Toronto Futuréale (July, 2009), Contacting the Public. Louis Helbig's Beautiful Destruction. by Rochelle Grabenheimer
“Calming but confrontational, gorgeous but scary. An eye-opening look at the Canadian landscape reminiscent of Ed Burtynsky or Andreas Gursky.” - Betty, Toronto. Visitor of Beautiful Destruction Exhibit
The darkroom I entered on West Queen West was not quite like a photographer’s red light heaven nor was it like a typical West Queen West space. Yes, photographs hung for viewers to process and yes, the room was Tim Burton-esque but this room was a little different. Well-lit, crisp and unfamiliar photographs decorated the unpolished walls. Rustic and whimsical furniture cobwebbed the corners but in serene Pottery Barn neutrals. This room wasn’t faithfully dark, it was eye-open-ing and calm. It was Komo Design, home to Ottawa photographer Louis Helbig’s Beautiful Destruction exhibit of the Alberta Tar Sands’ ruin and awe. With many aerial photos displaying neutral scenes of unnerving tar ponds and mammoth construction sites, work fit in well with its surroundings.
As part of the CONTACTphotography festival, Beautiful Destruction called attention to the environmental and political arena the Tar Sands are mining in. pond bird deaths of 1600, government and business spin, Greenpeace activism and generous jobs for Canadians make the issue wholly controversial. interviewed the humble Louis Helbig to ask him about the adventures he encountered while cre-ating his work and what viewers can appreciate behind his National Geographic-like photos. by Rochelle Grabenheimer
Q: What is the beauty behind the Tar Sands?
LH: It’s a place that defies the imagination. When my partner Kristin and I flew there we were kind of dumbfounded by what we saw. For some people it reminds them of Apocalypse Now, 19th century poetry about the industrial revolution or Lord of the Rings. If you can push aside what you’re seeing, be uncritical, it’s an incredibly beautiful place.
Q: How much of yourself have you put into this project?
LH: Um, way more than I ever thought. It has become the focus of my life; it has become my most important project. I was drawn to it because it is such a big issue and I thought I had a knack for aerial/industrial photography. The Tar Sands are a big thing, it’s the biggest thing in Canada. It’s the biggest construction project in the world, it’s changing our country. Before I went there I tried to avoid reading about it, seeing other pictures, tried to avoid preconceptions. Just wanted to absorb it, photograph it for what it is visually, with an open mind. After I’d taken the photographs I tried to fill in the gaps; address my ignorance of what I pho-tographed. So that’s also been a part of the process, to sit and research, read, look things up on the internet, talk to people and figure out what I was looking at. Just what is that thing I’m looking at, is that a tar pond, an upgrader, an open pit mine? What does it mean?
Another thing people find puzzling is that I’m not really absolutely against what’s going on up there. I’m from a small town out in B.C. and my father had a logging truck, if I was dead set against what’s going on up there I would be a hypocrite, I think. What bothers me profoundly about what’s going on up there is that we aren’t talking about it. What we do have is spin about the Tar Sands development that is manufactured by communication types on the industry and government side as well as from the envi-ronmental movement. Tied in with that, a little bit, the Canadian media is lazy here, they don’t really go in there and report on the story. They tend to get a quote from one side like Greenpeace and then Syncrude or Suncor. Of course they say two things that are diametrically opposed and get two easy sides of the story but the context, the substance of the story is missing. We’re not taking [this issue] on ourselves like a responsible democracy and that bothers me. We should have a discussion.
Q: Was flying your own antique plane to Fort McMurray [to take pictures of the Tar Sands] the original plan?
LH: Not really. The original plan was to drive out West for a wedding and rent a plane in Alberta but my partner Kristin kind of said, “But we have a plane, don’t we? We can fly out, can’t we?” It sounds exotic but the plane isn’t worth very much, in money anyway. The plane is an antique and it has a range of four or five hundred kilometres, depending. If we have a tail-wind we can get from Ottawa to Toronto in one go but if we don’t, we have to land somewhere and get gas. Once we decided to do this we had an incredible adventure. When we landed at small airports that sometimes weren’t close to town so we had to hitch-hike; [we] met lots of great people. Flying an antique plane into Fort McMurray was a little tricky because my airplane lacks a transponder. It’s a very basic plane from the 1940‘s, there’s a lot of traffic and a transponder is needed. We needed to get special permission to land there.
Q: Tell us why you produce aerial photographs?
LH: That’s one of the things I do, aerials, but I don’t think you can really capture the sense of the place, both in its magnitude and its detail on the ground, even if you’re allowed to access it [from] the ground. Apparently, the Tar Sand operators make you sign waivers if you go on site…if you take a photo on the site you’re not allowed to use them except for private use. Maybe there’s a certain level of censorship that goes on. From the air there are no restrictions.
Q: How do businesses and organizations react to your work? How do environmentalists?
LH: There’s been a positive reaction from a lot of environmental organizations. I’ve also had one of the companies call me about buying photos for an annual report, or something. But the most gratifying responses are from people I do not know, have no relationship to me who come, look at the work and respond to it. You can tell they are responding to it, you can feel their response, the honesty. It’s almost like just by looking at the pictures and…appreciat-ing the beauty of it, that people’s imagina-tions are open to what they see and then in turn, it opens them up to asking questions, filling in the blanks for themselves of what they’re seeing. People just look at it and go, “Wow, this is beautiful. How can it be so beautiful, when it’s so ugly?” It’s especially powerful with those who might not even think about these things most of the time. I try as much as possible to not be too pre-scriptive about what I say and I also try to talk about the positive sides of it, the jobs, the living people are making. There’s a great tension in the photos, in the issue.
Q: One of your concerns was that the Tar Sands was discussed by too few members of the general public. What message might you have for why people should engage in this dis-cussion and in your work?
LH: I think we have a duty as citizens to be concerned about the world around us, to be concerned about the welfare of oth-ers, the environment and public accountability. If we don’t do that, others will do it for us. I think what we have in Alberta to some great extent is two levels of govern-ment, federal and provincial that are not protecting the public good or maybe, better put, have very narrowly defined the public good. There hasn’t been any real discussion. It was a bigger issue in the American elec-tion than in our last federal election. Are we really a superpower if we don’t talk about it, take responsibility, are not transparent, are not accountable, pussy footing around the National Energy Policy and other ancient arguments from 30 years ago instead of talking about what we’re really doing now? Right now it’s the US that is defining the Tar Sands for us, banning imports of dirty oil in California, sending shock waves through the Canadian political establishment. Are we Canadians ever going to grow up?
To see and hear more about Beautiful Destruction, visit www.beautifuldestruction.ca or www.louishelbig.com