3-2 | Table of Con­tents | http://​dx​.doi​.org/10.17742/IMAGE.sightoil.3-2.9 | Patch­ett | Lozowy PDF

ABSTRACT: “Refram­ing the Cana­di­an Oil Sands” is a col­lab­o­ra­tive exchange between pho­tog­ra­ph­er Andriko Lozowy and cul­tur­al geo­g­ra­ph­er Mer­le Patch­ett that engages pho­tog­ra­phy and pho­to­graph­ic the­o­ry to evoke a more crit­i­cal and polit­i­cal­ly mean­ing­ful visu­al engage­ment with the world’s largest cap­i­tal oil project. Since the appear­ance of Edward Burtynsky’s aer­i­al and abstract­ed pho­to­graph­ic-map­pings of the region, cap­tur­ing the scale of the Oil Sands from ‘on high’ has become the dom­i­nant visu­al imag­i­nary. As a result, the dom­i­nant visu­al cul­ture of Fort McMur­ray oil pro­duc­tion is one of nul­li­fi­ca­tion or an era­sure of rep­re­sen­ta­tion. For the past five years Lozowy has been engaged in a pho­to­graph­ic project—entitled Where is Fort McMur­ray?—which aims to explore and workwith this sense of era­sure by attempt­ing to cap­ture the shift­ing (and shift­ed) land­scapes of the Alber­ta Oil Sands from the road­side. For this spe­cial issue of Imag­i­na­tionson "Sight­ing Oil", Patch­ett and Lozowy have curat­ed a set of Lozowy’s pho­tographs to present an alter­na­tive, on-the-ground, view of Oil Sands pro­duc­tion sites. Through both Lozowy’s images and Patchett’s fram­ing cura­to­r­i­al essay, they explore the dis­rup­tive poten­tial of the image and the capac­i­ty of pho­tog­ra­phy to both neu­tral­ize and ener­gize polit­i­cal engage­ment with the Cana­di­an Oil Sands."

RÉSUMÉ : Cet arti­cle est une col­lab­o­ra­tion entre le pho­tographe Andriko Lozowy et la géo­graphe cul­turelle Mer­le Patch­ett. La pho­togra­phie et la théorie pho­tographique y sont mis­es à prof­it afin de sus­citer un engage­ment visuel sig­ni­fi­catif des points de vue poli­tique et cri­tique avec le plus impor­tant pro­jet pétroli­er à ce jour. Depuis les pho­togra­phies aéri­ennes de la région des sables bitu­mineux par Edward Bur­tyn­sky, la pho­togra­phie à dis­tance des zones d’exploitation a con­nu une pop­u­lar­ité crois­sante. Par con­séquent, la cul­ture visuelle dom­i­nante de la pro­duc­tion pétrolière de Fort McMur­ray s’est mise à vouloir invalid­er ou effac­er cette représen­ta­tion. Il y a cinq ans, Lozowy a entamé un pro­jet inti­t­ulé Where is Fort McMur­ray? qui a pour but d’explorer et d’utiliser cette idée d’effacement en essayant de cap­tur­er les paysages mobiles (et démo­bil­isés) des sables bitu­mineux alber­tains à par­tir des bor­ds de route. Patch­ett et Lozowy ont organ­isé une expo­si­tion des pho­tos de Lozowy pour le présent numéro d’Imag­i­na­tions. Cette expo­si­tion présente une vue alter­na­tive –au niveau du sol– des sites de pro­duc­tion pétrolière. À tra­vers les images de Lozowy et les textes de Patch­ett, on retrou­ve le poten­tiel per­tur­ba­teur de l’image et la capac­ité de la pho­togra­phie de neu­tralis­er et de stim­uler à la fois l’engagement poli­tique face aux sables bitu­mineux canadiens.

Cura­to­r­i­al Essay Mer­le Patch­ett | Uni­ver­si­ty of Bristol
Pho­tographs and Cre­ative Text Andriko J. Lozowy | Uni­ver­si­ty of Alberta

[portfolio_slideshow include="4100,4101,4102,4103,4104,4105,4106,4107"]

Reframing the Canadian Oil Sands

From ‘On-High’ to the Roadside:
Scalar Aesthetics and the Canadian Oil Sands

Grow­ing up in the Scot­tish coastal city of Aberdeen—the ‘oil cap­i­tal of Europe’—I was keen­ly aware that oil and water can be a volatile mix. Aberdeen became the cen­tre of the Euro­pean oil indus­try dur­ing the North Sea oil boom of the 1970s. The inter­na­tion­al oil cri­sis of the same decade had led to a huge rise in world­wide oil prices and this made extract­ing oil from the North Sea an attrac­tive oppor­tu­ni­ty for mul­ti-nation­al oil com­pa­nies like BP, AMOCO and Shell. Although drilling plat­forms were sta­tioned 100 miles off the coast in the North Sea, the spec­tre of oil per­vad­ed the city: from the emer­gence of Europe’s busiest heli­port which sup­plied the rigs with work­ers, to the mam­moth oil ser­vice ves­sels docked in Aberdeen har­bour, to the expan­sion of the city itself through new hous­ing, offices and schools. How­ev­er the spec­tre of off­shore pro­duc­tion was rude­ly and rad­i­cal­ly illu­mi­nat­ed on the night of July 6, 1988. In a series of explo­sions the Piper Alpha oil rig, locat­ed 120 miles off­shore, was oblit­er­at­ed in a blaze of fire, killing 165 of the 226 men on board. Two crew­men oper­at­ing a res­cue ves­sel were also killed, bring­ing the death toll to 167 men on “the night the sea caught fire” (Mat­sen 27).

Fig. 1  “May­day May­day… we're aban­don­ing the radio room; we're aban­don­ing the radio room. We can't talk any more, we're on fire.”—Mayday Mes­sage from the Radio Room before it was engulfed by the fire.

In the disaster’s after­math the Cullen Inquiry, which began in Jan­u­ary 1989 and last­ed 13 months, estab­lished the caus­es of the tragedy and made rec­om­men­da­tions for future safe­ty regimes off­shore. Those affect­ed by the tragedy were left ques­tion­ing why it took a mul­ti-fatal­i­ty event for an eval­u­a­tion of the oil and gas reg­u­la­to­ry sys­tem to take place and why the rig owner’s—Occidental Petroleum—were yet to be pros­e­cut­ed. The vic­tims of the dis­as­ter set up the Piper Alpha Fam­i­lies and Sur­vivors Asso­ci­a­tion to cam­paign to bring Occi­den­tal to jus­tice. Although the Cullen Report (made pub­lic on Novem­ber 12, 1990) was high­ly crit­i­cal of Occidental’s safe­ty pro­gram on Piper Alpha pri­or to the dis­as­ter, Lord Fras­er, the Lord Advo­cate and Scotland’s chief legal offi­cer, con­clud­ed that there was not enough evi­dence for a con­vic­tion. As Lord Advo­cate for Scot­land, his analy­sis could not be ques­tioned and Occi­den­tal suf­fered no penal­ty for their neg­li­gence in the Piper Alpha dis­as­ter.[1] The lack of cor­po­rate account­abil­i­ty was a huge blow for the Piper Alpha Fam­i­lies and Sur­vivors Asso­ci­a­tion. In 1991, the asso­ci­a­tion erect­ed a memo­r­i­al sculp­ture in Hazle­head Park, Aberdeen to ensure that those who per­ished, many whose bod­ies were nev­er recov­ered, were at least pub­li­cal­ly and indi­vid­u­al­ly account­ed for. The park is just a short walk from my fam­i­ly home. Engraved on a pink gran­ite plinth, topped by a larg­er than life-size bronze sculp­ture of three oil work­ers, are the names of the dead. Their ages at death are also giv­en. With the youngest 19 and the eldest 65 the dead span three generations.

Piper Alpha remains the world’s dead­liest off­shore oil dis­as­ter and is an event that woke, not just Aber­do­nians, but the world itself to the human cost of invest­ing in an oil econ­o­my. Revis­it­ing the Piper Alpha memo­r­i­al as an adult now liv­ing in Edmon­ton, Alberta—Canada’s ‘Oil City’—I am keen­ly aware that our con­tin­ued depen­den­cy on oil as an ener­gy source guar­an­tees fur­ther fatal­i­ties and envi­ron­men­tal dam­age because oil explo­ration, cap­ture, refin­ing and trans­porta­tion are inher­ent­ly dan­ger­ous and destruc­tive process­es. Yet, I am also aware my pres­ence in Alber­ta is due to the rel­a­tive eco­nom­ic sta­bil­i­ty and job secu­ri­ty afford­ed by Alberta’s oil econ­o­my. This is the dirty truth any Alber­tan has to rec­on­cile with.  Oil was first dis­cov­ered in Alber­ta in 1902, and its pro­duc­tion con­tin­ues to fuel the province: oil and gas roy­al­ty rev­enues make up 30% of the Gov­ern­ment of Alberta’s total rev­enue (Niki­foruk). 1947 saw the drilling of the first suc­cess­ful con­ven­tion­al well at Leduc, just South of Edmon­ton and overnight Cana­da went from being “oil poor” to “oil rich” (McRo­ry 82). Today, 1 in 15 Alber­ta jobs are relat­ed to ener­gy and Alberta's per capi­ta GDP is high­er than all oth­er Cana­di­an provinces and US states (Lev­ant).

