Beautiful Destruction: A Q&A with Louis Helbig

Shot through acclaimed aerial photographer Louis Helbig's lens, a swirling black and tan bitumen slick becomes strangely reminiscent of an.


Shot through acclaimed aerial photographer Louis Helbig’s lens, a swirling black and tan bitumen slick becomes strangely reminiscent of an abstract expressionist painting. In his new book Beautiful Destruction, Helbig lets his bird’s-eye-view images of the tar sands’ sulphur ponds and frothing tanks, rivers and trees speak, mostly, for themselves.

But he leaves room in its pages for 15 contributors with dramatically diverging viewpoints (from 350.org’s Bill McKibben and Green party leader Elizabeth May to oil industry apologist Ezra Levant) to share their unedited perspective on Alberta’s bitumen extraction.

What compelled you to do this project?

It struck me that all these people were moving to work in the oil patch. And despite this clearly very important cultural phenomenon, there was almost no media coverage, and politicians avoided it. It was as if this massive industrial project were hidden in plain sight.

You say beautiful destruction is all about illuminating the contradictions there. Why was that important to you?

There’s a real drama unfolding in Fort McMurray. There are great jobs, lots of money, but also environmental destruction. The issue is approached in a deeply polarized way that I’m not sure is entirely helpful. Maybe public policy would be better if it reflected some of the tension and contradictions.

You include quite a range of voices in the book.

As far as I know it’s the only forum that brings together all these different people. And it’s important that it does so under the rubric of art and the space that art can create when we use our imagination to reflect. That was the core of my pitch to all the contributors. It goes back to the deeply polarized way in which we see this issue in Canada. There’s a lot of fear of talking to people one perceives to be on the other side.

Q. You can sense some of that tension within the book. Ezra Levant writes that Beautiful Destruction is oil sands pornography designed to stimulate revulsion. Do you agree?

I do, definitely. Not so much that it’s designed to stimulate revulsion, maybe, but, sure, this can be seen as pornography. It can also be seen as art – either way it’s stimulating. I actually think it’s really cool to be challenged. Ezra wrote his book Ethical Oil as a response to seeing my photos exhibited. I’m happy about that, on some level. I also think Ezra is being very Canadian with his holier-than-thou argument. When we do that, we shield ourselves from hard questions, but I also think he raises some really important issues. He points out that my camera is plastic and my plane fuelled with gas. I think he is right that we are all implicated. We are all consumers of petroleum products. We need to look in the mirror and ask ourselves about that.

Your perspective on the tar sands has shifted over the years of working on the book. How so?

I would have called myself a reluctant activist. But pretty much right away, I thought [the tar sands] represented a real failure of civil society and politics. Now I’m beginning to think that for many Canadians, there’s an absence of meaningful relationship with most of the vast landscape. I don’t know if we really relate to or empathize with that wilderness in a substantive way. I sometimes think we’re kind of stuck in this neo-Group of Seven visual literacy where we mythologize but don’t understand or relate to this vast space. In the book, I put the photo titles in Denesuline and Cree. I hope that conveys the point that this is a place where Canadians live and have lived for a very long time.

You say that at the end of the day it’s just a picture book about an elephant.

I sometimes have the feeling this elephant, metaphorically, is stomping around in the living room of our country. One leg comes down, it’s about oil. The next leg comes down, it’s about tar. The next is urban against rural, east versus west. It says a lot of about who we are. There’s a lot of us-versus-them. What goes with that is a real, powerful sense of fear, and I think that limits us in being able to engage with each other. I hope that the book creates a space for respectful engagement rather than being afraid.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

ecoholic@nowtoronto.com | @ecoholicnation

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