Athabasca University Aurora Interviews with Leading Thinkers and Writers
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Aurora Online with Louis Helbig: Aerial Photography, the Tar Sands and Imagined Landscapes
Interview by Dr. Mike Gismondi
I came across Louis Helbig's images on the web one Sunday morning, about two years ago. Sitting at my kitchen table, I called him up to express my admiration for the photographic work. Like Peter Gzowski's old CBC Morningside radio show, he picked up the phone in his kitchen and we talked for a couple of hours, swapping perspectives on the political, cultural, and environmental issues swirling around the tar/oil sand developments. We hit it off, exchanging ideas about the beauty of industrial landscapes and the loss they also represented. We exchanged hope that his photographs might provoke a broader critical conversation about what was happening in northern Alberta.
This interview took place in late 2011. Louis and his photographs had been discovered. We talked about the public reaction to his images of the tar sands, and we chatted about the direction his new work was taking.
I hope that you share my delight with the sharp perspectives of this creative aerial photographer, who is passionate about nature, and questions the heavy footprint we are leaving on the Canadian landscape. Louis read over the Aurora transcript and selected some of his photographic images to illustrate his thoughts and responses to our questions.
Aurora: Good Morning Louis. We spoke in the winter about your website Beautiful Destruction, and the collection of your aerial photographic images of the industrial activities in Alberta oil sands, or the ‘tar sands.’
Tell us a bit about yourself, and how you became interested in aerial photography?
Louis Helbig: I’m from Williams Lake, British Columbia, your neck of the woods. Well, by a rather convoluted way. A few years ago, about six odd years ago, I had a job at Foreign Affairs and I was being offered another job somewhere else in government in middle management and I just thought to myself that this wasn’t for me and that I really should be doing something else with myself. I decided to use these two things which I have long had interest and experience with: aviation and photography, and to combine the two. That then morphed over time, over the course of a few years, into where most of my activity is now centered, one way or another, around doing aerial art photography.
Aurora: So, you didn’t start with the oil sands images?
Louis Helbig: No, no. I think it’s about four odd years ago I was doing a bit of commercial work but as an aside I was taking the odd photograph of things that appealed to me, that I found attractive or aesthetically interesting. Kristin, my now wife, encouraged me to go to a portfolio review. I didn’t quite know what a portfolio review was, but I learned it was being hosted by an institution, a fairly new institution called the School of Photographic Arts inOttawa, also known as SPAO.
They really liked the imagery. I wasn’t so sure if I could believe what they were saying, but then the fellow who runs the place asked me if I would like to come in and teach a course on aerial photography, and I thought hmmm he actually does like it and that kind of gave me a bit of push to begin to think of this as art in more serious terms. A little less than a year after that, Kristin and I flew out in our old airplane, hopping from community airport to community airport across the country which was quite an adventure. Part of the trip was also to fly into Fort Mac (Fort McMurray) and to do a number of rounds of photography over the various tar sands operations.
Aurora: It’s an older 1940’s airplane as I recall?
Louis Helbig: It’s a 1946 Luscombe. It has the distinction of having no electrics which means its ignition comes off of a magneto system which is the same as you have on those old Charlie Chaplin films where the character spins the crank at the front of a Model T to get the engine going. So, it’s a very, very basic little airplane, almost no room in it really between ourselves, our camping gear and the cameras. With that, we can fly about as far as you can drive a car on a tank of gas more or less.
Aurora: I’m trying to get a sense of whether or not you knew what you were getting into, when you flew over the oil sands or?
Louis Helbig: No, I didn’t. Not really. I mean I had a certain intuition, I suppose. And I was drawn to it because of its importance. I was drawn to it in some sense because where I grew up in rural British Columbia, Williams Lake - lumber town, logging town - I knew of the oil patch even when I was growing up as a kid in the 70’s and 80’s. It seemed to me that there was this incredible thing going on in Alberta and it certainly was working itself out in Canadians’ daily lives, in the conversations at Tim Hortons across the country. The people moving to Fort McMurray have become part of our mythology or the narratives that we tell ourselves - how people, from the Maritimes and Newfoundland in particular, but also from other parts of the country are moving to Alberta to work in the oil patch. It’s part of our Canadian culture. The talk on the street everywhere in Canada is of all the work that is available. You can get a job driving a bus for $70,000. In Fort Mac, you can get a job for 15 bucks or 20 bucks an hour flipping hamburgers or whatever it is.