Before mov­ing to Edmon­ton, all I knew about the province was that it was home to the con­tro­ver­sial ‘Tar Sands’ project, the largest sur­faced-mined reser­voir of crude bitu­men in the world. Sit­u­at­ed North East of Edmon­ton, rough­ly cen­tered on the boom­town Fort McMur­ray, the Athabas­ca ‘Oil Sands’ is the world’s largest Cap­i­tal Oil Project, cur­rent­ly pro­duc­ing 1.3 mil­lion bar­rels of oil a day (see Fig. 1).[2] Com­mer­cial pro­duc­tion began in 1967 and the total area of exploitable reserves cov­ers 140,000 km²—an area larg­er than Eng­land (Lev­ant 2011).  Oils Sands are nat­u­ral­ly occur­ring mix­tures of sand, clay, water, and an extreme­ly dense and vis­cous form of petro­le­um tech­ni­cal­ly referred to as bitu­men. The pri­ma­ry meth­ods of extrac­tion are sur­face min­ing or in-situ drilling and the three main oper­at­ing com­pa­nies are Sun­cor Ener­gy, Syn­crude and Shell Cana­da. About two tons of oil sand must be dug up, moved and processed to pro­duce one bar­rel of syn­thet­ic crude oil, and up to 5 bar­rels of water are con­sumed for every bar­rel of oil pro­duced, mak­ing the Oil Sands Cap­i­tal Project the world’s most car­bon and water inten­sive oil pro­duc­tion process.[3]

Fig. 2  Loca­tion of the Athabas­ca, Cold Lake and Peace Riv­er oil sands in Alber­ta. Map.

The Oil Sands Cap­i­tal Project is also one of the world’s most envi­ron­men­tal­ly destruc­tive indus­tri­al projects. For exam­ple, in order to sur­face mine the bitu­men large swathes of Canada’s Bore­al For­est are being defor­est­ed to the point where the project is slat­ed to have the sec­ond fastest rate of defor­esta­tion on the plan­et after the Ama­zon Rain­for­est Basin (Niki­foruk). The process of turn­ing the oil sand into crude oil also pro­duces numer­ous tox­ic byprod­ucts. The water used to strip the bitu­men from the sand, for exam­ple, is dis­charged after­wards as con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed water into “tail­ings” ponds. The left­over “tail­ings” are a mix­ture of dirty water, clay, silt and sand but can also con­tain cop­per, zinc, iron, resid­ual bitu­men, mer­cury, arsenic, naph­thenic acids and poly­cyclic aro­mat­ic hydro­car­bons (PAH). Alberta’s inven­to­ry of tail­ings ponds is now 720 mil­lion cubic meters, which cov­er an area of about 130 square kilo­me­ters. Their con­tents are high­ly tox­ic to all forms of life.  This was brought to inter­na­tion­al atten­tion in April 2008 when some 500 migrat­ing ducks mis­took one of these ponds for a hos­pitable stopover, and, on land­ing on its oily sur­face, died. When Green­peace broke into a Syn­crude pro­cess­ing facil­i­ty and sus­pend­ed a ban­ner that read “World's Dirt­i­est Oil: Stop the Tar Sands” over the pipe dis­charg­ing tail­ings, overnight they changed Canada's his­tor­i­cal­ly ”green” image to one of “cor­rupt petro-state” (Mon­biot).

Fig. 3  Green­peace activists enter Syncrude's Auro­ra North oil sands oper­a­tion and sus­pend a ban­ner that reads “World's Dirt­i­est Oil: Stop the Tar Sands.”

Where is Fort McMurray?

The Green­peace image intro­duced a world­wide online audi­ence to the envi­ron­men­tal haz­ards asso­ci­at­ed with Oil Sands min­ing in Alber­ta (see Fig. 2). It also intro­duced the same audi­ence to the dom­i­nant aes­thet­ic strat­e­gy employed to cap­ture the Oil Sands indus­try: that of empha­siz­ing the scale of the indus­try by pho­tograph­ing it from on high. Since the appear­ance of Edward Burtynsky’s aer­i­al pho­to­graph­ic-map­pings of the region in 2007, aer­i­al per­spec­tives of the Cana­di­an Oil Sands—capturing the scale of the oil sands indus­try from above—has become the dom­i­nant pho­to­graph­ic approach.[4] This ‘scalar aes­thet­ic’ is, accord­ing to Imre Sze­man, “an obvi­ous approach to a site like the Alber­ta Oil Sands, which are esti­mat­ed to be the size of Flori­da and include numer­ous sur­face min­ing sites and vast tail­ings ponds that per­mit a direct visu­al­iza­tion of envi­ron­men­tal destruc­tion” (435-6). Oth­er notable exam­ples of this approach include Peter Essick’s 2009 pho­to­graph­ic series that accom­pa­nies Robert Kunzig’s Nation­al Geo­graph­ic arti­cle “Scrap­ing the Bot­tom: The Cana­di­an Oil Boom” and aer­i­al pho­tog­ra­ph­er Louis Helbig’s 2010 tour­ing exhi­bi­tion Beau­ti­ful Destruc­tion. This scalar aes­thet­ic has also been mobi­lized cin­e­mat­i­cal­ly in Peter Mettler’s 2009 Petrop­o­lis, a film that con­sists entire­ly of aer­i­al pan­ning shots to empha­size the size and scope of the Oil Sands.

These aer­i­al views of the Oil Sands have helped to shape and polar­ize per­cep­tions of the world’s most colos­sal indus­tri­al site, includ­ing my own. So, when I was pre­sent­ed with an oppor­tu­ni­ty to vis­it Fort McMur­ray and the Tar Sands, I jumped at the chance to see this site with my own eyes. Andriko Lozowy, a col­league at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Alber­ta, had invit­ed me to join him on a planned research trip to the region. Lozowy was engaged in a pho­to­graph­ic project led by the provo­ca­tion “Where is Fort McMur­ray?” This ques­tion was in part a response to the lack of geo­graph­i­cal speci­fici­ty offered by the dom­i­nant ele­vat­ed per­spec­tives that pro­mot­ed a visu­al cul­ture of Fort McMur­ray that stressed nul­li­fi­ca­tion or an era­sure of rep­re­sen­ta­tion. For part of this project, Lozowy had invit­ed a group of Fort McMur­ray high school stu­dents to offer their response to this ques­tion through the prac­tice of pho­tog­ra­phy. Through a col­lab­o­ra­tive exchange, Lozowy offered the stu­dents the oppor­tu­ni­ty of learn­ing the basics of pho­to­graph­ic tech­niques while engag­ing the stu­dents to cre­ate images that would offer a dif­fer­ent visu­al nar­ra­tive to the one  found in the dom­i­nant visu­al imagery depict­ing the region. Before elab­o­rat­ing fur­ther on this project, it is per­ti­nent to explore the scalar aes­thet­ic, orig­i­nat­ing in Edward Burtynsky’s pho­tographs, that the stu­dents were attempt­ing to work against.

Death from Above

Burtynsky's large-scale aer­i­al per­spec­tives of sur­face mines, refiner­ies, and tail­ings ponds in his series depict­ing the Oil Sands indus­try in Fort McMur­ray offer dis­turbing­ly sub­lime depic­tions of a land­scape degrad­ed by petro­le­um pro­duc­tion. Equal­ly at home on the office wall of a CEO of an oil com­pa­ny or the cam­paign mate­ri­als of envi­ron­men­tal lob­by­ists, his images of the Oil Sands have been cri­tiqued for their aes­theti­ciza­tion of the tox­ic byprod­ucts of oil sands pro­duc­tion, like tail­ings ponds and sul­phur pyra­mids. Jen­nifer Peeples intro­duces the con­cept of the “tox­ic sub­lime” as a means of ana­lyz­ing the ten­sions aris­ing from visu­al rep­re­sen­ta­tions of envi­ron­men­tal con­t­a­m­i­na­tion like those found in Burtynsky’s Oil Sands series, where the beau­ty of the images “obfus­cates the health and envi­ron­men­tal risk of the pol­lut­ed sites they pho­to­graph” (Peeples 373).  For exam­ple, in Alber­ta Oil Sands #10 Bur­tyn­sky pro­duces an alchem­i­cal con­ver­sion of tox­ic tail­ings ponds into one of sub­lim­i­ty (Fig. 3). Although depict­ing a tail­ings pond, the view­er could eas­i­ly mis­take the vista for a riv­er delta or estu­ary, where the inten­tion of the pho­tog­ra­ph­er was to catch the light of a set­ting sky reflect­ing off the riv­er chan­nels and pools.

Fig. 4  Edward Bur­tyn­sky, Alber­ta Oil Sands #10, Fort McMur­ray, Alber­ta, Cana­da, 2007.

