© J Henry Fair
Last night, I held a dying bird in my hand. Lucy, the neighborhood cat, had been at it, and from far away I’d seen her tossing it around. By the time I reached my doorstep, I didn’t expect there to be much left. But Lucy got bored with the sparrow soon after she’d broken its wings, and after she’d scampered away and I stood in my yard, the bird was lying in the grass, its beak pointed up at the sky and its little eye glaring at me.
I went inside, I put on my gloves, and I came back to scoop up the bird and see if some gentle prodding might reignite its will to live. The bird closed its eye, too pained to fight me, and I stood on my doorstep contemplating its little life and how easily it fit in my hand. For a moment it was beautiful, the bird tucked into itself, gray and small and breathing, and then it was dead. All the life in the little sparrow was suddenly and irrevocably extinguished.
The same jagged dichotomy permeates every photograph of J Henry Fair’s book, Industrial Scars. Henry has flown over the world and photographed the industrial processes that power it. The vivid colors and swirling shapes, seen from on high, are reminiscent of soothing, abstract art. In truth, he’s capturing poison on a grander scale than it’s ever been seen.
J Henry Fair has dedicated his life to photographing death in all its toxic majesty.
There are some 40 hours left in which you can donate to Henry’s kickstarter, the proceeds of which will be distributed in part to the many experts that contributed essays to Industrial Scars. Henry has made a career from his photography and can expound at length on the terrible disasters he’s witnessed through his lens, but he wanted this photobook to inform as well as fascinate.
Because the photographs are, at least to this writer, indescribably beautiful.
“Well, and that’s why they are effective,” Henry told Planet Experts, “because this dissonance that they create. The fact that they are beautiful, they are compelling – so your brain is telling you, ‘Oh I love that.’ But then you realize, ‘Wait a minute, but they’re about something bad.’ And that very dissonance is the root of why they’re effective.”
Henry’s kickstarter ends on May 29, and as of this writing it’s already received $13,000 of a $5,000 goal.
Henry’s first book, The Day After Tomorrow, depicts the same type of spectacular sickness: Industrial destruction from on high. Both books, said the photographer, are part of the same big project over many years. Henry considers Tomorrow his first foray, the beginnings of understanding about what he was seeing and photographing, whereas Scars is much more active in its message.
“What are those hidden costs of the stuff we buy every day?” asked Henry. “That’s what the whole project is about. Because we don’t know those costs, they’re hidden from us purposefully, and in a way we don’t want to know them. We don’t really want to know what had to happen for us to have that nice smartphone, because then we’d have to justify it to ourselves as consumers.”
What Is the Big Picture of Coal?
In addition to his photography, Henry is also an activist and the co-founder of the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, New York. And though today he splits his time between the East Coast and Europe, he’s never quite shaken his South Carolina accent.
He’s also not above ribbing his dear native land. While sharing his gratitude that Bill McKibben wrote the forward to Scars, he asked if I knew who Bill was. I replied that Planet Experts is very familiar with the founder of 350.org. “I’m from the South,” Henry quipped, “and in the South not only would they shoot Bill McKibben, they don’t know who he is.”
Bill McKibben’s mission is fairly straightforward: He wants the planet to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide. His organization, 350.org, refers to the optimal concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, 350 parts per million. Two years ago, the World Meteorological Organization announced that CO2 levels had hit 400 ppm above the Northern Hemisphere for the first time in recorded human history.
This is a growing problem. As carbon and other greenhouse gases build up in the atmosphere, the planet’s weather will undergo drastic changes: Not only will the temperature rise, droughts will become longer and drier, monsoons will become wetter and more intense, hurricanes will form more quickly, the ocean will acidify, food will become more scarce and the seas will engulf the coasts.
The burning of fossil fuels is the biggest contributor to CO2 emissions and global warming, and coal is the most carbon-rich of them all. But the impact of burning coal is, for the most part, invisible. By photographing mining operations, Henry tells “an extensive story” about “the big picture of coal.”
