As a lecturer in documentary photography, there is one particular session I whip out with some regularity. In it, I present case studies centred around roughly the same topic, but produced with different methodologies and presented in different media formats. More specifically, I show documentary work that has been done surrounding Cancer Alley, that heavily polluted stretch of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, courtesy of the petrochemical industry. I introduce my students to the online series Fulcrum of Malice by photographer Stacy Kranitz; the publication Petrochemical America, which comprises large format landscape imagery by Richard Misrach and an extensively researched contextualisation by landscape architect Kate Orff; and finally, the multimedia production Environmental Racism in Death Alley, Louisiana, created by the artist and research collective Forensic Architecture.
One aim of the session is to encourage students to reflect upon and discuss the pros and cons of each approach, and especially to consider the limits these projects come up against whilst trying to depict the story of a largely invisible form of pollution and the very real effects it has on the local population. Other aims of the session are to impress upon the students the importance of carefully considering what story exactly they want to tell in their own documentary work; which steps they can undertake to ensure that the story successfully arrives with the viewer, and to question whether the medium of photography by itself is always the most suitable medium to tell that story.
The questions I would ask my students and the prompts I would give them for discussion all flashed through my mind when looking through Will Warasila’s recent publication Quicker than Coal Ash. What, exactly, is the story here? Upon multiple perusals, it appears that this is a decently designed book, comprising beautifully sequenced images, desperately in search of a clear story to tell. The publication opens with a lovely picture of people enjoying themselves in a lake in the late summer sun. Warasila excels at still life imagery: we see a wooden chair and piano bathed in the sunlight against a green wall and framed by pink net curtains, a power cable and plug hanging from the ceiling neatly dissecting the pictorial plane, a lamp shade precariously balanced against closed beige blinds, a touching memorial inscription in the red leather of a car seen through its windshield, an upside down red white popcorn box perched on a beige and red seat. The compositions are good, and the light in each of these is beautiful and warm.
What, exactly, is the story here? Upon multiple perusals, it appears that this is a decently designed book, comprising beautifully sequenced images, desperately in search of a clear story to tell.
The more posed portraits are of friendly seeming people sat against a neutral backdrop, shown from the torso up. As a result, neither the photographer nor the viewer gets too close to the subjects. One could say that a respectful distance is maintained, but to what end is not clear. The environmental portraits are exactly the kind one would expect from looking at photography books set in small-town rural America: a lady in a rocking chair on the porch of a white clapboard house, a father and his son sitting on a lawnmower squinting into the sun, an elderly woman at the cash register of a country store. Action shots are far and few between, and their significance is unclear. There is a moment of faith healing taking place during a tent revival, a pair of hands wringing out a piece of cloth, a group of hands stroking someone’s hair, a woman exuberantly singing. None of the characters depicted show up more than once. This is a quiet town for quietly anonymous people, one of thirteen in a dozen dotted all over backwoods America.
So why are we here? Who are these people? What are they doing? What is the significance of all of this? A small hint is provided by the occasionally occurring smoke-billowing chimneys of a power station, usually glimpsed set far in the back of a landscape image. Just past the halfway point of the book is a spread with two images of the same scene: a forest of electricity pylons stretching away from their point of origin, the power station, which we can finally inspect in some more detail. The photographs are shot quite closely to each other, thereby somewhat resembling the minute differences visible in the two photographs needed to make up old-fashioned stereo cards. For me these are the two strongest images in the book.
So why are we here? Who are these people? What are they doing? What is the significance of all of this? A small hint is provided by the occasionally occurring smoke-billowing chimneys of a power station, usually glimpsed set far in the back of a landscape image.
Courtesy of the curatorial text at the back of the book, penned by Alexa Dilworth (Publishing Director at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University), we are offered more insight. Apparently, the community depicted is Walnut Cove, situated in Stokes County, NC. The aforementioned power station is Duke Energy’s Belews Creek Steam Station, which generates electricity by burning coal. The byproduct of that process is called coal ash and is stored in an unlined pond near Walnut Cove. This highly toxic byproduct contains heavy metals, and can have adverse short and long-term effects on the environment and the health of the local population. As it stands, the coal ash near Walnut Cove seeps into the soil, the water and the air. Is this the story then? A worthy issue to investigate, a classic documentary topic to tackle?
