Text and photos by David Zimmerman.
Could this be just another one of those worn-out, heard it all before, in-the-news-and-gone stories about some poor wretched, unremarkable and voiceless souls who were dispatched as worthless, plowed under and forgotten by some (take your pick) corporate colossal or compliant and complicit government?
The news just repeats itself; Bhopal, Chernobyl, Aral Sea, Niger Delta, Monsanto farmer suicides in India, the U.S. war on Wikileaks and Freedom of Speech (and anyone else who disagrees), Darfur, Abu Ghraib, Gaza, Exxon Valdez. The shear volume of thievery and tragedy is numbing, paralyzing oceans of populations into believing there is nothing they can do. After a while it all just becomes a monumental bore and a blur – besides, football scores are a lot more fun and there’s still hope that the underdog might actually win one.
It’s the New Normal, and without question, it is by design.
These days, the story of the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history is no longer front page news, or second page or third. It’s just another quickly forgotten and covered-up blip on the disaster radar screen. Today’s front page stories are about the slaughter of civilians in Libya and the eradication of workers’ rights across the globe and that the wealthiest Bank in America pays no corporate tax while its executives take home billions in compensation and working-class families across America lose their homes to these same banks that lie, cheat and steal. Billions! These stories too will be replaced tomorrow by stories equally horrific and increasingly accepted as the norm. The New Normal.
Maybe I’ll just go to Wal-Mart and buy some stuff because I really can’t do anything about it all anyway and I’d rather not think about it right now. Where’s the sports page?
Or maybe not.
20 April, 2010. Plaquemines Parish, southern Louisiana, Gulf of Mexico
The explosion of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico precipitated a catastrophic chain of events. Illegal detentions, destruction and death. This place is not Somalia or Ecuador or Nigeria or Pinochet’s Argentina where the rule of law is determined by who has the most bucks or the biggest stick; or is it?. This is a place where journalists are arrested, where workers are coerced, where scientists are harassed, where media is detained, where the military stands against its own people (on BP’s orders), where environmentalists are threatened & where artists are intimidated.
This is America.
Back to photography.
I first went to the Louisiana coast in early May, 2010 after reading news of the explosion and sinking of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig.
Much of my work addresses environmental and social issues and I was compelled to see and to photograph the unfolding of this tragic event. Typical of my usual process, I grabbed a 2¼, some lenses and a tripod and set off to the Louisiana coast, not knowing, and not preconceiving what I would find.
The landscape along the journey from New Mexico to Louisiana changes dramatically from the parched deserts of the southwest, through the endless oil and gas fields and vast cities & suburbs of Texas and finally to the green lushness of the deep south and Gulf coast. It’s also a vast cultural change from remnants of the Old West in New Mexico & Texas to the Gulf coast of Louisiana where over 400,000 French Cajun make their home.
I arrived in Louisiana at a place called Bayou Cane. It’s a place like many others in Louisiana – a place where they love the place they call home, their food, their work and their families. But the look on their faces told a different story from the story we associate with these life-loving people of the south. It was as if they knew, weeks in advance, of a monstrous hurricane that could devour them. But this hurricane was different, they said. They could not flee from this hurricane, they could not protect their families or their houses or their fishing boats or their livelihoods from this hurricane. This hurricane was gushing 2 million gallons of black oil into Gulf of Mexico everyday – and there was nothing they could do about it and there was no place they could go to escape it.
Louisiana is not a wealthy state. It is in fact the 9th poorest state in the U.S. and a place where many are in a perpetual struggle to sustain themselves. Paradoxically, Louisiana is also the largest oil producing state in America.
I began making landscape photographs along the southern coast of Louisiana weeks before the oil actually began coming ashore. It’s a beautiful and a very fragile place with miles and miles of marshland and vast areas of breeding ground and fisheries. As I worked my way toward Venice, Louisiana – near the southern-most tip of the state, I began having an increasingly difficult time getting anywhere near the shoreline as many public roads and access points were blocked. The local police who were sent to block these roads were nice enough, but their words began sounding ominously repetitive. “For your safety” they said, at one road block after the next. When I was 9 my mother used to tell me things like that and I figured she knew better, but now that I’m older than 9, I tend to like to make that decision for myself. And so I kept trying to access the shoreline; but to no avail.
At first these road closures seemed rather innocuous, but gradually the build-up of officials lent a a very different character to the area. There were local police, state police, federal marshals and military personnel crawling all over this very quiet and small region of Louisiana. There were unmarked police vehicles, treasury department officials, military helicopters, federal agents, portable prisons on wheels for sale on the roadside, fully armed U.S. Coast Guard vessels; and then there was BP security – apparently all for my safety. I hadn’t felt so loved and safe since my mom put on my winter mittens when I was 9.
Strangely, it was not guns that were looked at with suspicion; it was cameras.
Needless to say, my landscape photography was not going particularly well and I was spending a lot of time talking to the people who lived in the area and to journalists and scientists and artists. What I heard was horror. Detainments, intimidation and arrests. People who worked their entire lives to buy a small fishing boat were soon to be homeless. Workers and children were developing disabling respiratory illnesses from the air laden toxic mix of crude and chemical dispersants. People working on oil clean-up crews were threatened with arrest if they spoke to the media. I was threatened with arrest by the Coast Guard for taking photographs on public waters. Meanwhile, BP had teams of their own “journalists” and filmmakers and marketing people creating another reality – an alternate reality. BP’s ad campaign slogan is “We’ll make it right”, and they’ve spent millions convincing you & I that they care.
If not for the generosity of a local marina owner and a handful of other private property owners, my time in Louisiana would have ended here. No photographs and no stories. I travel and work in a small truck camper which is mobile and reasonably inexpensive. All I need is a place to park at night and an occasional fill-up of water. But there was no place to park, no place to sleep and virtually no place to get water. There are no state parks in the area where I could stay, and driving 100 miles to sleep at night was prohibitively expensive. Yet, all of the campgrounds in the area were nearly empty! The hotel parking lots were nearly empty! In an attempt to keep the public from seeing the devastation, BP had contracted every single campground and every hotel room in sight, yet they remained empty, and unavailable.
In many ways, the story of the landscape and the story of the people are the same – you just can’t hear the landscape cry, and so I began to photograph the people and to record their stories. Fisherman, tradesman, laborers, priests, housewives, grandmothers, children and boat captains. The stories spoke of devastation and despair and helplessness.
The New Normal.
The stills in this project were photographed with an 8×10 view camera and 400 speed negative film scanned on a Howtek HiResolve 8000 scanner. Exhibition pigment prints are 80×65 inches printed on Hahnemuhle rag paper. The video was shot with a Canon 5D Mk2.
[youtube JATX5SJj3Mc nolink]
Better writers than I have written about the relationship between media and globalization and corporate influence in government and control of the masses. The best I can attempt is a simple story in pictures.
Please visit David Zimmerman website for more photographs and stories.