Mining coal destroys the land. It requires the creation of coal ash ponds that contaminate groundwater with a variety of toxic wastes. When two pipes ruptured outside a Duke Energy plant in Eden, North Carolina, they spilled at least 30,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River, poisoning it for 70 miles with mercury, lead, arsenic and other heavy metals. The water was so poisonous that it became unsafe to physically touch.
Henry describes what he does as “mak[ing] pictures of the way things work.” That doesn’t mean that his pictures show things working well.
Nothing depicted in Henry’s photographs is illegal. These processes are approved of by governments all over the world. That’s despite the fact that mountains are being razed, pesticides are poisoning bees and other pollinators and the households around fracking sites have suspiciously poor health.
For coal ash in particular, “these wastes are essentially unregulated and they’re all toxic,” said Henry. “The immediate thing that coal ash does is leach arsenic or selenium into the groundwater, both of which are toxic, but it’s also got a ton of other toxic shit in it. And it’s less regulated than your garbage.”
What Is the Environment?
Before embarking on The Day After Tomorrow, Henry started by “doing what every photographer does…taking pictures of the graphic beauty of machines.”
Over time, Henry wondered how he could incorporate his environmental concerns with his work. It was the pictures of rusty old machines that spurred him to the realization “that sometimes a literal representation is less effective as a graphic piece than as a more abstract [photo] – than something that causes us to stop and question, ‘What is that?’”
Just talking to Henry is an adventure in itself, and my quotes here cannot do justice to the flourishes of inflection or discursive tangents that suddenly derail and magically dovetail back into the topic at hand. But what I can present is Henry’s clear and bullshit-free take on what the environment really is in the context of human civilization.
“What is the environment? The environment is a bunch of free stuff that we’re getting,” said Henry. “It’s an economic question. The common good of clean air, clean water, a stable weather pattern that will allow us to farm and the oceans to provide us bountiful food, and all of this stuff that we call the environment, is in fact a complex system that gives us free stuff.
“Environment is a common asset that is being misused by people for their own gain.”
As in any industry, there are good and bad actors, and Henry is adamant that he does not vilify corporations across the board. “I try not to use industry names and brand names precisely for that reason,” he said, “because I think the onus is on us the consumer to be aware. I think that’s our responsibility as citizens.”
We’re Transfixed by the Virtual World
“The most upsetting thing is the apathy of the American public,” said Henry. “Sure, it’s all upsetting. That we burn all this coal, it’s all terribly upsetting, but it’s more upsetting that Americans are willing to turn the other way and not pay attention, and say, ‘I don’t care where my smartphone comes from, I just want it.’ That’s what I find the most disturbing.”
For the photographer and activist, communicating his environmental passion is something he has always strived to do, “and as an artist [I] always wanted to make art about it. But I didn’t really get how to touch people.” Learning how to utilize the medium, he said, was much more difficult than learning how big the problem is.
And creating a picture that makes people stop and wonder, that, he hopes, will get people thinking, pull them out of their apathy. The preponderance of smartphones and digital media make sharing his work easier, but it also leads to a lot of distractions.
“We live in a false virtual world,” he said, referring to the internet. “The real world is a polar bear sitting on a chunk of ice floating away because he can’t find any seals. It’s not the smiling polar bear that you see on your smart device. It’s fascinating that we’re transfixed by these little magic boxes that tell us stories of how the world is – and the world isn’t that way! Polar bears are gone. The tigers? They’re gone! It’s over for the tigers.
“The more we’re transfixed by the virtual world, the more we’ll lose the real world.”
And the only way to change it is to demand change, he added. That means demanding change from ourselves as consumers, not for solutions from on high.
“You can go vote for whoever you’re going to vote for and hope that they’ll make some difference in our log jammed political process,” said Henry, “but it won’t. But if you make a resolution to make every piece of paper you buy post-consumer, by golly you’ll save a forest in your lifetime. Now which one makes a difference? Voting for Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton, or saving a forest in your lifetime?”