Burtynsky’s painter­ly pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with com­po­si­tion and light in his Oil Sands images res­onates with the aes­thet­ic reg­is­ters of the pic­turesque and the sub­lime. In land­scape paint­ing, the sub­lime has tra­di­tion­al­ly been defined as the awe or anx­i­ety felt in the face of nature’s pow­er over humankind (Haworth-Booth). Inverse­ly, Bur­tyn­sky seeks to pro­voke the awe felt when wit­ness­ing the grandeur and hor­ror of human-altered land­scapes by cap­tur­ing their scale (Bur­tyn­sky, Man­u­fac­tured Land­scapes). His method of using large-for­mat cam­eras and repro­duc­ing the images as large-for­mat (up to 100cm x 150cm) pic­tures is an inten­tion­al strat­e­gy to evoke the Kant­ian math­e­mat­i­cal sub­lime where sheer scale pro­duces awe. How­ev­er, Burtynsky’s strat­e­gy of cap­tur­ing the tox­ic land­scapes of the Tar Sands from on high (usu­al­ly from the van­tage afford­ed by a heli­copter) pro­voke a cri­sis of vision, as the aer­i­al per­spec­tive flat­tens the land­scape, dis­ori­en­tat­ing any sense of mea­sur­able scale. This flat­ten­ing of the land­scape presents a visu­al argu­ment between fore­ground and back­ground, mag­ni­tude and insignif­i­cance, the known and the unknown (Dielh 120). While this strat­e­gy makes his images visu­al­ly and aes­thet­i­cal­ly com­pelling, and thus more in tune with Kant’s dynam­i­cal sub­lime, Burtynsky’s aer­i­al map­pings have been crit­i­cized for evok­ing the abstrac­tion of remote sens­ing and set­ting up an aes­thet­ic encounter of “dis­in­ter­est­ed con­tem­pla­tion” (Lang 425). By main­tain­ing a stud­ied ambi­gu­i­ty, aes­thet­ic and ide­o­log­i­cal, about the epic scale and grandeur of bitu­men extrac­tion and its waste sites, Bur­tyn­sky, accord­ing to Mike Crang, “plays around with the bal­ance between ques­tions of beau­ty (the awe) and ques­tions of ethics (the awful)” (Crang 1094).

Jen­nifer Peeples argues that the hor­ror of the tox­ic sublime—awe at the immen­si­ty of human-made envi­ron­men­tal degradation—can call into ques­tion the per­son­al, social and envi­ron­men­tal ethics that allow places of con­t­a­m­i­na­tion like tail­ings ponds to exist. How­ev­er, the scalar aes­thet­ics deployed by Bur­tyn­sky in his Oil Sands series can leave one feel­ing a sense of bewil­der­ment and iner­tia at the thought of rec­ti­fy­ing a prob­lem that exceeds our com­pre­hen­sion. While Burtynsky’s com­po­si­tion­al choic­es ren­der his images fraught with ten­sions that require thought and con­tem­pla­tion, which can lead to con­tra­dic­to­ry sen­sa­tions of hor­ror and won­der, this does not nec­es­sar­i­ly pro­vide the impe­tus for atti­tu­di­nal change. His scalar aes­thet­ic, for exam­ple, con­fronts two major bar­ri­ers to the impe­tus nec­es­sary to mobi­lize action on the part of the view­er. First, Burtynsky’s high-angled per­spec­tive presents his sub­ject mat­ter of tail­ings ponds and open pit mines as tran­scend­ing the scope of the frame, set­ting up a visu­al argu­ment between mag­ni­tude and insignif­i­cance there­by resist­ing any mean­ing­ful visu­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion. In oth­er words, while Burtynsky’s per­spec­tive indi­cates the mas­sive scale of pro­duc­tion of the Oil Sands, what is not clear is the mag­ni­tude of envi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion.  Sec­ond, the high ver­ti­cal angle sum­mons ques­tions of enor­mi­ty and thus feel­ings of impo­tence, which can leave the view­er “unclear what action one could take, even if one want­ed to.” (Sze­man 437).

Burtynsky’s own lack of an overt crit­i­cal posi­tion­ing on the Oils Sands has left him open to the crit­i­cism of being a cos­mopoli­tan priv­i­leged view­er who “floats free” from the envi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion and human labour depict­ed (Crang 1098). Fur­ther­more, while Bur­tyn­sky has felt free to focus his lens on the human labour behind the land­scapes of indus­tri­al mega-projects in Chi­na and Bangladesh in his 2000 Ship­break­ing series, he has cho­sen to steer away from explic­it­ly depict­ing the human labour involved in the man­u­fac­ture of the Alber­ta Oil Sands. This could be because Bur­tyn­sky, aware of the polar­iza­tion of the Oil Sands in both polit­i­cal and pub­lic dis­course, feels the pow­er of these images resides in their ambi­gu­i­ty. More cyn­i­cal­ly, with so many Cana­di­ans mak­ing a liv­ing from, or liv­ing com­fort­ably because of the Oil Sands, per­haps it is also in the ambi­gu­i­ty of the images that they main­tain their largest audi­ence and mar­ket­place appeal. Burtynsky’s lim­it­ed cap­tions describ­ing the images have also been a point of con­tention for some crit­ics. His cap­tions for his Alber­ta Oil Sands series mere­ly state the num­ber of the pho­to­graph in the series, the loca­tion (“Fort McMur­ray, Alber­ta, Cana­da”), and the date. For exam­ple, in a pho­to­graph from the series which depicts immense acid-yel­low sul­phur stock­piles with Syncrude’s main pro­cess­ing plant in the back­ground, the cap­tion notes only “Alber­ta Oil Sands #6 Fort McMur­ray, Alber­ta, Cana­da, 2007.” Burtynsky’s ret­i­cence to name oper­at­ing com­pa­nies or their tox­ic by-prod­ucts, could be a preser­va­tion strat­e­gy employed in order to ensure his own con­tin­ued access to the world’s most colos­sal indus­tri­al sites. Yet, by par­ti­tion­ing the Oil Sands oper­at­ing com­pa­nies and their envi­ron­men­tal con­t­a­m­i­nants from full view, Bur­tyn­sky also repress­es con­nec­tions not only between the view­er and viewed, but between the Oil Sands and its broad­er geopo­lit­i­cal context.

In an arti­cle writ­ten for The Wal­rus, Bur­tyn­sky attempts to dis­pel some of the uncer­tain­ly around his envi­ron­men­tal views and par­tic­u­lar­ly his ret­i­cence to direct­ly cri­tique resource extrac­tion in his own coun­try (Bur­tyn­sky, “Extrac­tion”).  In the arti­cle, he calls for the Cana­di­an gov­ern­ment to man­date sus­tain­able prac­tices in the extrac­tion and sale of Canada’s nat­ur­al resources, includ­ing the Alber­ta Oil Sands. How­ev­er, his detrac­tors see this as mere tokenism: a let­ter to the edi­tor sharply not­ed that, despite his undis­put­ed tal­ent as a mas­ter pho­tog­ra­ph­er, “Alas, as an envi­ron­men­tal activist, he is a fail­ure” (Vin­cent). As one com­men­ta­tor summed up, “while Burtynsky’s pho­tographs of Cana­di­an indus­try make for great art, they oper­ate with­in the Cana­di­an polit­i­cal main­stream and do lit­tle to shake up the con­scious­ness of a pub­lic con­tent to keep look­ing away from the social and envi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion that is tak­ing place in its own back­yard” (Nick­er­son).


Andriko Lozowy has not had the lux­u­ry of being able to look away from the ‘dark specter’ of oil pro­duc­tion actu­al­ly tak­ing place in his back­yard. Lozowy grew up in Sher­wood Park, Edmon­ton, in the shad­ow of ‘Refin­ery Row’, indus­tri­al  home to the largest oil refin­ery facil­i­ties in West­ern Cana­da. Since a teenag­er, Lozowy has found pho­tog­ra­phy a use­ful tool for inves­ti­gat­ing and mak­ing sense of the built envi­ron­ment of oil pro­duc­tion that has dom­i­nat­ed his neigh­bour­hood sky­line. Although fenced in and high­ly patrolled, the camera’s zoom offered a means of inter­lop­ing into indus­tri­al sites deemed out of bounds. Of course, push­ing the bound­aries or rail­ing against the estab­lish­ment is the pre­rog­a­tive of the teenag­er, some­thing Lozowy rec­og­nized lat­er in life when engag­ing the group of Fort McMur­ray youth to respond to the ques­tion “Where is Fort McMur­ray?” Teach­ing the stu­dents the tech­niques of dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy, Lozowy hoped to empow­er them by equip­ping them with the tools to cre­ate an alter­na­tive view of their own back­yard.  While Burtynsky’s images have cer­tain­ly helped to bring the Oil Sands and Fort McMur­ray inter­na­tion­al atten­tion, the repro­duc­tion of his scalar aes­thet­ic has meant that the dom­i­nant optics in this case has become one of par­ti­tion­ing the Oil Sands as an active and place-based indus­tri­al site from view. By ask­ing “Where is Fort McMur­ray?”, Lozowy seeks to address this loss of geo­graph­i­cal speci­fici­ty and dis­lo­ca­tion by bring­ing us back down to earth, or rather in this case bitu­men. Through the project, Lozowy and his stu­dent par­tic­i­pants there­fore sought to over­turn the dom­i­nant scop­ic regime by offer­ing a point of view in, rather than on Fort McMurray.

A series of images from the ven­ture was col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly curat­ed by Lozowy and the stu­dent par­tic­i­pants to form an online exhib­it also enti­tled Where is Fort McMur­ray? (Lozowy, Where). The images offer a per­spec­tive of Fort McMur­ray from the van­tage point of local youth: the reg­u­lar repeat­ed lines of sub­ur­ban rooftops, the blur of a fast car, the over­grown tracks of a dis­used rail­way line, the lush green­ery fram­ing a wind­ing riv­er val­ley, and the cramped yet colour­ful­ly-dec­o­rat­ed con­fines of a shared bed­room (see Fig. 4). These are win­dows into Fort McMur­ray at the human scale.

