Ghost Ecologies (Work in Progress)

For centuries we have exploited nature for consumption and urbanization. We now enter an age of extreme climate change, rising seas, natural resource depletion, and landscape decimation driven by our global need to abuse nature rather than live harmoniously with it. The Anthropocene epoch is upon us and we are its defining feature, as revealed in this project. If we are to succeed in the future, we must wean ourselves off the oil sands and similar places. Oil sands are both a source of energy that makes nearly all modern civilization possible—and as a source of dread—for its ongoing endangerment of our habitat and eventually our way of life. The more we use up, the closer we get to not having developed alternative energy sources that can sustain us.

If we are to change the world, we must communicate our world’s most pressing critical issues in ways that change hearts and minds of the viewer. The combined acts of photography and landscape architecture can help lead the way. The  photographs in this project unify the ethical and documentary obligations of journalism (storytelling) and its common ground with the projective, forward-thinking obligations of the design fields (futuretelling). All design decisions involve value judgements, any acts of building are political, and social justice must always be raised when we seek to modify our physical environments. The medium of photojournalism can yield means and methods to more aptly approach these design decisions.

Photography is a tool to document and express voices in front of the camera—both voices of people and ecological voices. The use of photography helps to literally and figuratively “ground” what is happening here. The work here is incremental, each frame builds on the previous; the further you go, the more you understand what is happening here. In this way, the image forms a simulacrum, representing a piece of a more complete landscape.

Photographing the oil sands is a confusing dichotomy. The oil sands are born out of boreal forest. The forest and the sands are seemingly infinite, both ecosystems seem too large to be recently created or created at all, the scales too extraordinary and too inhuman—one of beauty and one of ugliness. The oil sands feel devoid of people, but we must be here because nothing else can do what has been done here. Yet one of these ecosystems did not exist until just a few decades ago. It seems an impossibility.

Dead silence reigns here but for the motion-sensing cannons that scare birds from landing on toxic tailings ponds. There is a directness and immediacy about the oil sands; yet they are distant and cold even standing right in front of them you feel disconnected, what is lies in front of you is incomprehensible.

Your vision is bombarded with a vast field of emptiness that is supposedly full of something important otherwise we wouldn’t be here. A 360-degree turn from an overlook on Highway 63 reveals boreal forest, highway, tailings ponds, refinery towers, native grass, wetlands, an educational exhibit, and a high-security gated and guarded entrance to one of mining claims. It’s feels so incongruent to mix this all together.

In her work The Eye Is a Door, landscape architect Anne Whiston Spirn writes:

To photograph mindfully is to look and think, to open a door between what can be seen directly and what is hidden and can only be imagined. Beyond my own eye’s door are landscapes, the stories they tell, and the ideas they embody. I pass through that door and see: that the natural and the human are one, continuous not separate, landscape a mutual shaping of people and place and a form of language born out of living, a language which to tell new stories and to envision how to adapt human settlements in life-sustaining ways.

Photographs can enlighten, encourage, and activate stakeholders, designers, planners, and allied disciplines to understand more deeply ecological, sociocultural, and economic processes and their effect on the landscape. Photography reveals relationships. It also allows a photographer looking through the camera to make a photograph that reveals to themselves and others new stories of the place they are photographing.

As documentation, photographs serve as evidence for the vast scale of extraction undertaken in the oil sands and other extraction sites. The reader studiously ‘looks into’ their 2D surface to reveal a 3D story about the altered oil sands landscapes.

The work here is metaphor and revelation to the true inner workings of our modern existence; they seek conversation, provocation, and evocation between intrigue and repulsion, attraction and fear, horror and awe, reality and abstraction. We must provoke advocacy and change in thinking about our future and the future of places like the oil sands; to question preconceived notions, creates speculative propositions, and juxtapose natural phenomena with human destruction. The photographs in this project are mirrors: reflecting the past and questioning the future—there is no trickery or false notions of how they relate to our existence. We create(d) them. Now we must fix them and our insatiable need to consume them as evidenced in the Athabasca oil sands.

As a journalist-turned-designer, the driving interest in my work is to unify the ethical and documentary obligations of journalism (storytelling) and its common ground with the projective, forward-thinking obligations of the design fields (futuretelling)."

Jonathan Knight