A Bird's Eye View on Mountaintop Removal Mining: The Photography of J. Henry Fair

Imagine a beautiful, idyllic mountain top, covered in trees, creeks and rivers running through it and woodland creatures flying and hopping all around it. Now imagine that the mountain top has been blown up. Why? To get to the coal that lies underground, and the remaining rocks, dead trees and dirt are dumped into the valleys, clogging up those creeks and rivers. Now imagine that it happens on such a large scale that a single human seems tiny compared to the whole operation.

Thanks to a fantastic new photo exhibit by J. Henry Fair at the Forward Thinking Museum, you don’t have to imagine it. You can actually see the devastation and get a true sense of the magnitude of mountain top removal mining. Fair flies in a plane over these (and other) industrial sites to shoot photos of the destruction inflicted on the planet below. “What I'm focused on is making these compelling images on a given subject that make people stop and think about their involvement,” says Fair of his environmental photography, which is, oddly, as beautiful as it is compelling. Henry’s camera of choice while shooting from the air is a Canon 1Ds Mark III with 70-200-mm and 100-400-mm Leica normal and wide-angle lenses.

I caught up with Henry--just as he was leaving the country for a month of shooting in Europe. An excerpt from our discussion is below. Click on the [PDF] to read the entire interview. Several of his photos are in the gallery above, but please, check out the online exhibition and, when you're looking at the photos--especially those that feature trucks literally moving mountains--stop and think for a moment about the scale. Think about how small the humans driving those trucks are and let the enormity sink in. Also, while you're visiting the Forward Thinking Museum, check out some of their other exhibits, all of which are offered “in virtual space, with hopes that images will transcend the divisions that language brings.”

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Why did you start shooting environmental photos?

I've always been really concerned about the environment, what we're doing to our own life support systems and what we're going to then pass on to our progenitors. I've always tried to figure out, “Okay, how can I do something to get across to the common person who is mired in fear?” I mean, let’s face it, in America people live in terror and that’s, of course, perpetuated by the media, etc. But people are in terror of their jobs, of being eaten up by health insurance, of paying the monthly bills. It’s very hard for people to stop and think, “Okay, wait a minute, do I really want to buy that paper cup? And what toilet paper should I buy?”

I make art that makes people stop for a second and think about those things, and of course, you've got to entertain people. People learn when they're entertained, not when they're preached at.

You focus on the beauty of environmental scars as much as the scarring itself. How did you get to that?

I focus on making compelling images, not so much on, “Oh, look at how beautiful this shit is.” I mean, as a photographer, you could make a cube of ice beautiful. Anything should be photographable for a good photographer to make a great photograph. But really what I'm focused on is making these compelling images on a given subject that make people stop and think about their involvement.

So I wanted to make a series of images that really got people to think about those issues more than actually vilifying a given company (which I prefer not to do) because they're bad actors. As a society we need to demand these things.

Again, toilet paper is such a perfect example. The most important decision you can make in a day is which toilet paper to buy. I'm trying to show people consequences, because the consequences of these purchase decisions that we make are obscured from us. Producers don’t want you to know that if you buy that nice poufy white toilet paper you're destroying the habitat for the nice wolves and the bears you love to watch on the nature channel and causing climate change and air pollution and water pollution and water depletion. I mean paper is one of the worst things we do to the planet. And who thinks about it? Who thinks about the lawyer who sends reams of paper printed on white, which means bleach, which means dioxin?

So I wanted to make a series of images that really got people to think about those issues more than actually vilifying a given company (which I prefer not to do) because they're bad actors. As a society we need to demand these things. It’s abundantly clear that our rule makers--our legislators--answer to the hands that feed them; they do not answer to the people who don’t vote for them. To whine about how our representatives are not doing anything well, we allowed the system to come into place.

The producers have very cleverly cast environmentalists as yet another special interest group on the same footing as the producers; it’s entirely false. So the burden of proof is on us to prove harm where it should be on the producers to prove no harm, which is very interesting.

That’s really the focus of my work. And it’s a long game, and it’s complex, but it works. I mean Kleenex is the perfect example. Kimberly Clark is changing their behavior because of work that I did in conjunction with Greenpeace and NRDC. So it works. It’s a long process.

What gave you the idea to shoot from the air? The photos are tremendous. The scale is mind-blowing for me.

I started the project 15 years ago, sneaking around refineries and whatnot and getting into trouble and playing the switch the film trick. I got some interesting pictures, but not, “Oh my God, look at that picture!” I needed pictures that were going to get people to stop in their tracks.

I was on a red-eye flight one morning from California and looked down and there was this giant power plant enshrouded in fog and steam and I thought, “Ah, that’s it. You just get a plane and fly over it.” Then it became a logistical issue--where do I want to go, and then I've got to find the plane. Then it became rather simple. [READ MORE]

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UPDATED: J Henry Fair’s first book, The Day After Tomorrow: Images of Our Earth in Crisis, published in 2011 by powerHouse Books, is currently available where books are sold. For more information, contact Katherine Benjamin, kb@jhenryfair.com or visit www.IndustrialScars.com.

Responses to "A Bird's Eye View on Mountaintop Removal Mining: The Photography of J. Henry Fair"

  1. Richard Fairfleld

    Toilet Paper made by Kimberly Clark is a good choice? If so, what is are the brand names.

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