Fig. 5 Six Images from the Series Where is Fort McMurray?

Lozowy has sim­i­lar­ly tak­en a more on-the-ground approach in his own pho­to­graph­ic prac­tice when respond­ing to the provo­ca­tion “Where is Fort McMur­ray?”.  In con­trast to Burtynsky’s aer­i­al map­pings of immense ungras­pable scenes, Lozowy’s approach is more mod­est: to see what you can doc­u­ment of the world’s largest indus­tri­al site from the pub­lic access roads run­ning through it.

What answers do they offer to the ques­tion “Where is Fort McMur­ray?” Where his stu­dents, by nature of their age, were lim­it­ed to direct­ing their lens­es on the town site of Fort McMur­ray, Lozowy was com­pelled to fol­low the 24/7 cir­cu­lar flow traf­fic head­ing north on High­way 63 to the town’s indus­tri­al heart: the Oil Sands. High­way 63 pass­es through the Oil Sands between Fort McMur­ray and Fort MacK­ay and offers a ‘pub­lic’ point of view for the com­mit­ted (some may say fool­hardy) pho­tog­ra­ph­er onto the pri­vate sites of indus­tri­al pro­duc­tion. I say com­mit­ted since stop­ping or mere­ly slow­ing down on this highway—one of the most dan­ger­ous roads in Canada—is a risky endeav­our. This is some­thing I dis­cov­ered  when accom­pa­ny­ing Lozowy on one of his pho­to­graph­ic field trips.

Touring the Tar Sands

Until 1970, High­way 63 did not even appear on a map. Since then the 240-kilo­me­tre-long, two-lane high­way has become the crit­i­cal artery in and out of Fort McMur­ray (see Fig. 5). Dri­vers in the know call it “Hell’s High­way,” or the “High­way of Death”. When Lozowy and I drove north to Fort McMur­ray from Edmon­ton along High­way 63, it was not hard to imag­ine why it had earned these monikers. On any giv­en day, thou­sands of log­ging trucks, SUVs, semi-trail­ers, bus­es and tanker trucks form a fran­tic parade to and from Fort McMur­ray and the Oil Sands bitu­men mine sites. Often a dozen dif­fer­ent con­voys of extra-wide loads car­ry­ing tyres, tur­bines, and cock­ers the size of hous­es com­plete­ly dom­i­nate the ridicu­lous­ly inad­e­quate two lane high­way. Known as one of the provinces dead­liest high­ways, forty-six peo­ple died in crash­es on the road between 2005 and 2009, with anoth­er 310 peo­ple injured in the same peri­od. On the day that we trav­eled High­way 63 it was mid-win­ter, mak­ing the already haz­ardous con­di­tions seri­ous­ly treach­er­ous, a fact evi­denced by the recur­rent appear­ance of wrecked and aban­doned vehi­cles along the hard shoul­der of the high­way. The four and a half hour dri­ve north to ‘Fort Mac’ was the longest, most drawn-out white-knuck­le ride of my life.

Fig. 6   Andriko Lozowy, High­way 63

After such a jour­ney, the sight of ‘Fort Mac’ does lit­tle to con­vince that it was worth the risks. Of course, for those work­ing at the Oil Sands the eco­nom­ic rewards to be had there far out­weigh the dan­gers of the dri­ve and the numb­ing dull­ness of the town itself. To the tourist, Fort McMur­ray appears makeshift: a ram­shackle grid of func­tion­al build­ing blocks that define a boom­town: a place to sleep and eat. Yet the town itself nev­er sleeps. As the urban ser­vice cen­tre for the region, it serves the 24/7production of the Oil Sands. The con­stant hum of traf­fic and the repet­i­tive approach, stop, idle and depart at the char­tered bus stops which run work­ers back and forth to the mines make Fort Mac a dif­fi­cult place to get some sleep for the uninitiated.

The next morn­ing, bleary-eyed Lozowy and I joined the pro­ces­sion head­ing across the rein­forced bridge above the Athabas­ca Riv­er north to the Oil Sands. Two oil-town kids, we shared an inter­est in explor­ing the oil land­scapes that were ever-present, yet elud­ed us in our youth. Our inten­tion was to doc­u­ment what we could of the pri­vate spheres of Oil Sands pro­duc­tion from the roadside—Lozowy with his cam­era, and me with my sound recorder.[5] With Lozowy dri­ving, I was free to take in the sights. Yet from the car win­dow, with bore­al for­est cleared and land flat­tened, the view is not unlike that of the Prairies: a fea­ture­less and flat topog­ra­phy dom­i­nat­ed by sky.

Fig. 7  Humphrey Lloyd Hime, The Prairie, Look­ing South.

His­tor­i­cal­ly, artists have encoun­tered dif­fi­cul­ties in depict­ing the Prairie land­scape, pri­mar­i­ly because of the Prairie's lack of geo­graph­i­cal fea­tures that would con­tribute to a ‘view’. Sur­vey­or and pho­tog­ra­ph­er Humphrey Lloyd Hime famous­ly cap­tured the Prairie’s flat and fea­ture­less topog­ra­phy in the 1858 pho­to­graph: The Prairie, Look­ing South (Fig. 6). A “mon­u­ment to tree­less­ness”, this stark image reduces the Prairie land­scape “to what Cana­di­an nov­el­ist W. O. Mitchell has called ‘the least com­mon denom­i­na­tor of nature’: earth and sky” (Schwartz 968). How­ev­er, to view Hime’s image as emp­ty or des­o­late would be a mis­read­ing. Hime, as Schwartz records, was a sur­vey­or for the Cana­di­an Assini­boine and Saskatchewan Expe­di­tions whose pur­pose was to deter­mine the pos­si­bil­i­ties of west­ward expan­sion (968). While tree­less­ness had once been an indi­ca­tor of arid­i­ty and steril­i­ty, advances in agri­cul­tur­al tech­nol­o­gy meant the vast ocean of Prairie pho­tographed by Hime was no longer viewed as an arid desert but rather as a fer­tile, untouched ter­ri­to­ry recep­tive to set­tle­ment, agri­cul­ture and west­ward expan­sion. While Hime’s vision was pro­mot­ed by the Cana­di­an gov­ern­ment, it was not nec­es­sar­i­ly shared by those peo­ple already liv­ing on and from the land at the time, like the First Nations and Metis. Viewed in these terms, accord­ing to Schwartz, Hime's “quin­tes­sen­tial por­trait of the prairie, so bereft of con­tent, can be seen as a geo­graph­i­cal imag­in­ing, one which reflects the eco­nom­ic hopes and polit­i­cal dreams of Cana­di­an expan­sion­ists and British impe­ri­al­ists” (969).

Under­stand­ing the active role pho­tog­ra­phy has played in the process­es by which peo­ple have come to artic­u­late their assump­tions about land and land use in Cana­da, Lozowy has rec­og­nized the pow­er of dis­plac­ing Hime’s ‘prairie aes­thet­ic’ to the flat­tened and cleared lands north of Fort McMur­ray on the roads cut­ting through the Oil Sands min­ing sites. Here tree­less­ness becomes a mon­u­ment to the sig­nif­i­cant clear­ing of Bore­al for­est it takes to access Oil Sands deposits and the result­ing dis­tur­bance this has on the ani­mal species and abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­ni­ties that depend upon this ecosys­tem. Thus, instead of sur­vey­ing an emp­ty stage for the projections/imaginings of Cana­di­an expan­sion­ists, Lozowy doc­u­ments the actu­al land­scap­ings of what some have called “mod­ern Cana­di­an impe­ri­al­ism” (Niki­foruk 68).

Amidst The Detour and Delay

The smok­ing chim­neys of a Sun­cor refin­ery offered the first visu­al indi­ca­tion of min­ing oper­a­tions north of the bridge cross­ing the Athabas­ca Riv­er. As we drove towards them, the air in the car grew thick with the aro­ma of hydro­car­bons. Some have com­pared the smell of mined bitu­men to that of heat­ed sea coal, which is why the Oil Sands were his­tor­i­cal­ly known col­lo­qui­al­ly as ‘Tar Sands’ due to tar’s sim­i­lar appear­ance, odor, and colour. Hav­ing dri­ven this mias­mic stretch of High­way 63 many times on his pho­to­graph­ic field trips, Lozowy act­ed as a tour guide to me as pas­sen­ger-seat tourist. To the left he point­ed out Crane Lake Recla­ma­tion Area: reclaimed wet­land habi­tat from a for­mer min­ing site. A giant road­side met­al Crane sculp­ture invit­ed us to make our first road­side stop and poten­tial ‘Kodak moment’. The form of road­side pho­to­graph­ic tour­ing prac­ticed by Lozowy on High­way 63 is not unlike how one is encour­aged to visu­al­ly con­sume pic­turesque Cana­di­an land­scapes like the Rock­ies, either out of the car win­dow or at the des­ig­nat­ed ‘pic­ture stops’ that pep­per the high­way. Susan Son­tag has famous­ly argued that pho­tog­ra­phy enables a touris­ti­fi­ca­tion of the world, where “every sub­ject is depre­ci­at­ed into an arti­cle of con­sump­tion, pro­mot­ed as an item for aes­thet­ic appre­ci­a­tion” (Son­tag 110). How­ev­er, while the ‘roman­tic tourist gaze’ seeks to repro­duce sta­t­ic and unre­al­is­tic visions of untouched ‘wilder­ness’, Lozowy seeks to cap­ture the con­tin­gen­cies the roman­tic tourist gaze seeks to edit out (Urry 139).

