Landscapes of extraction
TEXT OF INTERVIEW
Kai Ryssdal: The photographer J Henry Fair does landscapes, images of places that've been changed somehow by the industrial process. Places like the Gulf of Mexico and the BP oil spill. Or clearcut forests and pulp mills. They're aerial shots of what is actually quite picturesque terrain.
J Henry Fair: You're sticking your head out the window in basically a 70-mile-an-hour wind, you're shooting with a long telephoto lens, so you pretty much have to go on autopilot.
The pictures are collected in a new book called "The Day After Tomorrow: Images of Our Earth in Crisis." You can see them here. And we've got J Henry Fair here for our series The Art of Money, what artists and others see when they look at the economy.
Good to have you with us.
Fair: It's a pleasure to be here, Kai.
Ryssdal: I wanted to start with one of the pictures from this book that I found most striking, it's a series of overhead shots, aerial shots, of some emerald green, really stunning water, with kind of white fringes around them, white mounds of stuff surrounded by some pipes. What are those?
Fair: That's exactly the question I asked when I found it. And it's not water, and the whiteness, it looks like snow from above. It turns out to be gypsum, which is part of the process waste from the manufacturing of phosphate fertilizer. But of course, I'm going backwards, because when I photographed that, I had no idea what it was. So then it became a process of figuring it out.
Ryssdal: What'd you do? You must have gotten out of the plane and driven around, right?
Fair: I had to go back down. So that's on the Mississippi River, south of Baton Rouge. And after I had taken the picture, and couldn't figure out what it was, and asked a bunch of engineers and whatnot, I went back down there and rented a car and drove up. I'm from the South, so in my best Southern accent, I said, 'Excuse me. Can I use your bathroom? And do y'all make here?' And by the time I drove up, I knew what the answer to the question was. And the guard there wouldn't let me go to the top of the mound, but she did let me use the bathroom.
Ryssdal: It's all part of this area you found, this region I suppose in Mississippi, that you call 'Cancer Alley," right?
Fair: It happens to be, when I started doing this project, it was before Google Earth, etc., so I knew the place where I knew there would be industry that would make photographic images. Originally I was mostly into making these beautiful images to make people think, but I quickly found out that I had to have the data behind it before the images could really be effective.
Ryssdal: Yeah, it was in the investigative process, right?
Fair: Yeah. Those green pictures are the process waste from making a phosphate fertilizer. And they are both radioactive and very acidic. So what we have is we have a phosphate crisis that dwarfs the gas crisis. And we're going to run out in 40 years, and then we're not going to be able to feed ourselves.
Ryssdal: You are fairly explicit, though, in your aims for this book. You say right out it's a book about the power that a consumer has to shape the world through the purchase decisions that they make.
Fair: Yes. And the reason that these pictures are so effective is because they're both horrible and beautiful. By stimulating curiosity, we can hopefully get people to ask questions and when they get the answers, consider the consequences of a given purchase. When I speak to schoolchildren, I only exaggerate slightly when I tell them that the most important decision that they can make is which toilet paper to buy. And that seems laughable, but one toilet paper promotes deforestation of old growth forests, and another toilet paper promotes the recycling chain that we really want to promote.
Ryssdal: These pictures are about the environment, obviously; they're about human behavior. They're fundamentally, though, about the commercial process, about money.
Fair: Everything is.
Ryssdal: J Henry Fair. His new book of photographs is called "The Day After Tomorrow: Images of Our Earth in Crisis." You can see some images from it here. Thanks a lot.
Fair: Thank you so much, Kai. It's an honor to be here.