When photographer Robert van Waarden heard about Transcanada’s Energy East project—a tar sands pipeline that, if built, would be the longest such pipeline in the world and would exceed the capacity of Keystone XL by about 30 percent—he did what he knew how to do: he took pictures.
Along the Pipeline can be seen as an attempt to bring excluded voices back into the debate.
Over the course of several months, van Waarden drove all 2,800 miles of the proposed pipeline route across Canada, from Hardisty, Alberta, to the eastern terminus at St. John, New Brunswick. Using an old 4×5 film camera from the early ’70s—the kind where you put a cloth over your head—he made portraits of the people he met on the way, and recorded their words. The result was Along the Pipeline, a collective portrait of more than 70 indigenous people, farmers, fishermen, artists, and business owners. He wanted to know how they felt about the pipeline, the environment, and Canada’s economic future. He spent time in their homes, camped in their backyards, cooked with them in their kitchens.
His printed portraits are life-sized, like they’re right in the room with you, like you could look them in the eye. That’s part of the point. In 2012 the Canadian government passed Bill C-38, which removes key environmental protections, expedites the pipeline approval process, and limits who can testify in public pipeline hearings—and what they can say. The forum for public input on industrial projects is now considerably smaller.
“It’s rigged in favor of the industry,” van Waarden says. Along the Pipeline can be seen, then, as an attempt to bring those excluded voices back into the debate, to keep open the space for public dialogue on fossil fuels—one that’s become contentious on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border.
Last year, in a document leaked to Greenpeace, Transcanada’s former public relations firm singled out van Waarden’s project as a potential threat to Energy East under the heading “Opposition Tactic 2: Emotional Appeal.”
A second strategy establishes an emotional resonance with the general public through visual storytelling. When properly executed, this is a tremendously effective strategy as it can create an emotional response with the general public that can override logic and reasoning.
“I don’t know if I should be shocked or honoured,” van Waarden wrote on his blog.
Maybe both? I spoke with van Waarden after seeing Along the Pipeline in Montreal. We talked about the people he met on his journey, the pipeline-resistance movement in Canada, and the role of storytelling in social change.
This interview has been lightly edited.
Serge Simon Mohawk Chief: “TransCanada says Energy East will bring lots of money and money will pour into my community along with the oil. Bullshit. I don’t believe that. And even if it were true I wouldnt want their dirty money because I couldnt live with myself thinking that I had something to do with the eventual frying of this planet.”
Kristin Moe: What was the initial idea for the project?
Robert van Waarden: I’ve always thought that that Canadians are pretty smart, that they’re not necessarily buying into the industry line or the government line, and that they’re looking for something more. So it was an opportunity to use a narrative that was thrown down in front of us—in a line—and to find out not just what they thought about the Energy East project, but what they thought about where we should be going as a nation, or a group of nations, and what that future looks like.
Moe: What were some of the conversations you had that left the biggest impression?
van Waarden: What was amazing, throughout the whole project, was the generosity that was given to me—to stay with people, to eat with them, to spend hours with us, often out of the blue.
Fawn Wapioke Chief Iskatewizaagegan: “I believe in our future. I believe as an Anishinaabekwe my responsibility is to ensure that there is a future for my
children that are playing around here for their children for their great great great grandchildren. How do we do that?”
One indigenous woman I met was Fawn Wapioke, the chief of Shoal Lake 39 near the small city Kenora in Ontario. We were sitting in her living room talking to her. Something I heard a lot across the country was the need to make decisions based on future generations. This idea of, “What sort of a place are we leaving?” You hear that a lot.
The difference here was that Fawn’s two twins were playing in the room at our feet. As someone who doesn’t have kids, it sort of hit me—like, hang on a sec. I get this. I understand. We’re not even talking about these two kids, we’re talking about their grandkids.
Henry Harris fisherman: “I quit school when I was 14 and started fishing. Ive pretty well been aboard a lobster boat ever since. There is good money it in and it is a good lifestyle. I knew I wasn’t smart enough to be in school ‘cause I had problems in school so
I figured fishing would be my lifestyle. Right now lobster fishing is the only thing that keeps this island going. I’d never want to see something bad like an oil spill here ‘cause it would affect everyone.”
All the way east, you get into New Brunswick, and there’s a little island called Grand Manan Island, and it runs entirely on lobster fishing. Not everybody’s a lobster fisherman, but between that and the tourism, you’re attached to it somehow.
I got to spend some time with a couple of the fishermen there, and one of the guys, he’s not an outspoken person, but he had quite a face and quite a character. His name is Henry Harris. We spent all day lobster fishing and I got really seasick. It was 14 hours on a little boat in the middle of the Bay of Fundy. And for him, quite simply, if an oil spill were to happen, he doesn’t know what would happen to Grand Manan Island, but you could basically write it off. There are some direct parallels with the Gulf in that sense. So the question is, how many jobs does Energy East create, versus how many could potentially be lost from an oil spill? Or an island community damaged beyond repair?