Despite the sort of pull and the attraction of this, despite being so huge in our lives and conversations, the story didn’t seem to be reflected back to us in terms of what you could see on a TV or hear on the radio or read in the newspaper. In terms of our response to it as a country and at the individual or family or community level, it didn’t seem to be reflected in our media and also didn’t seem to be reflected in our political processes, as well. It just wasn’t being talked about by the official organs. It was like this big missing story. I think that was part of what drove me to it. It seemed like there was this massive thing unfolding of which there was lots of evidence here there and everywhere in our lives wherever you live in the country, but it wasn’t part of the official discourse. So that’s part of what drew me to it.
And then I thought, I have this knack I suppose, for this kind of photography and I have photographed other kinds of industrial scenes and things like that and maybe this could be a subject that would work well with what I can bring to it. Once I decided to go, which was probably 8-9 months before we actually were up there in August of 2008, I then turned off what little there was, what little imagery was out there or if there was an article in the newspaper or whatever. I turned the coverage off if you will, because I wanted to have as little preconception as possible before I went.
I kind of have a habit. If I know I’m going to see a movie or something, once I have decided for whatever reason, I refuse to look at the trailers or read the reviews. I want to go there and just be taken by the experience as it is with as few preconceptions as possible. The same thing here, as an artist I wanted to approach this with as few preconceptions as possible. Once we were there, I knew enough to navigate. In fact, on the aviation charts, there are a couple of airports that are marked with very minimal information and those are corporate airports owned by Suncor and whomever else. I think there are four major airports that take jets in and whatever else in addition to the public airport in Fort Mac. So some of those things are noted on the charts, but there is very little else. Otherwise it just more or less looks like wilderness anywhere. That might in part be because the maps haven’t been updated. So I only had a vague idea of where I was going. I didn’t look at Google Earth or anything; I just knew it was there.
Aurora: So, you didn’t have to get permission, obviously.
Louis Helbig: No, we’re still a sufficiently free country that it was just the normal regulations that pertain in terms of how high you were supposed to fly over different things. Those would be the same wherever you are in the country - but I do get phone calls on and off from organizations who ask me, where can we charter an aircraft, helicopter or plane? I guess they’ve phoned the rounds in Northern Alberta and apparently no one, if they think they’re involved in an environmental organization, will hire out. That suggests there is probably either some sort of self-interest going on for providing service or the charter operations are afraid of being blackballed.
Aurora: I just wanted to shift and ask, because I’m not a photographer, about the technique. So now you’re there. You have intuited what you’re going to see. Were you surprised about some of the qualities of the images, let’s say how the landscape appeared to your eye as you flew over it. I’m kinda getting a sense of that from you.
Louis Helbig: Both Kristin and I were together in the airplane on the first round of the shoot. It was just a feeling of discombobulation. The place is stunning in its magnitude. It is stunning also in its detail. I eventually entitled the exhibition, Beautiful Destruction. It’s an incredibly beautiful place. There is something about the interplay of oil, bituminous clouds on water and the tailings ponds. There is something about the immutable movement of seemingly infinite numbers of multimillion dollar bits of machinery, huge trucks, the largest trucks on earth apparently, huge electric shovels and all sorts of accoutrements of industry with big clouds of dust coming off them, massive, massive holes in the ground, and all that interspaced, here and there, with the pipes and smokestacks and the like of the up graders, the Syncrude and Suncor ones in particular, but also the new one that was in the process of being built a bit further north, the Canadian Natural Resources Horizon Project. We did three shoots in total and they were probably in the range of about two to three hours a piece.
So you have this landscape that is all sort of situated in a broad swath of boreal forest with the Athabasca River running north, more or less due north, through the entire thing and then on both sides there is this incredibly large surreal, beautiful destroyed landscape. I guess, in a way, it was a kind of an emotional response. We were stunned by it. After, I don’t know, maybe a half an hour or something of flying around, I blurted out on the intercom, Joseph Conrad, The Heart of Darkness. There was something about that book which I had read when I was a kid; some feeling in that book that came to the fore when we saw this. For Kristin it was a feeling she remembered of a show, “Doctor Snuggles”, she saw as a child on TVO in Ontario about aliens coming to the earth and ripping things up. I have discovered since then, that a lot of people who’ve seen it and experienced it have similar feelings. That people sort of reach for a repertoire of cultural touch stones of one sort or another, 19th Century prose of the industrial revolution seems pretty common as people try to explain what they’re feeling or what they are seeing. Also, more modern, such things like Francis Ford Coppola’s film, Apocalypse Now, or I guess most recently the Mordor (ref. Lord of the Rings) thing or the James Cameron film…
Aurora: Avatar, right.
