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Q&A: Aerial photographer Louis Helbig on his new book, Beautiful Destruction

Beautiful_Destruction_webWilliams Lake, B.C. native Louis Helbig began photographing the Alberta oil sands from his antique airplane in 2008. The photos became the basis of a series of art exhibitions, and now a book published by Rocky Mountain Books. Beautiful Destruction, released Dec. 4, contains more than 200 images    with captions in English, Denesuline, and Cree    alongside essays by prominent figures on both sides of the political issue. Contributors include Ethical Oil author Ezra Levant, former Suncor Energy CEO Rick George, Green Party leader and author Elizabeth May, and Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.

Q&Q talked to Helbig about his work.

Do you pilot the plane and take photographs at the same time?
Yes, I do. That’s a frequently asked question. It’s not as daunting as it may appear. I also text at the same time.

What inspired you to photograph the tar sands?
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Everybody was talking about it, but it wasn’t being reflected back to us in our institutions, and that’s what piqued my interest originally. I was noticing that going out to the oil patch seemed to be the talk at every coffee shop and that this story about people travelling to Fort McMurry was becoming somewhat of a national story. It was just this kind of cultural current where everybody seemed to know someone who was going out there or was trying to go out there themselves. I initially went there as something of an activist wanting to photograph something that seemed to be hidden in plain sight.

What spawned the idea for a book?
I had exhibited these photos in 2009 and 2010. I was bowled over by the response I received from all different types of people across the spectrum of the issue. People condemned me for bringing this to light and people condemned me for aestheticizing it and celebrating it. I think that I hit a nerve and that got the wheels turning. I think my responsibility as an artist is not to postulate about something one way or another. It’s more powerful to create a space where people might think and reflect on their own terms and in their own way, and I hope that the inclusion of these prominent people with different viewpoints will help frame the project that way.

Why was it important for you to include multilingual photo captions?
I wanted to locate this landscape in the political dynamic and also in its geography, a geography that is inseparable from the people that live in that space. The two First Nations that overlap in this area are the Cree and the Denesculine people. I’m hoping that this conveys a sense of history and mythology along with the appreciation and respect that there are all these different people living there.

What do you hope to achieve with the book?
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I worked really hard to not let this be something advocating either industry or environmentalism. I tried to maintain… I wouldn’t call it neutrality, exactly, but I wanted to bring a completely different perspective to the issue. One which I hope made more space culturally, philosophically, intellectually, and creatively for us as a country to start the conversation rather than calling it good or bad, east or west, enviro or industry, rural or urban    all of these schisms.

This interview has been edited and condensed.