You may consider it swamp and scrub growth, to others it is the planets most effective carbon sink and critical habitat for a wide range of species, and the breeding ground for almost half the bird species found in North America.

          • Hi Garth,

            Thank You for your post, it clears up the “before and after” for us.

            As I said, I have been photographing there since 1992, and have seen the good and bad. It is a beautiful area, but I think that when readers, read “destroy the forest” that they think Rain Forest or Old Growth cedar, when in fact it is not. According to Wikipedia, “91.5% of the Boreal forest in Canada is untouched from days of the earliest European settlers to N.A.”

            The “pit” isn’t growing and growing. They dig up the soil, remove the bitumen, replace the soil and then reforest. The pit does move around and it is large, but the impact is far less than the oil rigs in the water around most of the USA.

            The industry up there would stop completely, if the consumers of over 90% of the output, the US, would stop driving huge gas guzzling vehicles with one person in them.

            I like your work!

      • To Wake Up,
        Why would it be Mexico? Where in the world did that come from? You obviously have never been to Mexico and seen the beautiful places that exist there. Just like you can’t compare Arizona to Washington state, you cannot label a whole country based on a sad strip of land called the border.
        These are just a few of the beautiful states in Mexico, but there are many others just as gorgeous. Copy and paste to watch the videos.

    • Apologies for any confusion. The images are not before and after, although the intact images are from the same area and representative of the landscape replaced by the mines, although major rivers have not been removed to my knowledge.

  5. Like Fred, I felt an incredible sadness looking at what was destroyed.

    I can’t believe over here in Malaysia we’re allowing a rare earth plant [Lynas] to be set up without the consultation of the people.

    Really old and beautiful limestone hills are being carved up right next to the north south highway. We need more vigilance and activism here. Kudos to Garth and his images in helping turn the tide and people like him all over the world who wants to preserve the earth for the future.

  6. I hope we get to see more photography on issues where people are not being informed with the real truth as it may be. There is no doubt in my mind photography can effect change. There just need to be more of it.

  7. Photography that makes a difference. As it should be. There ARE opportunities to contribute to society. Garth lets his passion lead him. We should all be so fortunate.

  8. I would nominate this page as a candidate for the Daily Edit.
    Simple, beautiful page with progressive content and remarkable photos- with no ads.

  9. To be clear: the photos above, paired up as they are, imply a “before and after” relationship.

    They are not before and after photos.

    Thanks for the great interview. Photography is making a huge impact in environmental advocacy lately — as mentioned with the work of the ILCP.

    I tell you, as a designer working on advocacy can be very difficult as the budgets are tight, and the good images that really capture the spirit of the place and inspire the viewer are hard to come by. I’ve been lucky on a couple of occasions to have access to ILCP stock for various campaigns and it really and truly helps get the message across.

    • The photographs don’t have to be EXACT be-fores and afters to show how DEVASTATING an impact this is having on our planet!! We all KNOW what is happening, don’t we?? WHY are the politicians arguing about this? Obviously this boils down to MONEY and GREED! America has become a nation divided, The Democrats against the Republicans, the smokescreen for the greed!This is happening ALL OVER THE EARTH in one way or another with ALL our natural resources.

  10. I was also wondering if the photo’s were before and after. Still, paired as they are really does have the desired impact and it is not that far from reality either.

    • Hi Arne. sorry for any confusion! They are not before and after but do represent the intact landscape before industrialization. The first image is of the Clearwater River, a few miles from the the largest tar mines and the second image is from the Peace Athabasca Delta.

  11. This work is a huge testament to power of photography. It reminds me of the work of Eliot Porter and conservationist David Brower to save Glen Canyon on the Colorado river from damming. They lost that battle, but the gorgeous book they produced for the Sierra Club on the canyon invigorated the conservation movement, and inspired successful fights against damming of other canyons on the Colorado, most notably Marble and the Grand. Think of what we would have lost had they not won these battles. Bravo!

    • Thank you for your kind words. Incredibly flattering To be mentioned in the same breath as Eliot Porter and David Brower.

      All best,

  12. I m impressed with then the photography, the pristine nature and how god left it. Then I am also impressed how we can work very hard to make it look so ugly as we merrily rape the earth in the name of energy. We need more visual stimulation to show everyone what is really happening. The old adage of a picture is worth a thousand words is true. I can talk until I’m blue in the face but show a picture and the truth can shine through. I have worked in the petro-chemical industry for 44 years and have been a critic of the industry because we don’t do enough to protect the earths environment.
    Everyone can do more, it is in our own backyard, street corner, local dump etc.
    Be aware we support this type of destruction of our environment by keeping quite. Please keep these images coming.

  13. The photos, if not before-and-after shots of the same sites should come with a comment of disclosure. To NOT disclose this fact comes right from the right-wingers’ playbook. I remember doctored video from the TeaParty gatherings. We should be above this.

  14. I never read them as literal before and after images, I thought they were meant to mirror each other: similar looking pieces of land treated differently. I would assume before and after images would be shown with common markers so you could verify it yourself.

    I will see if Garth can clarify.

    • Correct, they were never intended to be read as before and after images. If they were before and after images I would certainly have mentioned it. However the intact images are from the same area and representative of the landscape before industrialization, in many cases adjacent to large mines, i.e.–the-true-cost-of-oil/ts-sept-3681

      Apologies for any confusion!

  15. Everyone owes themselves the opportunity to read through the text, view the images and do both again several times to see the merit of this post.

  16. Shall we all feel like the plane we’re photographing from is running out of gas.

  17. I’m very pleased that Garth’s extensive body of work on the Tar Sands is getting the recognition and exposure that it deserves. It was always a pleasure to work with him and support his work when I was ILCP’s Executive Director. Photography does change the world, as we prove time and time again. A great interview on a critically important topic.

  18. Sad. The pictures look like what happens here in WV with mountain top removal mining for coal.

  19. Great work! Thank you for covering this project. We need more of it! Here’s a similar project documenting the plight of the Blackfeet Indain lands on the eastern edge of Glacier National Park, about 250 miles west of where the pipeline is proposed to come though Montana. This project has photographs with descriptions along with videos all overlaying interactive Google map. Enjoy:

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