Louis Helbig: Avatar, that’s right, which is actually mixed in now with all this politically as well, too.
But yeah, I guess I was expecting to some extent, despite my desire to come at it with as few preconceptions as possible, to see holes in the ground and big trucks riding around and there were lots of that. But I did not expect to see these incredibly beautiful, massive, massive man-made lakes of brown toxic water with bits of oil floating hither and thither, being pushed around by the wind. I guess I didn’t expect to see those industrial bits and pieces, the pipes and things and the up graders.
Another thing I absolutely did not expect, and I guess if I had thought about it for a few minutes it would have been natural to think about it, but I didn’t expect to see so many signs of ourselves, you see people working and you see them climbing in and out of machinery. You see people climbing all over infrastructures or new things that are being built. You see them fixing things and you see these incredible camps as well, too. There are large Atco trailer type camps where people live. There are thousands who work there for however many weeks on and however many weeks off, and live somewhere else in the country. They live in Hamilton, Ontario, or in Calgary or in Vancouver or Comox or Corner Brook or wherever and they commute to work every once in a while and do very well, making a living in construction or whatever it might be. That was part of it and also in 2008, that was just before the price of oil peaked at $140 a barrel, it was at a fever pitch at that point.
It was surprising. It was discombobulating in a big broad sense, but it was also just incredibly stunningly beautiful. It’s like traveling to a foreign country and you see everything in a new light almost; you know the store fronts, the things on the street that we take for granted, that we don’t normally see in our own environment, take on a special look for the first while we’re in a new country, a bit like that. You fly over it and it’s like I’ve never seen anything like this before, and respond to it and as an artist it’s almost light work to do that.
Aurora: I’m thinking back to when we first spoke. You had just completed your first exhibit in Ottawa and you were excited about the reaction. Maybe we could talk about the response, the public response to the Beautiful Destruction images. You said that you captured a whole range of emotions from the public in that show.
Louis Helbig: Through a juried process, I had the good fortune of having this prime professional space for a number of months in the summer of 2010. We had roughly about 10,000 people that visited. I designed the layout of the show to create a space in the gallery, quasi-like a bit of a room or an alcove, and in that space I put the factual written information such as my artist statement and little information blurbs accompanied by thumbnails about what was in the photo and that kind of thing.
I also put a comment book in that alcove and I hoped people would take the time to write their comments. We ended up with over 500 comments which is quite remarkable. Mostly for these art exhibitions you might get a few comments from your friends or your family or whatever and most of it is fairly limited and fairly fluffy. But in this case, people sat down and they wrote full pages, in some cases. They wrote to each other. They wrote at each other. They crossed each other’s things out. It ran the gamut. There were some who castigated me, who said for sure I must be working for the oil companies. What moral or ethical universe was I in to depict this horror upon earth in any way that was beautiful? Others put me down as some kind of messiah, bringing this utter travesty, this environmental disaster to light for us to consider. There were these polarities of points of view that came through in the commentary that provides me with moral capital as an artist. I mean it’s flattering. It’s incredible to have that kind of reaction. You know that you’ve connected with people when they react, and when they react to each other.
But the most intriguing comments, and this is actually something that in showing these images in different places and spaces, and in talking to different people, all sorts of different walks of life who’ve responded to the work; what I found most intriguing and in some senses the most representative even of the contradictory feelings that I had when I took the photos initially, is that so far every single individual I’ve spoken to who has a direct relationship to Fort McMurray; that is they might live in Port Rowan, Ontario, and travel up to work, say on the CNRL project or they grew up in Fort McMurray, some of the activists including someone from Fort Chip who I’ve met, who is very much opposed to what is going on, other people who have worked there, etc. Every single person who has a direct relationship, within minutes it becomes clear that there are contradictions. There is a drama that plays itself out there. People see it for its good, and see it for its bad, and that is reflected in people’s feelings and people’s emotions and people’s observations. Some of the most compelling comments were in fact those people who reflected that kind of push and pull.