Moe: Is there a narrative thread that ties these different stories together?
van Waarden: From talking to people, it became apparent that the more people knew about the project, the more they were against it. In pretty much every conversation we had was the recognition of the need for Canada to move toward renewable energy. That was true even in places like rural Saskatchewan, even talking to people who were strongly supportive of the [Energy East] project.
One guy in particular already had a pipeline on his land. He’s never had a problem, believes that we need the oil—at the same time, you ask him, “What about the wind farm up the road?” And he says, “Yeah, I really like it. We should be doing more of it.”
Mike Gerbrandt farmer and rancher: “I’m pro-pipeline. It brings good tax revenue for the municipality and TransCanada has always supported our community through donations. I trust what they are doing. I don’t believe we will see the end of oil and gas in my lifetime.”
Moe: It seems like pipelines were in some ways a gift to the climate movement. They link all these different communities that wouldn’t otherwise have a reason to talk to one another, they’re very specific, and they’re either built or they’re not. So it gives people something tangible to organize around other than climate change, which is more amorphous.
van Waarden: Yeah, that’s absolutely right. That’s what happened around Keystone. From the very first conversations I started having around the pipeline, people were saying, “This is a mistake, from the industry’s perspective.” Because what you’ve just done is given most of Canada, which hasn’t had an issue to organize around before, you’ve just given them a present.
Bunty and Roy Swanson retired teachers: “Every day our group puts on hazmat suits and gas masks and goes downtown … We just sit on rocks downtown in a park and wave at the pedestrians and cars. We have leaflets and people can sign and join us. We really want to preserve the purity of this place especially the water. We need to be going right off fossil fuels. This wont happen in my generation but it might happen in yours.”
Moe: Tell me about your camera. Why did you choose it? How did it affect the relationships with the people you were photographing?
van Waarden: Sure. It’s an old 4×5 view camera. It was an attempt to slow down the process and to make it a bit more serious. We only took two photographs of each person, because film costs money.
It changes your thought process. You have to know before you press the shutter whether you have the image that you want. When you put that dark cape over your head, the subjects go, “Oh, OK, this is a little more important, a little more serious than pulling out a point-and-shoot camera.” As a result, they were a little more willing to take their time and have conversations and spend 45 minutes or an hour making an image. And that trickles throughout the whole project. It’s a new way to shoot for me, and it was well worth it.
We’re making a portrait at that point. It’s not “taking,” so much.
Evening Star “Cree Woman Warrior:” “I consider myself a Cree woman warrior. It came into my spirit that I am willing to go all the way: I’m willing to get arrested I’m willing to lock myself down to some machinery I’m even willing to put my life on the line if it comes.”
down to that because this pipeline is going through sacred territories of our ancestors. Ive got to take a stand because if I dont who else will? Im hoping therell be more warriors out there that will warrior up.
Moe: That’s what it is. I think a lot about how journalism and documentary work is sort of extractive in nature—as you said, it’s taking something. And it makes the dynamic a little uncomfortable, at least for me. It seems important to find ways to do it that are collaborative, so it’s more focused on the relationship with the subject rather than taking something from them.
van Waarden: To “take” an image sometimes has a very negative connotation. But I’m asking for the subject’s direct involvement and their time. And they realize that, and there’s more depth behind it.
Zoe Gould rancher and student: “I guess I didn’t really notice the oil industry growing up. Now I notice it more. It is really prevalent here it is big
money and jobs. It is sort of a conflict of interest depending on where your focus is. The agriculture? Or getting as much oil out of the land as possible? I don’t have any solutions but I do see problems.”
Moe: Let’s talk about storytelling. It seems like your work is focused on bringing out the humanity that can often get lost in the narratives that have large entities as the actors—corporations, governments, natural phenomena. And often individuals get drowned out in that.
van Waarden: There’s a quote that comes from an indigenous writer called Thomas King that says, “If you want to change the world, tell a different story.” The thing is, people react to personal stories. We have to humanize, we have to make things personal, to a level that people can identify with.
That’s the main reasoning behind doing this. We are stories. And if we’re going to push things forward — not only stop stuff, but if we’re going to create a different world, we’re going to have to tell some different stories. And I think that’s something that the climate change movement is starting to figure out.
Keith Hobbs. Photo by Robert van Waarden.
Kristin Moe is a writer, storyteller, and multimedia journalist. She is a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies and has coordinated storytelling programs at The Swearer Center for Public Service at Brown University.