Academic journal article Afterimage

From Climate Crisis to Climate Movement: A Conversation with Robert Van Waarden

Academic journal article Afterimage

From Climate Crisis to Climate Movement: A Conversation with Robert Van Waarden

Article excerpt


On September 3, 2014, in the lead-up to the People's Climate March of September 21, the Concordia University Student Union, the Students' Society of McGill University, Divest Concordia, and Divest McGill hosted the People's Climate Tour in Montreal, which was organized by and featured a lecture by Bill McKibben, author and co-founder of the international environmental organization, as well as by Ellen Gabriel, a human rights activist from Kanehsata:ke. Also present on the tour was Robert van Waarden, a young Montreal-based photographer, whose recent project, Along the Pipeline (2014), documents the stories of people who live along the 4,600 km path of the proposed Energy East pipeline, which, if realized, would transport more than one million barrels of diluted bitumen from Alberta's tar sands to Saint John, New Brunswick, where it would be refined and exported. (1) Van Waarden is a professional photographer whose work focuses on climate change as well as the social movements involved in climate change projects. He has photographed four United Nations summits on climate change, wind energy across the globe, coal plants in Tennessee, villages in the Arctic, and protests in Southeast Asia. For Along the Pipeline, he photographed and interviewed more than eighty individuals whose lives could be directly impacted by this pipeline project. With funding assistance from an Indiegogo initiative as well as Greenpeace, the Council of Canadians, and Environmental Defence, he interviewed city mayors, native elders and chiefs, fishermen, ranchers, and people from various walks of life to uncover the ways that people are making sense of yet another environmentally damaging proposal. I interviewed van Waarden at his home in Montreal on September 8, 2014, to discuss this project and the growing climate change movement.

MARC JAMES LEGER: Tell me about your new project, Along the Pipeline.

ROBERT VAN WAARDEN: The proposals for the Energy East pipeline hit the airwaves sometime around April of 2013. I found out about it while I was living in Europe--yet another pipeline. When I came back, I realized that this was something I could work on from a photographic and journalistic perspective. I knew some people who were interested in working on the pipeline issue already, so I approached them first. A few of those organizations put in some funding for the project. I then got a 4 x 5" film camera--a camera made in the 1970s for black-and-white film, with bellows. The travel time was about two months on the road. I started in New Brunswick, since I was already in eastern Canada. I spent ten days in New Brunswick and then came back to Montreal for a few weeks to figure things out. I then drove all the way to Alberta and worked my way back along the line. We put about seventeen thousand kilometers on the car, so there was a lot of driving. We interviewed about eighty people- mostly individuals--but there was one group, in Quebec. The idea was to find people from different walks of life to get a better idea of what's going on, whether that meant politicians, farmers, ranchers, fishermen, First Nations groups, or activists and supporters.

MJL: Do you think that all of these stories put together create a coherent picture? Do you think that collectively we have a solution to the tar sands aspect of the crisis of global warming? How do you see individual will connecting with scientific knowledge and with political will?

RVW: My decision to photograph individuals comes from my previous work as a photographer and understanding how imagery is often used in the environmental or climate-related context. What you often see is landscape imagery or natural world imagery with polar bears or tigers. These are emblems that are used to raise awareness. What's often missing, at least from a communication perspective, is the fact that people relate to other people and their stories. In that sense, I thought that a focus on the stories of people along the pipeline would help the audience pay closer attention. …

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