The tra­di­tion­al assump­tion is that pho­tog­ra­phy is an inert form of visu­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion that freezes and cap­tures dis­creet moments in time and space. Hav­ing made many return vis­its to this area, Lozowy’s aim is to doc­u­ment the change­able nature of this man­u­fac­tured land­scape. Trees are felled, tons of soil and sands are dug up and moved, tail­ings ponds fill and are then drained, filled in, con­toured, and plant­ed. This land­scape is far from sta­t­ic. Of course, the tra­di­tion­al tourist snap-shot can be thought of as tech­nol­o­gy deal­ing only in the ‘frozen moment’ (Hen­ning 138). For exam­ple, Burtynsky’s framed aer­i­al snap-shots of the Athabas­ca Oil Sands, tour­ing world­wide as part of his OIL exhi­bi­tion, offer audi­ences a vision of this indus­tri­al land­scape in aspic. Although tak­en sev­er­al years ago, the ide­o­log­i­cal author­i­ty of Burtynsky’s map­pings presents a sta­t­ic under­stand­ing of the land­scapes of Oil Sands pro­duc­tion, res­onat­ing with Barthes’ notion of the camera’s abil­i­ty to “embalm” the liv­ing world (Barthes 14). Fur­ther­more, with­in the con­text of OIL, which nar­rates the sto­ry of oil from extrac­tion and refine­ment to trans­porta­tion and the end of oil, the Alber­ta Oil Sands become buried with­in the scale of oil that Bur­tyn­sky seeks to empha­size. Rang­ing from NASCAR ral­lies in the Unit­ed States, to gigan­tic park­ing lots of Volk­swa­gen cars in Chi­na, to fields of aban­doned oil der­ricks in Baku, Burtynsky’s OIL images under­line the glob­al per­me­ations of oil on human­i­ty and the envi­ron­ment. Yet, by doing so they also work to fur­ther erase the Oil Sands from view as they become enmeshed with­in an even greater scalar aesthetic.

Lozowy, by com­par­i­son, seeks to explore this sense of the Oil Sands indus­try falling away from view. More­over, by work­ing with rather than against this sense of era­sure, he also seeks to resist the iner­tia and sta­sis found in Burtynsky’s images in order to cap­ture the shift­ing (and shift­ed) nature of the Oil Sands. It is Deb­bie Lisle’s view that, far from being sta­t­ic, there is inher­ent mobil­i­ty in pho­tog­ra­phy and by exten­sion the pho­to­graph, and this has an impor­tant antecedent at the lev­el of pro­duc­tion. Lisle’s point is that the action of click­ing the camera’s shut­ter is nev­er an iso­lat­ed moment: “rather, it is punc­tured by all the pre­vi­ous clicks and moments lead­ing up to it” (Lisle 3). As such, the photographer’s con­tact sheet or com­put­er file becomes a “visu­al trav­el­ogue of dis­crete moments that bleed into one anoth­er.” (3) This is cer­tain­ly the case in Lozowy’s series Look­ing Left at Syn­crude, a dig­i­tal archive of pho­tographs Lozowy took from his car win­dow while dri­ving around one of Syncrude’s tail­ings ponds (Lozowy, “Look­ing Left”).

Tak­en at close inter­vals, the pho­tographs con­tained in this online archive act almost as a prax­io­scope: one image bleeds into the next, cap­tur­ing the fluc­tu­a­tions of land, sky and dust the mov­ing car affords around the perime­ter of the pond (see Fig. 7). Here, it becomes clear that it was Lozowy’s move­ment pri­or to click­ing the camera’s shut­ter that shaped and deter­mined the photograph’s con­tent. Lisle goes one step fur­ther than this to argue that all pho­tographs, no mat­ter what they depict, are sat­u­rat­ed with “the poten­tial mobil­i­ty of the world’s mate­ri­als” and so in this sense are nev­er still: “indeed, the world of flux out of which the image is extract­ed includes the image itself, and in this sense, an image can nev­er be iso­lat­ed from the world in which it was derived” (Lisle 4). Fol­low­ing this, Lisle argues that a pho­to­graph should be read counter-intu­itive­ly, “not as an arrest of move­ment or a freez­ing of time, but as a col­lec­tion of signs that is always poten­tial­ly mobile”. This relates to Gilles Deleuze’s notion of the move­ment-image, where the move­ment-image reflects a com­mit­ment “to show or cre­ate the kind of space of move­ment that is pri­or to the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of sta­t­ic objects” (Thrift and Dews­bury 417).


Fig. 8  Andriko Lozowy, Image 19

While Lozowy’s approach to pho­tograph­ing the Oil Sands from the road­side may seem sim­i­lar to that of the road­side tourist in search of the per­fect ‘Kodak moment’, High­way 63 dis­al­lows for the leisure­ly com­po­si­tion-time usu­al­ly expect­ed for this type of image-mak­ing. His method of tak­ing pho­tographs on-the-move, often out the win­dow of a mov­ing or idling car, under­lines the fact that one is not encour­aged to stop and take in the view on the roads that inter­sect and frame Oil Sands pro­duc­tion areas. For exam­ple, beyond the Crane Lake Recla­ma­tion Area stop, which is mar­ket­ed as a Nature Reserve with a des­ig­nat­ed car park and con­nect­ing nature trails, there are no more park­ing stops between it and the Oil Sands min­ing sites. Attempt­ing to stop your car along this stretch of High­way 63 is a dan­ger­ous busi­ness, as I found out when Lozowy stopped on the hard shoul­der dur­ing our road trip. As soon as Lozowy stopped the car, the gar­gan­tu­an trucks buf­fet­ing past us honked their horns in protest to our slow­ing their bee­line to the mines and refiner­ies. On the pas­sen­ger side, I learnt very quick­ly that open­ing the door had to be timed care­ful­ly to coin­cide with a break in the traf­fic, as the almost con­stant stream of over-sized vehi­cles stopped for no one.

By com­par­i­son, I found Lozowy to be quite the expert in road­side stealth. Even when a new­ly erect­ed fence occlud­ed a pre­vi­ous­ly open view onto one of the tail­ings ponds, Lozowy climbed atop the sta­tion­ary sta­tion-wag­on (from the start­ing posi­tion of his car seat) and man­aged to take sev­er­al shots, even though both he and the wag­on were being buf­fet­ed by the force of the trucks dri­ving past. As such, Lozowy’s method pro­duces a see­ing body that is able to respond to con­tin­gen­cies and acci­dents en route (Dubow 268). For Wal­ter Ben­jamin, it is only amidst the detour and delay that crit­i­cal prac­tice can begin. Fol­low­ing Ben­jamin, one could argue that Lozowy’s detours from the expect­ed dri­ve opened us up to expe­ri­enc­ing par­tic­u­lar types of encounters—the unplanned, the con­tin­gent, and the unfore­seen. Cou­pled with this for Lozowy is a resis­tance to inte­gra­tion or clo­sure: the 'delay' and 'detour' are char­ac­ter­is­tic of an in-between spa­tio-tem­po­ral frame, a moment of con­tem­pla­tion, a 'work­ing through' of the cre­ative process rather than a con­cep­tu­al con­text aimed at fix­ing the objects of land­scape in time and space.

Work­ing in this way, Lozowy pro­duces an alter­na­tive view, one that encoun­ters the con­tin­gent as it folds in and out of the path of obser­va­tion. By tak­ing us with him on his tour amidst the detour and delay through the Oil Sands epi­cen­ter, we become his pas­sen­ger and the car win­dow our frame. This strat­e­gy, of offer­ing a point of view in, rather than on the Oil Sands, recon­nects the view­er with the viewed and relo­cates the Oil Sands in placed-based expe­ri­ence. This rescal­ing of the Oil Sands makes them seem more approach­able phys­i­cal­ly, polit­i­cal­ly, and rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al­ly. How­ev­er, Lozowy is not sim­ply restor­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tion. By tak­ing his pho­tographs on the move and by mak­ing return vis­its, he also empha­sizes the strange­ness of the momen­tary and the mate­r­i­al of a land­scape in flux. If, as view­ers, we break with the view that the pho­to­graph presents a “vision-as-semblance”and instead pay close atten­tion to its affec­tive inten­si­ties, it becomes pos­si­ble to recov­er these “con­tin­gen­cies the gaze edits out” (Dubow 268). In Lozowy’s pho­to­graph­ic series that fol­lows this essay, it is the fleet­ing flash­es of affec­tive detail that jump out and grab us: orange scare­crows warn of poten­tial tox­i­c­i­ty and harm to health, clouds of dust sig­ni­fy unset­tled earth, ringed water marks doc­u­ment dis­ap­pear­ance, a new­ly erect­ed fence yet to soft­en into its sur­round­ings has some­thing to hide, and work­er camps are rem­i­nis­cent of the Gulag.