Some of the most encouraging feedback in some respect is from kids as young as grade four; the only difference between the kids’ response and the adults’ response, is that the kids get there much faster in terms of figuring it out and within minutes they will start asking each other, or me, or themselves, questions. Yeah, that looks horrible but, you know, we have this big car at home, don’t we? They put the pieces together for themselves.
There is something I guess that I find the most encouraging is that the art seems to open a place in people’s imagination, a space or a place where they relate to the image, however they might, and in so doing, they own that image in a sense or they certainly own whatever it is that populates their imagination, their conscience, their feelings, emotion, whatever it might be. Whether they are absolutely for it, or absolutely against this thing, whether their views are more convoluted or contradictory, what I find most remarkable is the power of the art to create that space for people to think and reflect and to own it themselves. For me as an artist, it is very gratifying. It’s almost as though one really isn’t the author anymore. It’s like I’ve put an image forward and the image generates a response. It generates feelings and various responses, imaginative responses, and it’s in those imaginative responses that I no longer own it. It’s someone else who then takes it for themselves or tells someone else or whatever it might be. Yeah, you sort of feel like you’ve arrived when that happens. Certainly the feedback I had at the formal exhibition was of that nature.
Aurora: As I recall from the last time we spoke, I’m paraphrasing, but you said to me that “the strongest response came from the most abstract images. That they tended to capture people’s imaginations.”
Louis Helbig: Absolutely - the abstract imagery. This was actually something that I had to learn as well, too. When I initially presented the work I had a mix of images. I change it a little bit each time that I show it, the core runs from about 20 to 25 and I’ll usually change up two or three images. But the first few times I put it forward, I included, I guess for want of a better word, some documentary imagery. You know, pictures where it’s very clear what you’re looking at, maybe somewhat aesthetically interesting or nicely balanced and composed or whatever, but say a picture of the Syncrude’s Mildred Lake facility with smoke and steam coming off it, with some tar ponds in the foreground or another one which the Auditor General purchased a copy for their report, a picture of the Suncor plant right beside the Athabasca River.
I felt that I had to include those. I discovered that I got no response really to speak of to the documentary imagery. The strongest response has been to those images which are abstract and have some sense of design or some aesthetic in them. Those are the ones that I get by far the strongest response to. In part, people ask questions, simply: what is that? And then a conversation ensues. But there is something there again about the power of art, about the power of having one’s imagination stimulated, and from there beginning to interrogate oneself with reference to the image. That’s how a conversation starts with oneself and with the people around you or asking me the artist. That, for me as an artist, has been something of an evolution, to understand at some level that the images that are the most mysterious, that are the most abstract, seem to bring out the strongest reaction in people. There is a power in that.
Aurora: I think I remember ‘being a professor’ that day because I recall saying to you that I had read this interview with Sebastiao Salgado, the fellow who took pictures of the gold miners in the Amazon, and there had been a real debate because people said, “Well they’re beautiful and you made it look so beautiful and it’s a horrible hell hole, right? “ and Salgado said, well you know maybe through the aesthetic people can still achieve a kind of reflective politicalness, right? I was struck by that because it was quite a debate. Some other art critics were saying, that if you over - aesthetize then you lose the political message, you know? But it seems to be that you’re saying quite the opposite is happening.
Louis Helbig: I think quite the opposite happened. Two things: one quick response to that is in fact those images that Salgado took of the miners have become part of our visual vocabulary, and they are part of our visual vocabulary I think, first and foremost, because they are stunningly beautiful images, and insofar that they are, that has in turn anchored them in a way that it also then sheds light on the issues that are portrayed in the images, of these people working and falling over each other in these holes that are being dug in the jungle and whatever else he portrayed. He has shined a light on that in a way that nobody else has shined a light on that particular issue. So, I suppose that the proof, in some sense, is in the pudding.
For the next year and a half or so after I did the photos, I pretty much worked full time on the Beautiful Destruction project and read all sorts of stuff and did research and God knows what just to backfill myself trying to: a) figure out what it was I took a photograph of so I could be mildly intelligent when somebody asks a question about ‘what is that?’ but also, b) understand a little more of the broader swath of issues surrounding it, the things that are economic, and then also things that are political.
