For anyone who has witnessed the heated environment-versus-industry oilsands debate in Alberta, suggesting it might be partially cooled through the power of art may seem more than a little optimistic.
But photographer Louis Helbig thinks his coffee-table book, Beautiful Destruction (Rocky Mountain Books, 300 pages, $75), might in some small way help calm a conversation he acknowledges has long been polarized.
He says he witnessed this first-hand, when exhibiting his aerial photographs of the oilsands at a gallery in Ottawa back in 2010.
“What I’ve discovered is that putting this forward as art, it created a different space where it was possible to actually engage and have a more meaningful conversation than just the with-me-or-against-me kind of thing, which I think really clouds and maybe prevents us from having a more substantial discussion about the good and the bad of what is associated with oilsands or tarsands,” says Helbig. “There was a comment book at this event and there were over 500 comments. There were a few that were simple ‘I like this’ or ‘I hate this.’ But there were a whole bunch of people who wrote very long comments. There seemed to be this whole conversation that was evolving as a sidebar to this exhibition, prompted by seeing these visuals. That’s what gave me the idea of the book.”
Beautiful Destruction contains 200 aerial photographs taken over a number years by Helbig, a former civil servant who worked for Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs before turning his attention to photography full time. It also contains essays by some familiar names from both sides of the debate. Environmentalists such as Bill McKibben and Pembina Institute’s Jennifer Grant, Green party leader Elizabeth May and Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation make contributions that discuss the environmental and cultural impact of the oilsands project.
The other side seems slightly more defensive. Right-wing activist Ezra Levant trots out the same at-least-we’re-not-Saudi Arabia argument he outlined in his bestselling polemic, Ethical Oil: The Case For Canada’s Oilsands, and makes the point that “This book’s photographer didn’t bicycle to Fort McMurray or hang glide over the oil sands. He used oil.”
Greg Stringham, vice-president of Oilsands for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, begins his essay by suggesting the title of Helbig’s book is misleading and that the oilsands ” . . . are about creation.”
The title was actually inspired by Helbig’s Winnipeg godfather, a former English teacher who quoted the “A terrible beauty is born” line from William Butler Yeats’ Easter, 1916 poem when he first saw the aerial photographs. But if Helbig himself has any strong, political opinions about the oilsands, you won’t glean them from the abstract essay he contributes to the book. He admits he has opinions on the topic, but asked what they are says, “what I’ve found is my point of view may, in many respects, be irrelevant.”
He was inspired enough by the sprawl and scope of the oilsands to begin investigating them in 2007. While it may be hard to imagine now, he said it was not a topic many people were discussing at the time, even as hordes of workers from across Canada were making their way to Fort McMurray to share in the riches. That included young people from Helbig’s logging hometown of Williams Lake, B.C., where jobs were becoming available at the local mill for the first time in decades as local workers chased more lucrative work in northern Alberta.
But whatever his initial views were, they didn’t eclipse the artistic potential he saw in photographing the oilsands when he first flew over them in 2008.
“It was kind of a discombobulating experience,” Helbig says. “It was a bit like travelling to a foreign country where everything has a very different look and feel and different sensibility. In that frame of mind, the place is overwhelming. For an artist it was almost like child’s play to respond to the incredible array of images, the scenes that are unfolding below: the interplay of bitumen and water in the tailing pond, or those big open pit mines with the machinery moving across it with this sort of interminable cadence to it; the upgraders belching steam and smoke and whatever else and of course the whole thing being so huge.”
The photography takes on a surreal, abstract quality, whether it be the industrial buildup found at the Imperial Oil-Exxon Mobil Kearl Oil Sands Project in Construction Crane, which has a Mad Max type of look; or the strange patterns found on the surface of the Suncor South Tailings Pond Residual Bitumen that look like some sort of Rorschach test.
There are other photos that offer more of a human element, illustrating the transient nature 0f a boom-and-bust town, including an overview of Fort McMurray’s packed Lewyk Park Campground where workers are forced to live because of a housing shortage.
“This is massive human drama unfolding and people will contradict themselves in one sentence in terms of what their feelings are about what it is they are involved with,” Helbig says. “They see it as a good job but they also see environmental issues. All these things get glommed together, the conflicted feelings, the drama. It’s very, very human and reflects all of us.”