Before we answer that question, let’s take a look at the short-term effects of coal ash. They can take the form of spills, when the earthen dams fail and the resulting sludge floods the surrounding area. Photo historian Derrick Price, in his wide-ranging publication Coal Cultures: Picturing Mining Landscapes and Communities, discusses at length the significance of disaster images in relation to coal mining. He pays particular attention to the photographs made of Aberfan in 1966. In that particular case, the slag heap situated on the mountain slope above the Welsh village of Aberfan collapsed. The slurry streamed downhill and engulfed the local primary school, killing 116 children and 28 adults. Walnut Cove has fortunately not yet suffered a fate similar to Aberfan, or more locally and recently, the coal ash spills of Harriman, TN in 2008, and the Dan River in 2014. However, the book does not hint at the possibility of such an event either, even though the Walnut Cove community could arguably be seen as existing on the verge of catastrophe. This is not just hyperbole, this is a concept formulated by critical thinker on photography Ariella Azoulay to explain why certain suffering populations are generally not considered worthy of mainstream photographic attention. Azoulay pleads for photographers to change tack and to highlight precisely this precarious type of existence.
As it stands, the coal ash near Walnut Cove seeps into the soil, the water and the air. Is this the story then? A worthy issue to investigate, a classic documentary topic to tackle?
But this is not what is happening in Warasila’s publication. After all, the aforementioned Price also notes the importance of the coal tipple in many depictions of contemporary and former mining landscapes and communities. He argues that slag heaps are often captured by photographers and filmmakers, because they are seen as both a symbol of the degradation of the environment as well as an indispensable part of an industrial locale. The slag heap takes on special significance when the mining community is set in an otherwise picturesque landscape. The inclusion of the various landscape images within Quicker than Coal Ash indeed attempt to situate Walnut Cove in such picturesque surrounds. But whilst a coal ash pond is not the same in substance or form as a slag heap, one would imagine that, if Warasila’s story was about the long term pollution and degradation of the landscape or the potential short term possibility of disaster, it would feature prominently and unambiguously within the book. As it stands, Quicker than Coal Ash contains some closely cropped pictures that might be of the coal ash pond in question. Since the images are uncaptioned, the viewer remains in the dark. It was only by consulting an in-depth essay written for the journal Southern Cultures, where Warasila’s pictures were presented with their titles, that confirmation was obtained. Additionally, if the story was about the long-term adverse effects of the coal ash on both the local population and the surrounding area, one would imagine the publication would feature the types of data visualisations present in Petrochemical America and Environmental Racism in Death Alley, Louisiana. Alternatively, it would have benefited from including an essay such as the one written by Anne Branigin for Southern Cultures, which does an incredibly thorough job of explaining the impacts of coal ash pollution on communities from an environmental, medical, political and economic perspective. One might also expect to see photographs of people that are visibly ill alongside their carers. But Minamata, this book ain’t.
So if Quicker than Coal Ash is not tackling a classic documentary story, what is it showing instead?
So if Quicker than Coal Ash is not tackling a classic documentary story, what is it showing instead? In the text by Dilworth, a very moving anecdote is related about the photographer meeting a community leader and pastor whilst attending a so-called coal ash healing service. During said service the congregation was instructed to forgive Duke Energy for what they have done. The anecdote makes clear the impact this service has had on the photographer, and shows his initial inability to understand how the congregants could even contemplate forgiveness given their experience of ill-health and other adverse effects. This coal ash service sounds fascinating, and the pastor comes across as a strong local leader, who could be a very photogenic subject to follow. A photographic series in which the photographer and the reader come to terms with a perhaps initially incomprehensible kind of faith embodied by this congregation would offer an excellent narrative. But whilst religion is certainly hinted at in some of the photographs, this is not the story of the book.
In the appendix to the Southern Cultures article, Warasila explains that during his project in Walnut Cove, photojournalists would occasionally drop in to cover the story of coal ash and capture archetypical images depicting “protests, speeches, the steam station, and, occasionally, a bird’s-eye view of the lake and coal ash pond.” In other words, perhaps the type of photograph I have been arguing for above. Warasila continues by stating that he wanted to tread a different path for this project. This is fair enough, and there are excellent conceptual documentary and art projects out there that successfully tell the story of industrial pollution. In fact, local artist Caroline Armijo has done precisely that through The Lillies Project, which is multifaceted, multidisciplinary, immersive and collaborative, including images made by Warasila of all the inhabitants of Walnut Creek. These close and penetrating portraits, as it becomes clear from the project website, are not included in Warasila’s book.
My frustration with Quicker than Coal Ash ultimately stems from this burning desire to see all of Warasila’s work prints, to see what could have been, which alternative narratives could have been constructed, and to better understand what purpose this book ultimately tries to serve.
When working on projects with students, as educators we advise them to always bring in all their work prints. We do this in order to prevent them from inadvertently shutting down promising avenues to explore in more detail. My frustration with Quicker than Coal Ash ultimately stems from this burning desire to see all of Warasila’s work prints, to see what could have been, which alternative narratives could have been constructed, and to better understand what purpose this book ultimately tries to serve.