Looping back, my initial impulse for being there was this idea that there was something we were missing out on as a society or that our institutions weren’t reflecting this massive thing back to us, despite the impact it is having on our culture. It’s changed in the last year or so significantly, but before that part of the reason why it wasn’t making it very far, is that no one really wanted to talk about it in any real terms, but also that the parties concerned were intent upon simply spinning it in whatever way they wanted to spin it. In some sense, I am equally critical of industry as I am of the environmental movement and environmental NGOs in Canada for both wanting to spin the issue in a way that it does little to reflect what’s actually going on. I would think that some of the critics of Salgado, what they are upset by is that they have lost control over the message in a sense. I’ve literally had this comment given to me by someone at the Suzuki Foundation here in Ottawa who told me that my “images were not ugly enough” for them to use.
That set me back for a while, but I realized that an organization such as the Suzuki organization and others are intent on portraying issues in a particular way and their intentions might or might not be good, but however good whatever they might be, the fact is they are still trying - just like the industry is and unfortunately just like government is - they are still trying to spin it in a particular way. They want to control the message and maybe the lesson. The criticism of Salgado is sort of similar philosophically at some level in that the critics who are upset are those who’ve lost control of being able to portray the issue in whichever way they want to portray it, environmental, human rights, whatever it might be. There are agendas that play themselves out and I’d like to think I’ve discovered that the art might just cut through, and it provides a kind of a window, maybe partly in the contradictions and in the human drama, in which conflict and contradictions are inherent. That if we actually had conversations in our society mediated through our institutions - and we are having more of that now, but it still is in some respects quite limited given the size of this particular project - but if we had those conversations and we actually got real with the good bits and the bad bits about this, then I think we would also be in a much better place to be able to mitigate some of the excesses, and to ensure the best possible outcome around a project of this sort.
But as long as we continue to maintain this very, how would I put it, very facile and simplistic and polarizing filters around which to discuss this, one is either pro-industry or pro-enviro or that if you criticize it from the east you must be one of those condo-dwelling, cappuccino-sucking enviros in Toronto and to think of the people who are working in the oil patches being from the Toronto side or the Ontario side, being a bunch of rednecks that run around and shoot at everything or drive big trucks. These caricatures of ourselves, this reductum of our argument is a false argument really because there is no real discussion going on. It is a screaming match going on. This doesn’t serve anyone.
Aurora: Earlier we talked a bit about tired imagery of Canada, like maple leaves and Niagara Falls, iconic imagery, and we discussed what is missing - the absent iconography of the industrial and human touch on the earth. We tend to reach for Emily Carr, or other kinds of images of Canada, rather than perhaps the kinds of things that you’re bringing forward. This idea in your work of the human touch on the Earth is also clear in your recent work on the St. Lawrence. Can we go there for a few minutes?
Louis Helbig: The Sunken Villages project. I am very happy with that in part to be able to do something that is very different than the Beautiful Destruction project, but that retains that sort of overarching project integrity if you will, so that the pieces all fit together under an umbrella.
So, 53 years ago, in fact in a few days, it was July 1, 1958, that they actually flooded the area on Dominion Day. The St. Lawrence Seaway was flooded and this massive industrial project, the largest project of its time maybe even the largest in the world, but certainly the largest in North America, built this system of the seaway and associated hydroelectric dams, and in the process of doing that there were ten communities that were wiped out, and a couple of other ones that were severely dismembered, if you will. There were about 6,500 people who were moved out.
Times were different and from what I have been able to piece together, although there certainly were some people who were opposed to it and who were certainly acutely affected by it in many different ways, the general public sentiment, I think in the community as well as on an individual level, was one of being part of progress, and being happy to be part of this in some sense, and also to get a new house, because there were two new towns that were built, Ingleside and Long Sault, Ontario, where most of the people then moved to.
They either moved into brand new housing that was provided to them or in some cases the old housing was actually moved lock, stock and barrel to the new site. That project has been fascinating. I just happened upon it. I wasn’t looking for it at all. I was actually down that way, flying along one day a couple of years ago, and I saw a house, which is a little odd when you are looking into water. And I sort of did a double take and looked again and indeed what I saw was the foundation of the house, under however many meters of water and then I flew around some more and then I saw some more. Then I clued in and realized what I was looking at. So, since then I have flown around a number of times, seven or eight times, and photographed some more and it’s become an ongoing project. I exhibited it once now formally in Toronto in May 2011 as part of a photo festival and there are plans to show it in the future. Part of what makes that project very interesting, is that in some ways people have said to me that it kind of parallels a little bit of what is going on in northern Alberta.
