This week on Photojournalism Now: Friday Round Up a review of David Hanson’s new book Waste Land.
Waste Land – David T. Hanson
To paraphrase philosopher Walter Benjamin, photographs without context are nothing but objects of beauty even if they depict something terrible. This is especially true of landscape photography. When I look at the aerial shot on the cover of American photographer David T. Hanson’s new book Waste Land, I see the beauty of a teal blue sky reflected in pools of water that dot a vista that could be dusted in snow or perhaps obscured by low level cloud.
But that is where the fantasy ends. Open this book and from the first plate there is no doubt what these images represent: the ruin of the natural environment, an ecological disaster reaped by the hands of humans. This is the Anthropocene, an era when the ruling species of the planet has changed the environment and wilfully poisoned the landscape without regard for the consequences. What is even more terrifying is that these pictures are now more than 30 years old, the ravaging of the environment seems without end.
In 1985 Hanson was granted a Guggenheim Fellowship, which he used to photograph sites that had been identified by the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) in the USA as “superfund” sites, the most contaminated locations poisoned by military and industrial waste. Sites where the toxicity was deemed at levels threatening to life.
There are more than 400 of these “superfund” sites in the US and Hanson travelled across 45 states to visit 67 of the worst. Over 12 months Hanson photographed locations where nuclear weapons and nerve gas agents were disposed of, where petrochemical complexes had leeched their toxic waste into the ground, to water-contamination sites, mines, smelters and illicit dumps.
There is a long history of photographers using pictures of the landscape for environmental causes dating back to 1871 and William Henry Jackson then a photographer with the United States Geological and Geographic Survey of the Territories. Jackson’s exhibition of photographs of a pristine wilderness are credited with influencing the government’s decision to establish Yellowstone National Park. The cynic in me says it is unlikely Hanson’s pictures will do more than irritate government and industry. My optimistic self suggests this is yet another opportunity for people to wake up and take a stand.
This is Hanson’s third book and it shows that the United States greatest legacy will be hazardous remains, sites contaminated by pollutants some of which will remain deadly for thousands of generations. It is a sobering reality in a time when climate change and environmental concerns continue to be treated with disdain by the largest polluters. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the land that produces our food and on which we build our homes is turning toxic at the hands of governments and corporations. Many of these sites back onto populated areas. This is Flint magnified by hundreds.
We can longer say we didn’t know. The science is there. The proof undeniable.
The book is sequenced according to the EPA’s Hazard Ranking System and each spread follows a triptych format that features Hanson’s aerial photograph, a modified topographic map from the US Geological Survey locating the site in its wider surrounds and “a contemporaneous (EPA) site description detailing the history of the site, its hazards, and the remedial action taken.”
As Hanson writes in the book, “The EPA texts illustrate the bureaucratic nature of hazardous-waste regulation and reveal some of the elaborate legal strategies that corporations and individuals have used to avoid responsibility for both the contamination and the cleanup.”
The picture above, from the second spread in the book, is accompanied by the EPA report which reveals “In 1972 and again in 1973 the city contracted with a waste oil hauler to spray oil on unpaved roads for dust control. It was later learned that the waste oil contained dioxin.” When the river flooded the “Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued a health advisory…recommending that people relocated from Times Beach due to flooding should stay away, and that those remaining should leave.”
In the foreword to Waste Land, American novelist and poet Wendell Berry writes that in these pictures Hanson shows us “the topography of our open wounds”. We have a choice. We can shake our heads at the horrors and blame those who have reaped this damage. Or we recognise our complicity and stand up to say, no more. What is clear is that sitting on the fence is not an option, this is not someone else’s problem. It impacts us all.
Published by: Taverner Press
Hardcover: 176 pages, 136 colour photographs