Oil sands photographer Louis Helbig on oil imagery, politics and his new book
People have been arguing about the oil sands for years. That’s why a new book is trying to bring them together for a more constructive conversation. Will it work?
By Max Fawcett, Alberta Oil Magazine, April 20, 2015
In 2007, Louis Helbig started traveling up to Fort McMurray on a regular basis. Like a lot of people from his hometown of Williams Lake, B.C., he was drawn there by the economic boom that was the direct result of ever-expanding operations in the oil sands. But unlike those people, he wasn’t there to find work or get a job. He was there to take pictures.
Those pictures, along with a series of essays by a variety of contributors, are at the heart of a new book he published earlier this year called Beautiful Destruction, a unique project that attempts to capture the complexity of the oil sands and its impact on Canada in a way no other has before. It is almost certainly the only book in which Elizabeth May and Ezra Levant share the same table of contents, and that juxtaposition is entirely by design. The hope, Helbig says, is that the book can serve as a safe space where people from both sides of the conversation can meet and encounter different perspectives without feeling like they’ve committed an act of treason. In time, he says, that might lead us in the direction of a more productive dialogue around the oil sands and their place in Canada than what we have today.
MF: Edward Burtynsky is famous for saying that his art doesn’t have any overt political objective – that he’s simply creating it and letting people respond however they want to respond. Is this a project with an overt political purpose?
LH: I think so. It has a political purpose in the positive sense of that word, in that something as big and important as the oil sands – or tar sands – is something that whether you’re for it or against it is something that we should talk about. I certainly thought that in 2007 and 2008, and once I got involved with it I was even more bowled over by how big and important it is – and bowled over that something so big and so important could have so little in the way of discussion. That might seem difficult to believe nowadays because there’s this wall-to-wall coverage and there has been since 2010, when James Cameron came to town to speak. But it wasn’t always that way.
It’s apolitical in the sense that it’s not trying to take a point of view for or against, which I don’t find very interesting.
MF: Why did you want to create this book?
LH: It started back in 2007. It struck me that there was a cultural phenomenon unfolding where that story that we tell ourselves in Canada, of people leaving Newfoundland or the Miramichi or someplace else in the Maritimes to go to the oil patch to work, was expanding. You were seeing people from all sorts of places leaving to go up to Fort McMurray to work and make lots of money, and at every Tim Hortons there seemed to be a conversation going on where someone knew someone who was going up to Fort Mac – or were going themselves. And it surprised me that, despite that cultural current running through our country, there was almost no coverage of what was going on. There seemed to be a disconnect between what was being portrayed and the reality that was actually unfolding in northern Alberta.
MF: What can pictures do to advance that conversation that words can’t – or haven’t?
LH: It seems that there have been millions of words written on the oil sands in the last few years, but we all tend to use the same basic stock imagery of the oil sands, whether it’s a tailings pond or a mine site. We don’t get to see the complexity and diversity – and ugliness and beauty – of the whole span of things.
What is it about pictures that’s materially different than words?
LH: Pictures can be mobilized for a singular purpose. I think we see quite a bit of that. I think pictures can easily be mobilized as propaganda to project one kind of message. We see that in the use of imagery around the oil sands, from the environmental perspective and also from the industry perspective. But that doesn’t leave the kind of room that respects the intelligence of the viewer or the reader to engage him or herself on their own terms and to figure things out for themselves.
MF: Is that why it was important to include this diversity of voices, with Ezra Levant and Rick George on one side and Bill McKibben and Allan Adam on the other?
LH: Absolutely. And kudos to all the contributors because I think it took some courage to do that. I hope that by putting those manifestly very different and opposite points of view beside each other it provides a way for a person who is curious and wants to read those other points of view to do that. I know a lot of my environmental friends have said they’re probably more interested in reading what Rick George has written or what Ezra Levant has written than, say, reading what Elizabeth May has written – and I think the opposite is true the other way around. By putting the different arguments forward, I hope it neutralizes the notion that it has to be one or the other.
MF: Have your views about the oil sands changed, for better or worse, since you started doing the flyovers?
LH: They have. When I first went there I probably would have called myself a reluctant activist – reluctant in the sense that I didn’t want to get pigeonholed as coming from a particular point of view. But I felt immediately that it was far more complicated and contradictory. And for the longest time I bemoaned the fact that something so big and so important didn’t have the stature in our institutions that it deserved – in our media, or in our politics.
As I fly around the country and I photograph, I don’t see that an awful lot of the incredibly vast, complex and beautiful landscape that is Canada is reflected back at us. It’s almost like our visual understanding of the country ended with the Group of Seven when they were doing their thing 80 years ago. Maybe if we had a more real relationship with our landscape then there would be more space to debate each other and engage around what’s going on.