People said to me that I could have called this ‘Beautiful Destruction Two’ and I think there is probably some similarity, but there are also a lot of differences. It reflects a very different time. Also, it had a kind of an immediate impact on the European culture that was in place there, the Loyalist settlements that had been there for hundreds of years that were wiped out, and the battlefield of Crysler’s Farm which most Canadians know nothing about, but which was a defining moment in our history.
The redcoats in alliance with a local militia and a number of local Mohawks beat back a much larger American force at a place called Crysler’s Farm and in so doing, the Americans retreated and as a consequence of that, as well as a battle that took place a few days before just south of Montreal at a place called Chateauguay, Canada became essentially what it is now. If the Americans would have won that, then they would have achieved their objective which was to capture and sack Montreal. Where I’m sitting now would probably be part of the United States. Anyway, this place most remarkably was also flooded and so this battlefield is now underwater, however many meters of water, and the obelisk that was once erected - I think in the 1890’s to commemorate this battle - was in turn moved as well. It was moved to higher ground because of the flooding. I don’t know what it says about us as Canadians; in the sense that we would willy-nilly by administrative fiat shuffle such symbols out if they are inconvenient to us, when we are building something of this sort.
Aurora: Oh, I think we do it pretty consistently. When we were speaking the first time about the oil sands, tar sands, I was looking at a lot of old heritage photographs of the area. And we talked about the notions of frontier, and conquering nature, and human ingenuity and how Canadians take pride in the history of our ability to release from nature into resources, especially when others have told them they are wasting their time, their money, their scientific expertise. Albertans are very proud of the fact that they were able, as western Canadians, to sort of conquer the tar sands. This is the cultural aspect of what appears to be a merely technical task. If you think about the St. Lawrence Seaway, it too endured a long debate over how we should manage it, engineer it, working with American engineers. There has been a common notion of progress across the generations, a kind of unquestioned faith that we would use our intelligence to unleash or improve Nature, but now we have seemed to have turned a corner. We’re in a different age of reflexivity, and unintended consequences that bite back. And I recall you saying that we don’t have a lot of great images of industrial impacts, our imagination of it is weak, and that one of the things that you strove to do in your work was to kind of build a better understanding of it, so we could deal with these contradictions? That we live in nature, we use it and extract from it, and we destroy it too.
Louis Helbig: To jump off on that and certainly I recall talking about that, one of the feelings that I get when I fly, I don’t have to fly far. I take off in Ottawa and in 20 minutes, I was in not quite virgin bush but pretty much over areas where there is no one. Maybe the odd cottage if that and you don’t have to fly much further than that and then you truly are over wilderness where there is no one, and little bit further than that, and you are over a wilderness where there has never been any resource exploitation or logging or whatever.
It strikes me that this massive space which is ours we’re the front fringe, we’re the front porch on this massive house if you will, with this little narrow border or ports that go along the American border where almost all of us live. And increasingly, more and more of us live (both in absolute numbers and I think as a percentage of the population) ever more distant from the landscape that forms our house. I suppose I have had this feeling on the ground in my neck of the woods, out in the Cariboo-Chilcotin or on the coast of British Columbia, hiking around in the Rockies or paddling some place, being out in the bush of this incredible place and space that is part of us, that is almost entirely vacant of people. And in that vacancy, in many respects is utterly unique. There are very few places otherwise on Earth. Tying into my work now, the art photography, the flying around, and I get that feeling often just flying over these spaces and that there is this incredible emotional feeling that there is this immense, incredible place and space that is Canada that for the most part is not being reflected back to us in our cultural discourse, and certainly not being reflected back to us in terms of the art and the imagery that we produce, whether by painting or the like, or with photography.