Affective Aesthetics

Fig. 9  Andriko Lozowy, Refin­ery at Night

The func­tion of a pho­to­graph can­not be sim­ply reversed from freez­ing a moment in time to ani­mat­ing a moment in time. Rather, Lozowy’s images set in motion “feel­ings of absence in the present (i.e. ‘it is not there’) and present imag­in­ings of the past (i.e. ‘but it has been there’)” (Lisle 4). This argu­ment is in tune with Benjamin’s con­cept of the dialec­tic image, where “what has been comes togeth­er with the now” to con­sti­tute what Ben­jamin calls “dialec­tics at stand­still” (Ben­jamin 463). Yet, rather than read Benjamin’s con­cept of stand­still as turn­ing the world to stone, Lisle pro­motes an under­stand­ing of Benjamin’s con­cep­tion of still­ness as “some­thing fizzing and pul­sat­ing with ‘polit­i­cal elec­tric­i­ty’” (Buck-Morss qtd in Lisle 219).[6] Pho­tographs for Lisle, just like the dialec­tic image, are charged with an “affec­tive punch” that is fizzing with polit­i­cal elec­tric­i­ty (219).

Here, Lisle extends agency to the pho­to­graph by argu­ing that it is the pho­to­graph itself that shapes the emo­tive and affec­tive expe­ri­ence of the view­er: i.e. it is the image that demands some­thing of the view­er, rather than the oth­er way round. She bases this under­stand­ing on Deleuze’s dis­persed account of agency in the act of perception:

For Deleuze, a work of art—for our pur­pos­es, a photograph—is not an inert or still doc­u­ment, but rather a ‘block of sen­sa­tions’ (Deleuze 31). It is not a fin­ished object pro­duced by an autonomous view­er; rather, it is a com­bi­na­tion of per­cepts (ini­tial per­cep­tions) and affects (phys­i­cal inten­si­ties) that pass­es through all sub­jects at the point of visu­al per­cep­tion. This kind of rela­tion­al encounter with an image not only decon­structs Modernity’s foun­da­tion­al dis­tinc­tion between the sub­ject and the object, it also opens up an affec­tive con­nec­tion between all sub­jects engaged in the act of look­ing; in this case, the pho­tog­ra­ph­er, the sub­jects and objects with­in the pho­to­graph and the view­er. (Lisle 5)

It is, there­fore, Lisle’s con­tention that tak­ing account of the affec­tive lev­el of per­cep­tion (i.e. the pre-inter­pre­tive moment when images reach out to grab us) changes our tra­di­tion­al under­stand­ing of how a pho­to­graph ‘moves’ us.

The “affec­tive punch” of Lozowy’s images resides in their abil­i­ty to con­jure the past and present togeth­er in a flash. Take, for exam­ple, Lozowy’s image of an Oil Sands refin­ery at night (Fig. 8). For me, this pho­to­graph ini­ti­ates an awak­en­ing to the burn­ing rays of a past light that lit up the North Sea on the night of July 6, 1988. That night my dad, a BBC cam­era­man, had tak­en me and my sis­ter to the swim­ming baths, but before we got into the pool my dad was paged and asked to cov­er a news sto­ry: the Piper Alpha oil plat­form was on fire. With the aid of a heli­copter, my dad was the first news cam­era­man to the scene and the first to cap­ture the tow­er­ing infer­no that had engulfed the rig, its crew and lit up the sur­round­ing sea.

In Benjamin’s ter­mi­nol­o­gy, this is the shock effect of the dialec­tic “at a stand­still” : the sud­den spark, the pro­fane flash that lights up a dark thought and allows it to make itself felt in the present (Ben­jamin 462). The image for me lights up a night when a cul­ture that kept the oil flow­ing at all costs set the scene for the destruc­tion of an oil plat­form and the deaths of 167 men.  It also por­tends that this volatile scene, now dis­placed, is poised to spark again. His­to­ry will repeat itself, as the Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon oil spill evi­dences, because oil explo­ration, cap­ture, refin­ing and trans­porta­tion are inher­ent­ly dan­ger­ous and destructive.

Not long after the Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon oil spill, Bur­tyn­sky was unsur­pris­ing­ly back in his heli­copter, tak­ing aer­i­al pho­tographs to cap­ture the scale of the spill, 50 miles off the Louisiana coast­line in the Gulf of Mex­i­co. Many of Burtynsky’s pic­tures from this day are aes­thet­ic mas­ter­pieces.[7] His aer­i­al vis­tas depict­ing the lus­trous and painter­ly ges­tures of oil slicks emul­si­fy­ing into the cobalt blue gulf, much like his images of Oil Sands tail­ings ponds, pro­duce a tox­ic sub­lime. The aes­thet­ic plea­sure to be found when encoun­ter­ing these images is impos­si­ble to fore­stall, the con­text notwith­stand­ing. This again under­lines the risks of invok­ing the tox­ic sub­lime. The beau­ty of Burtynsky’s images “obfus­cates the health and envi­ron­men­tal risk of the pol­lut­ed sites they pho­to­graph”, which in this case hap­pens to be an oil spill of epic pro­por­tions (Peeples 373).[8] Sim­i­lar­ly, his use of an aer­i­al per­spec­tive to cap­ture the epic pro­por­tions of the spill repro­duces the same prob­lems asso­ci­at­ed with the scalar aes­thet­ics deployed in his Oil Sands series. The view from on-high sum­mons ques­tions of omnipo­tence and thus feel­ings of impo­tence, leav­ing one feel­ing a sense of bewil­der­ment and iner­tia at the thought of rec­ti­fy­ing a prob­lem that exceeds both the frame and com­pre­hen­sion. While Burtynsky’s com­po­si­tion­al choic­es ren­der his images fraught with ten­sions that elic­it con­tra­dic­to­ry sen­sa­tions of attrac­tion and repul­sion, his images ulti­mate­ly, to my mind, do not pro­vide the impe­tus for atti­tu­di­nal, nev­er mind behav­iour­al, change.

To con­clude, Burtynsky’s scalar aes­thet­ic has trained us to see and aes­theti­cize the Cana­di­an Oil Sands in lim­it­ed and trou­bling ways. By offer­ing the view­er a point of view in, rather than on the Oil Sands, Lozowy’s pho­to­graph­ic project Where is Fort McMur­ray? dis­rupts the dom­i­nant obfus­ca­to­ry aer­i­al imag­i­nar­ies, enabling a more crit­i­cal and polit­i­cal­ly mean­ing­ful pho­to­graph­ic engage­ment with this oil project. Sim­i­lar­ly, by rework­ing the Prairie aes­thet­ic to reflect mod­ern times, Lozowy is able to relo­cate the Alber­ta Oil Sands in place-based expe­ri­ence. Thus even for those of you who have not, and may nev­er, vis­it the Oil Sands, or who nev­er grew up with land­scapes of oil pro­duc­tion in your back­yard, liv­ing in a time of peak oil, its dark spec­tre will per­me­ate your lives. This is why Lozowy’s fol­low­ing tour of the Alber­ta Oil Sands may pro­voke emo­tive and affec­tive expe­ri­ences to awak­en your atten­tion to its crude realities.

Frames for Reading Imaginations

Andriko Lozowy

In this elec­tron­ic exhib­it, Mer­le Patch­ett, a geo­g­ra­ph­er, inter­prets and con­tex­tu­al­ized my pho­tographs and my pho­to­graph­ic prac­tice that is informed by the dis­ci­pline of soci­ol­o­gy.  Togeth­er, Soci­ol­o­gy and Geog­ra­phy are tak­en up here as a point of ref­er­ence towards think­ing crit­i­cal­ly about lim­i­ta­tions and poten­tials for the emer­gence of com­bined think­ing in cre­ative ways.

Patch­ett asked me why I pho­to­graph? I replied that I do it to doc­u­ment crude real­ism, to engage in a cat­e­go­riza­tion of sorts, to per­form active engage­ment with peo­ple and land­scape, to cre­ate a phys­i­cal and mate­r­i­al arte­facts, to chal­lenge struc­tures of pow­er, and as an aspi­ra­tion of being part of a great doc­u­men­tar­i­an prac­tices of which all forms of pho­tog­ra­phy are initiates.

In my hands the cam­era becomes active, an appa­ra­tus of pro­duc­tion, cre­at­ing objects of a cer­tain order: images. As such, I con­sid­er the ety­mol­o­gy of ‘image’, which comes from the French image (c.1200), or arti­fi­cial rep­re­sen­ta­tion and imagi­er (late 1300s), mean­ing “to form a men­tal pic­ture.” Imag­i­na­tion, as a noun fol­lows to refer to “a fac­ul­ty of the mind that forms and manip­u­lates images” (OED).

I also con­sid­er the pro­duc­tion of images and pho­tog­ra­phy itself in a man­ner that is sim­i­lar to Vilem Flusser’s (1920-1991), although trans­posed into a con­tem­po­rary twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry con­text.   In Towards a Phi­los­o­phy of Pho­tog­ra­phy, Flusser argued that images sig­ni­fy mate­r­i­al ele­ments in time and space that are made com­pre­hen­si­ble to us as abstrac­tions, a reduc­tion of dimen­sions (8). In order to ren­der images out of space and time, the pre­con­di­tion of imag­i­na­tion must be in play so that we may encode phe­nom­e­na into two dimen­sion­al sym­bols and be able to read these sym­bols (ibid). Flusser illus­trates a kind of under­paint­ing of nor­mal­ized image uses. In order to read images, we apply our col­lect­ed and col­lec­tive knowl­edge as we gaze.

