Monthly Archives: November 2013

Oilands: Process and Imagery [part 1]

The name of this project is not a typo, but an admittedly unimaginative combination of the terms 'oil sands' and 'landscape'. However unimaginative, the process of naming led me down some funky trails.

When procrastinating, I often ease myself into real work by creating some structure (like pick a title) and perusing pictures of whatever it is I am trying to understand. From where I sit at my laptop in St. Catharines, images are an introduction to unfamiliar landscapes that words, and their subjective emotions, cannot always provide.

When I read “adjacent stacks litter the landscape of this territory, spewing smoke over the reserve”, I must see it to truly understand it. Here, Laurence Butet-Roch is describing the landscape of Aamjiwnaang and her thought-process behind photographing the reserve and its people. Specifically, she and Sarah Marie Weibe discuss the deep commitments that some journalists’, researchers’ and photographers’ have to the people, and often the places, they study (see Back in Aamjiwnaang and comments).

This perspective shapes my method of image-finding. I seek "authentic" images to help me understand. A photographer’s commitment to the people and places in an image, or better yet her immersion in the culture of that place, helps me trust her photograph. 

Ms. Weibe comments that pictures “are powerful tools to give presence to absence”, pointing out their ability to reveal hidden societal issues.  In the field of built heritage preservation, we draw or photograph a building before it is changed or destroyed to document and solidify its existence. According to  Graham Fairclough however, a landscape “cannot be destroyed, only changed”. Images are sometimes all we have to document, provide evidence, and understand a changing landscape and the cultures it cultivates. 

So, again I sit trying to name what I do not understand. Googling ‘oil landscape' revealed, as one might guess, a colourful display of oil-on-canvas landscapes. 

'oil landscape' images

'oil landscape' images

I dismissed this as my own foolish use of keywords and moved on.  Searching 'Oil sands landscape' delivered the shudder I was looking for: 

 'oil sands landscape' images

 'oil sands landscape' images

Pouring over images of decimated places, their former state unrecognizable, feels like rubber-necking past a car crash. Simultaneously horrified yet grateful to be out of harm’s way, I lament the lack of regard for delicate systems.  I wonder how it would feel if these loaded changes were happening in places familiar to me, and then remember they are. Fracking and pipeline proposals are threatening each place I've called home, including New England, southern Ontario, and the Maritimes. Typically, when I'm completely tied up in knots, I escape to a video of a pile of kittens or something equally mind-soothing. This, by the way, is a common response to overwhelm - looking away and escaping to something comforting. If you relate, Joanna Macy's 'Work That Reconnects' explores different ways of pushing through this pattern.

I leave you for now with a selection of "oilands" imagery for your perusing pleasure:

#oilsands via Instagram

Edward Burtynsky, Oil 

Patchett and Lozowy, 'Reframing the Canadian Oil Sands'

Laurence Butet-Roch, Our Grandfathers Were Chiefs

Eugene Richards, The Landscape of Oil 

National Geographic, The New Oil Landscape 

National Geographic, 'Scraping Bottom: The Canadian Oil Boom'

National Geographic, 'Satellite Views of Canada's Oil Sands Over Time' 

National Geographic, 'Canadian Rain Forest Edges Oil Pipeline Path'

Indian Givers documentary

Wired, 'The Apocalyptic Landscapes of Alberta’s Oil Sands'

Globe and Mail, 'A long journey down the controversial Keystone XL pipeline route' 

Huffington Post Oil Spill galleries

Terry Evans & Elizabeth Farnsworth: Dakota Is Everywhere