I find that most remarkable. It’s almost like there has been a bit of a stasis and we once had a time when, and my art history is a bit weak here, but we had the likes of Kreighoff who painted these idyllic quasi-European scenes of Canada, sort of Europeanized imagery and you can go to the National Art Gallery and you can see these things which in some respects are just completely interchangeable with similar scenes from Flanders or from the Pyrenees or from England somewhere or whatever it might be and then, of course, we have the ‘Group of Seven’ who were in some instances outcasts in their own time who got in railway cars and went out to the various parts of the country, particularly the Canadian Shield north of Toronto around Lake Huron, and the like who brought back this really, really compelling imagery. Emily Carr belongs to that as well in Victoria. These people, they created an iconography of our landscape. They helped us define us to ourselves with their art and that we are different than Europe or somewhere else. Better, I wouldn’t say, but we are certainly different. We have a sense of ourselves as a consequence of that art that I think is just as equally as compelling or important as other parts of our more commonly expressed mythology. You know, winning at Vimy Ridge or these kinds of things that are commonly trotted out for a sense of ourselves. What strikes me nowadays is that now we have very, very little that is actually being done in the realm of the visual arts that reflects back this vast space and place that is us. What we do have is this almost, because it’s done so often and it’s always the same thing, is this kind of caricature of pictures of Chateau Frontenac in Quebec, Peggy’s Cove out in Nova Scotia, Lake Louise, the Empress Hotel, Niagara Falls, and you can just leaf through endless stock photography that is continually being rehashed of the same thing, over and over and over again. There is possibly some interpretation going on now, maybe of the high north, that you can see at some photo festivals and the like, but that too is rather stilted and sort of art school self-conscious, filtered through some urban conception or caricature in some respects of places outside of our urban core.
So there is maybe the beginning of an interpretation that’s going on with respect to this broad space that is us, but it’s still in some respects in its infancy. I would argue, and again I’m a little over my head in the sense of not being a trained artist or art historian, but I do think that other countries have a much more intimate relationship with their landscape that defines them. I lived in Sweden for a while and as much as Sweden is also very much an urban place, part of their sense of themselves there really is something about the landscape, and if you see a film like the Steig Larsson thrillers, they are set, at least the one I’ve seen, in the Swedish landscape. We don’t see a lot of Canadian films and the like that are set in the Canadian landscape, except when something of a caricature such as ‘North of 60’ or that sort of thing. There isn’t an awful lot that we have that is reflected back to us otherwise. I know it’s true for the Finns and certainly true for the Norwegians and I believe it is also true for the Russians. They have a very strong relationship to their landscape. And it’s true for the Americans. The Americans have a very strong relationship to Alaska, their conceptions of frontier, etc. Ironically, I just saw something in the New York Times by Sebastiao Salgado flying around in northern Alaska taking photographs, very compelling imagery, and there is someone doing it, there is an interpretation going on via American cultural institutions of that landscape. We don’t have that occurring in Canada. I think that in some senses we are poorer for it and in terms of addressing differences, in terms of us understanding each other in terms of exploitation, such as what is going on in Fort Mac or plans afoot to build a pipeline up the Mackenzie river valley or the big mines that are opening in different places across the country - the mine that is being put at the top end of Baffin Island.
All these things, for us to know and understand these places and our interactions with them, we don’t really have visuals. We don’t really have any kind of iconography to help explain it for ourselves, for us to have a conversation with ourselves about it.
Aurora: You told me how you got into this career, but how did you actually get into interpreting landscape?
Louis Helbig: I think it was more just the response to some kind of emotion. That sounds a little maybe… I don’t know, maybe a little too simplistic, but there is something there. An example: The Sunken Villages project, there is something there. There is a sort of melancholy. There is a presence. It’s not ghostlike, but you feel there’s something there. Just in the first take of photographing and responding to it. Then it’s validated eventually by people who I’ve met who are from there, and who respond to it as well, what I sort of brought back. It’s not empty space. It is full of life. It is full, maybe it’s full of what we project into it in some respects or there are absences, because of absences in our imagination. Some people have said that they find particularly the Beautiful Destruction series, that there is humanity in those images. And I scratched my head when I first heard that, thinking, you know, that’s a picture of a dump truck going across this utterly destroyed landscape or a picture of maybe wonderfully scrolling loops of bitumen held in by booms that looks beautiful, but that’s just oil and water and whatever, but it’s as though these things are as much what they speak to, the feelings and emotions that in some respect many of us can relate to in some way, shape or form, as much as the things that they actually are. It’s this particular thing that I photographed; it’s that building or it’s that mine or it’s that river or that set of trees or whatever it is. There’s something there. There’s a feeling that I think I’m responding to, and it’s kind of exciting. That sounds silly but it’s invigorating. Not every day and sometimes I’m not even able to do it when I want to do it, it’s more having to be in the right space of mind to do it. But once it’s happening, then yeah that landscape speaks and all manner of elements speak and maybe it’s the cultural imprint that is the easiest to interpret or that speaks the loudest.