Work­ing in the ear­ly 1980s, Flusser fol­lowed his pub­li­ca­tion of Towards a Phi­los­o­phy of Pho­tog­ra­phy with Into the Uni­verse of Tech­ni­cal Images, where many of the under­tones of the ini­tial text are tak­en up and ordered into a lin­ear and prag­mat­ic approach. Flusser insists on a dia­log­i­cal sys­tem log­ic. Like Innis, Barthes, McLuhan, and Bau­drillard, Flusser is often cat­e­go­rized as a media the­o­rist con­cerned with the inter­de­pen­dence and rela­tion­ships of humans as social actors in rela­tion to tech­nol­o­gy. In Flusser's view, con­tem­po­rary soci­eties need to embrace the visual’s mul­ti-dimen­sion­al­i­ty and relin­quish long-held lin­ear texts of reduc­tive abstrac­tion. Flusser passed away in 1991, and if we may appro­pri­ate his think­ing to the present day then we can think into the ways in which infor­ma­tion exerts a deci­sive influ­ence on our lives, images as flow­ing streams:; pho­tographs, films, videos, com­put­ers, all oper­at­ing in a pro­found­ly dif­fer­ent way than lin­ear writ­ing. Images have mutat­ed our modes of behav­ior, our per­cep­tions, our val­ues (Flusser 5) and as such Flusser makes the point that what it means to pub­lish is “to put a sub­jec­tive obser­va­tion into the sym­bols of a social code” (2011, 1985: 12).

Per­haps this is pre­cise­ly the point at which fate has brought togeth­er the geo­g­ra­ph­er and the soci­ol­o­gist. On the one hand, we can think of these two dis­ci­plines as each occu­py­ing a clear­ly defined epis­te­mo­log­i­cal posi­tion and estab­lish an approx­i­mate stance on how macro or micro, or how small or large the scale and scope of vision ought to be. Indeed, both approach­es seem to align their tra­jec­to­ries, at least as broad­ly defined, around an impe­tus to broad vision, and it seems to us, that in each case, the depth of vision is often pur­sued by the sub-dis­ci­plines, those seek­ing some man­ner of spa­tial or cul­tur­al speci­fici­ty from which one could gain insight.

If we con­sid­er Max Weber and the aim of soci­ol­o­gy, then we should note that the goal is clear­ly out­lined as con­cerned with under­stand­ing the cul­tur­al con­di­tions and mean­ings of soci­ety (Weber qtd in Bur­ri 46). Reg­u­la Valerie Bur­ri keen­ly points out, that clas­si­cal soci­ol­o­gists have most­ly neglect­ed the under­stand­ing that such analy­sis must include “the visu­al” (Bur­ri 46). Geog­ra­phy, although an his­tor­i­cal­ly ‘visu­al’ dis­ci­pline has been crit­i­cized for not prop­er­ly the­o­riz­ing how and why it is visu­al and what kind of pow­er rela­tions are at play until Gilliam Rose's famous inter­ven­tion in 2003.

The work of Flusser and Bur­ri both empha­size the impor­tance of con­sid­ered and crit­i­cal analy­sis of the scope of the visu­al. On the one hand, Bur­ri works to per­suade her audi­ence that “the visu­al,” is a kind of mat­ter in which we live (Jenks). On the oth­er hand, Flusser insists that we must take note of the cul­tur­al muta­tion afoot, from lin­ear text to anoth­er kind of image world entire­ly. Bur­ri and Flusser press upon us that we ought to con­sid­er the ways in which three dimen­sions, plus time, are work­ing as inter­de­pen­dent sys­tems, in dia­logue, inter­act­ing, reflect­ing, refract­ing, and all the while we need to be dili­gent as schol­ars to take note of the ways in which humans inter­act, change the dimen­sions, and are shaped by them.

In short, the geo­g­ra­ph­er and the soci­ol­o­gist emerge as social-geo­g­ra­phers, cul­tur­al geo­g­ra­phers, human-geo­g­ra­phers. Through col­lab­o­ra­tion Patch­ett and I stand to resist the notion that text alone is the behold­er of an “objec­tive” truth (Das­ton and Gal­i­son). The goal here, by pub­lish­ing, writ­ing, edit­ing, and there­by shap­ing the now mud­died waters of a giv­en dis­ci­pline, is to press upon the think­ing fac­ul­ties of our dear read­ers to apply self-analy­sis of indi­vid­ual notions of how ideas, images, myths, become known, how they work to change thought, and how thought is trans­mit­ted as imaginaries.

Frames for Reading the Image Series

What­ev­er the aes­thet­ic mer­its, every rep­re­sen­ta­tion of land­scape is also a record of human val­ues and actions imposed on the land over time. What stake do land­scape pho­tog­ra­phers have in con­struct­ing such rep­re­sen­ta­tions? A large one, I believe. What­ev­er the photographer’s claims, land­scapes as sub­ject mat­ter in pho­tog­ra­phy can be ana­lyzed as doc­u­ments extend­ing beyond the for­mal­ly aes­thet­ic or per­son­al­ly expres­sive. Even for­mal and per­son­al choic­es do not emerge sui gener­is, but instead reflect col­lec­tive inter­ests and influ­ences, whether philo­soph­i­cal, polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic, or oth­er­wise. (Deb­o­rah Bright 126)

Cam­era in hand I con­sid­er the ways in which pho­tog­ra­phy as action, as process, as per­for­mance, can be an embod­ied manip­u­la­tion towards a syn­the­sis of spe­cif­ic tech­no-log­i­cal and scientific/mathematical con­straints.  The cam­era com­press­es, reduces, takes note of light, and fus­es togeth­er all man­ner of the photographer’s aes­thet­ic, cul­tur­al, social, sign+signifed con­cepts and, in a flash, cap­tures a reduced form of a world ‘out there.’ Out there, becomes, here, and here, quick­ly turns to join again with out there.

My meth­ods are syn­co­pat­ic, and tan­gen­tial, in order to approach a giv­en sub­ject I find that immer­sion, and fresh eyes lead me towards planes of vision request­ing their cap­ture. I fol­low black-top thor­ough fares and laneways towards zones beyond my usu­al tra­ver­sals. In the region of Wood Buf­fa­lo that con­tains the munic­i­pal­i­ty of Fort McMur­ray, there are many fences and signs that clear­ly mark spaces as pri­vate, no tres­pass­ing allowed. In Cal­gary, at the tops of office tow­ers, neos signs bear­ing the names of ‘Sun­cor’ and ‘Syn­crude’ beam bright­ly, where­as in Fort McMur­ray these same sig­ni­fiers rest on hum­ble plac­ards mount­ed to wood­en fence posts. Their mes­sage is clear; pri­vate prop­er­ty, dan­ger, keep out!

The high­way resem­bles a long stage, auto­mo­biles press their rub­ber tyres into the sur­face. The high­way pro­vides a false sense of secu­ri­ty. High­way 63 serves a pri­ma­ry pur­pose, to guide work­ers to the Oil Sands oper­a­tions. The high­way is pub­lic, but on either side is pri­vate property—it is bor­dered on all sides by the sub­ject, objects of order in space.

To me, High­way 63 rep­re­sents an access route to vis­it places that mag­ni­fy the views of oil refiner­ies near my birth­place in Edmon­ton, Alber­ta. In oth­er words, vis­it­ing the Oil Sands is like com­ing to the well.

So why come and pho­to­graph? I trav­el as an explor­er, a researcher, a pho­tog­ra­ph­er - these are my points of ref­er­ence. This tri­ad of actions is a process, a motif, a way of see­ing the world. Pho­tog­ra­phy under­scores and sup­ports my larg­er research project that is aca­d­e­m­i­cal­ly based and geo­graph­i­cal­ly root­ed in the town of Fort McMur­ray. As trav­eller, I move from Edmon­ton to Fort McMur­ray and beyond in order to work with oth­ers, and what exists out­side, out there.

As a pho­tog­ra­ph­er, I engage with pho­tog­ra­phy from the point of view of pub­lic lands as points/spaces of access that allow me to direct my gaze and cam­era at—or into—or upon pri­vate sites of pro­duc­tion. Images speak as evi­dence of the strange­ness, the sub­lime, the uncan­ny topo­graph­i­cal fea­tures that arise in a place where bore­al forests stood untouched by human force just a short time ago.

Even before I vis­it­ed this land­scape, I knew that I need­ed to go and see for myself. At first gaze I was struck with a sense of hor­ror and a deep sense of loss and tragedy. Two terms to help describe the psy­cho­log­i­cal per­plex­i­ties and emo­tions that arise: One is Saudade, which is a deep long­ing for that which is gone and  may nev­er return. This sense of loss devel­oped as a form of Solistal­gia (Albrecht), which is the loss felt by envi­ron­men­tal change, the feel­ing one may have when return­ing to a place after a long time has passed—like New Orleans after Kat­ri­na. Fol­low­ing on these two terms, Saudade and Solistal­gia, the ques­tion of why pho­to­graph can be answered by a sin­gle word: duty, a ser­vice to mem­o­ry, to pub­lic per­cep­tion, to land­scape changes. It is a duty to doc­u­ment, to pro­vide evi­dence and arte­facts for hard dia­logues and discussions.

Since 2009, I con­tin­ue to return, to trav­el, to ask with a researcher’s crit­i­cal eye, and to bring into focus using a cam­era as pro­duc­tion appa­ra­tus and cre­ator of representation.