Let’s say some exploration cut line through the forest or, you know, some road or whatever where we sort of insert ourselves into the space, that’s often the easiest to interpret in some ways and to respond to. But also the natural things kind of on their own, it takes more effort maybe… but they can also speak quite loudly.
Aurora: Do you think about your tar sands images as they move worldwide via the internet? Do you think about the immediacy of connecting with others worldwide, when you put an image up and suddenly it could be anywhere, and it is influencing people anywhere, any space, and anytime.
Louis Helbig: You can sort of track it with Google Analytics and you can see that image is popping up in Russia or it’s popping up in India or somewhere. People are looking at these things in different parts of the world. I mean predominantly it is Canadians, who are looking at it, and then secondarily it is Americans and then after that its English-speaking places, and then it goes from there. But yeah, it’s one of the most phenomenal things. Photography has been completely set on its head in the last five years in terms of digital photography and digital media are as good as or better than film ever was, although some people would argue with that.
Certainly for me, the technology allows me to do stuff that I could never have simply afforded to be able to do. Like I couldn’t shoot the volumes that I do with film. I couldn’t afford it. Especially not now, since film is no longer being used, the price is creeping up. On the other side, for the price of a website, a URL, and some software - anybody can post whatever they want in this world. It’s incredible. It gives you access and now people find me from all sorts of different places. There is high and low, so to speak, that I would never have access to otherwise. They google oil sands photographs or aerial photographs, tar sands, whatever it is and they find the site, probably the same way you found me.
This is overused, I suppose, but there is something democratic about that anybody can do this and then ultimately I suppose the integrity of their work will stand or not, whatever the case might be.
The accessibility that it provides didn’t exist ten years ago and certainly didn’t exist twenty years ago. On the other hand, a lot of people complain that anyone can hang a shingle out and call themselves a photographer and that’s probably true. I think it’s actually a wonderful thing and the more people are out there snapping away, doing things, the more gets added to the sort the wealth of what we see and the more people who are out there who are actually looking and seeing in a way that they may not otherwise and simple raising an iPhone someplace and going click or taking some fancy expensive SLR and doing that. I mean there’s something going on with that we didn’t have before, certainly didn’t have before in anything of the same way. So, yeah, I think all of this is a very positive, very constructive thing. And I think, in some respects I’ve been a lucky beneficiary.
Aurora: Well, let’s take a couple of minutes to tell me where you’re going now. What are you up to?
Louis Helbig: I am hoping to start a new project to photograph in the sort of mid and ultimately the high North, to fly around through all these areas where nobody gets to or very few people get to, and to photograph both the cultural landscape, the natural landscape, and the interface between that - stuff that’s quite new or cultural detritus that has been there forever, whatever it might be.
I don’t know precisely what it is that I will bring back, but I guess having confidence in what I’ve done to date and the feelings I have about the landscape that I was describing earlier, I do hope that I’ll be bringing some things back in terms of helping to fill that sort of space a bit or populate that space more concretely with what I bring back. Perhaps I’ll go up the Mackenzie and work my way up and down the river valley, but also work along the entire boreal edge, the transition of the boreal forest into tundra, the part that cuts across from Labrador all the way over the Yukon and to spend time in that space being part of it and just responding to it. Whatever I see and whatever it is that’s informing me, I suppose, or that I’m feeling when I’m in one place or another.
There’s a range of issues tied up in this: from the role of resource extraction industries and the detritus and what have you, but also talking about citizenship and notions of being Canadian and notions of us and them. That there is a separation, an ever growing one, between those who live in the urban core and those who live in rural areas, whether they’re aboriginal or non-aboriginal, that there is in some respect almost a need for a respectful representation of that, of ourselves. One of the things that has struck me is that there is also this, something certainly the government has been big on, is pushing a northern agenda which I guess in a large part is mostly smoke and mirrors, but it is that there is this notion that we don’t populate our North and I find that most remarkable because people have lived there for time immemorial. The Inuit or First Nations people have lived in these places and spaces from time immemorial and they are Canadians. They are as Canadian as anyone else and for us to even think that the space is vacant is to ignore what’s there.
Interview conducted March 14, 2011
Dr. Mike Gismondi is Professor Sociology and Global Studies, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Athabasca University.