Even if the images are just for myself, I find val­ue in this endeav­or as an active process. More recent­ly I have been asked to share—colleagues and friends say, “you’ve been there, can we see your pho­tographs?”. And in these instances the duty becomes clear. My respon­si­bil­i­ty is to share these pho­to­graph­ic images that com­press and obscure time and space.

I work to express pho­to­graph­i­cal­ly the imag­i­nary of sub­ject as place. In this instance, the imag­i­nary is the sto­ry of place trans­formed through the dis­tri­b­u­tion of pho­to­graph as objects and arte­facts. Rather than obscure the rela­tion­ship between image and object, my mode has been to re-enter the image of place: pho­to­graph again and again, and estab­lish a visu­al dia­logue of com­mu­ni­ca­tion that intends to move beyond the rigid con­straints of sin­gu­lar­i­ty. I ask, what would the land, and the land­scape itself reveal if it was shown the objects of our perusal?

Image Notes

Fig. 1 Image of the Piper Alpha ablaze tak­en by a crew mem­ber oper­at­ing one of the res­cue ves­sels. Image © Cardiff Uni­ver­si­ty Engi­neer­ing Department.

Fig. 2  “Loca­tion of the Athabas­ca, Cold Lake and Peace Riv­er Oil Sands in Alber­ta.” Alber­ta Oil Sands. Alber­ta Geo­log­i­cal Sur­vey, May 9, 2012. Web. August 20, 2012. Image ©Ener­gy Resource Con­ser­va­tion Board.

Fig. 3  Guy, Karen. Green­peace Activists Enter Syncrude's Auro­ra North Oil Sands Oper­a­tion and Sus­pend a Ban­ner that Reads “World's Dirt­i­est Oil: Stop the Tar Sands.” Pho­to­graph. Lat­est Pho­tos. Green­peace, July 23, 2008. Web. August 20, 2012. <http://​www​.green​peace​.org/​c​a​n​a​d​a​/​e​n​/​p​h​o​t​o​s​-​a​n​d​-​v​i​d​e​o​/​l​a​t​e​s​t​/​b​r​a​v​i​n​g​-​t​o​x​i​c​-​f​u​m​e​s​-​a​n​d​-​t​h​e​-​sa/>.

Fig. 4  Bur­tyn­sky, Edward. Alber­ta Oil Sands #10 (Fort McMur­ray, Alber­ta, Cana­da). 2007. Pho­to­graph. Edward Bur­tyn­sky Pho­to­graph­ic Works. Web. August 20, 2012. <edward​bur​tyn​sky​.com>.

Fig. 5   Rior­don, Nathalie. Unti­tled. 2009. Where is Fort McMur­ray?  Web. August 20, 2012. <where​is​fortm​c​mur​ray​.com>.

Gon­za­les, Priscil­la. Unti­tled. 2009. Where is Fort McMur­ray? Web. August 20, 2012. <where​is​fortm​c​mur​ray​.com>.

Loutitt, Paula. Unti­tled. 2010. Where is Fort McMur­ray? Web. August 20, 2012. <where​is​fortm​c​mur​ray​.com>.

Chen, Yicun. Unti­tled. 2009. Where is Fort McMur­ray? Web. August 20, 2012. <where​is​fortm​c​mur​ray​.com>.

Desai, Milau­ni. Unti­tled. 2009. Where is Fort McMur­ray? Web. August 20, 2012. <where​is​fortm​c​mur​ray​.com>.

Hachem, Amani. Unti­tled. 2009. Where is Fort Mcmur­ray? Web. August 20, 2012. <where​is​fortm​c​mur​ray​.com>.

Fig. 6  Lozowy, Andriko. High­way 63. 2011 Unpub­lished. Repro­duced with Per­mis­sion of Photographer.

Fig. 7  Hime, Humphrey Lloyd. The Prairie, Look­ing South.1858.  Pho­to­graph.  1936-273/C-018694. Library and Archives Cana­da , Ottawa.

Fig. 8  Lozowy, Andriko. Image 19. 2011 Unpub­lished. Repro­duced with Per­mis­sion of the Photographer.

Fig. 9  Lozowy, Andriko. Refin­ery at Night. 2010 Unpub­lished. Repro­duced with Per­mis­sion of the Photographer.

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[1] While Lord Fras­er stat­ed that “pub­lic inter­est would not be served by a pros­e­cu­tion,” this atti­tude was the very oppo­site of the pub­lic inter­est at the time. This atti­tude may have reflect­ed Lord Fraser’s own inter­ests, how­ev­er.  Fras­er served as Scotland’s min­is­ter of ener­gy and also had a num­ber of ties to Big Oil: Fras­er served the oil indus­try in a vari­ety of capac­i­ties includ­ing: 1) Nonex­ec­u­tive chair­man, JKX Oil and Gas plc, an oil and gas explo­ration and pro­duc­tion com­pa­ny with license inter­ests in the Ukraine, the Unit­ed States, Italy, and the Caspi­an Sea. 2) Nonex­ec­u­tive chair­man of “theoil​site​.com,” which spe­cial­izes in e-ten­der­ing solu­tions for the oil and gas indus­try world­wide.  3) Nonex­ec­u­tive direc­tor, Inter­na­tion­al Petro­le­um Exchange, Europe’s largest ener­gy mar­ket, best known for its futures con­tracts in North Sea Brent crude oil. 4) Nonex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of Ram-ener­gy Ltd, an inde­pen­dent explo­ration and pro­duc­tion com­pa­ny that oper­ates pri­mar­i­ly in the Unit­ed States.  5) Nonex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of Total­Fi­na Elf Upstream UK Ltd, one of the world’s largest oil conglomerates.

[2] Oil com­pa­nies have revert­ed to using the geo­log­i­cal clas­si­fi­ca­tion of “oil sands” over “tar sands” in a bid to move away from the ‘dirty oil’ smear sug­gest­ed by tar sands. I will be refer­ring to the Athabas­ca Oil Sands as the “Oil Sands” to encom­pass its sta­tus as the world’s largest Cap­i­tal Project.

[3] Pro­duc­tion of bitu­men con­tin­ues to grow in Alber­ta, account­ing for more than 72 per cent of Alberta’s total crude oil and raw bitu­men out­put. Total bitu­men pro­duc­tion in Alber­ta is about 544 mil­lion bar­rels (86.4 mil­lion cubic metres), of which 55 per cent is from min­ing oper­a­tions and the remain­der is from in situ meth­ods. The ERCB expects Alberta’s annu­al bitu­men pro­duc­tion to increase to around 1 bil­lion bar­rels (160 mil­lion cubic meters) by 2019: http://​ercb​.ca/​p​o​r​t​a​l​/​s​e​r​v​e​r​.​p​t​/​g​a​t​e​w​a​y​/​P​T​A​R​G​S​_​0​_​0​_​3​0​3​_​2​6​3​_​0​_​4​3​/​h​t​t​p​;​/​e​r​c​b​C​o​n​t​e​n​t​/​p​u​b​l​i​s​h​e​d​c​o​n​t​e​nt/


[4] Oth­er high pro­file pho­tog­ra­phy series include Peter Essick’s Nation­al Geo­graph­ic pho­tos (http://​ngm​.nation​al​geo​graph​ic​.com/​2​0​0​9​/​0​3​/​c​a​n​a​d​i​a​n​-​o​i​l​-​s​a​n​d​s​/​e​s​s​i​c​k​-​p​h​o​t​o​g​r​a​phy) and Louis Helbig’s “Beau­ti­ful Destruc­tion” exhib­it (www​.beau​ti​fulde​struc​tion​.ca/​o​t​t​a​w​a​c​i​t​y​h​a​l​l​e​a​.​h​tml). Doc­u­men­tary films fol­low­ing this visu­al trope include: Petrop­o­lis (2009) a Green­peace film by Peter Met­tler and Rethink Alber­ta (2010), pro­duced by Cor­po­rate Ethics International.

[5] To view the out­comes of this trip, both pho­to­graph­ic and sound record­ing go to: http://​change​able​places​.word​press​.com/​2​0​1​1​/​0​3​/​1​7​/​s​i​g​h​t​s​-​a​n​d​-​s​o​u​n​d​s​-​o​f​-​b​i​t​u​m​e​n​-​e​x​t​r​a​c​t​i​o​n​-​i​n​-​a​l​b​e​r​t​a​-​c​a​n​a​da/

[6] Theodore Adorno has famous­ly inter­pret­ed benjamin’s con­cept of still­ness as turn­ing the world to stone (see Adorno 227-42),

[7] These pho­tographs are avail­able through his web­site, edward​bur​tyn​sky​.com;  the Oil Spill Series is col­lect­ed under the title “Gulf of Mex­i­co,” in his “Water” works.

[8] The leak amount­ed to about 4.9 mil­lion bar­rels (780,000 m³) of oil, exceed­ing the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill as the largest ever to orig­i­nate in U.S. con­trolled waters and the 1979 Ixtoc I oil spill as the largest spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Copy­right Mer­le Patch­ett and Andriko Lozowy. This arti­cle is licensed under a  Cre­ative Com­mons 3.0 License although cer­tain works ref­er­enced here­in may be sep­a­rate­ly licensed, or the author has exer­cised their right to fair deal­ing under the Cana­di­an Copy­right Act.