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© 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.

Oil from Deepwater Horizon spill on the Gulf of Mexico. Oil comes out of the ground in many colors and consistencies, from invisible gas to solid tarry globs. These will evaporate, float on the surface, or below, depending on their density relative to the salt water. The color of the oil observed at this spill varied from red to dark brown.

Oil from Deepwater Horizon spill on the Gulf of Mexico. Oil comes out of the ground in many colors and consistencies, from invisible gas to solid tarry globs. These will evaporate, float on the surface, or below, depending on their density relative to the salt water. The color of the oil observed at this spill varied from red to dark brown. © J Henry Fair with credit to SouthWings.

Industrial Scars

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.

Hydro-seeding. Grass being planted on covered Mountaintop Removal mining site around Kayford Mountain, West Virginia. The forested mountains, valleys and streams that once stood here are now buried beneath the overburden from mountaintop removal coal mining. It is leveled and then sprayed with a mixture of grass seed and fertilizer. This satisfies the EPA regulations on mitigation. © J. Henry Fair / www.jhenryfair.com, with credit to SouthWings http://www.southwings.org/

Hydro-seeding. Grass being planted on covered Mountaintop Removal mining site around Kayford Mountain, West Virginia. The forested mountains, valleys and streams that once stood here are now buried beneath the overburden from mountaintop removal coal mining. It is leveled and then sprayed with a mixture of grass seed and fertilizer. This satisfies the EPA regulations on mitigation. © J Henry Fair with credit to SouthWings.

“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.

This mine produces over 125,000 tons of zinc and three million ounces of silver per year. In 1998, a tailings reservoir burst, emptying seven million cubic meters of waste into the Guadalquivir River, a major part of one of Europe's largest nature preserves. This is one of the biggest "heronries" in the Mediterranean Region, and winter home to over 500,000 migratory birds. Up to a year after the initial spill, waste was still leaking into the wetlands at a rate of 22,000 gallons per day. Aznalcollar, Nerva, Spain

This mine produces over 125,000 tons of zinc and three million ounces of silver per year. In 1998, a tailings reservoir burst, emptying seven million cubic meters of waste into the Guadalquivir River, a major part of one of Europe’s largest nature preserves. This is one of the biggest “heronries” in the Mediterranean Region, and winter home to over 500,000 migratory birds. Up to a year after the initial spill, waste was still leaking into the wetlands at a rate of 22,000 gallons per day. Aznalcollar, Nerva, Spain. © J Henry Fair.

“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.”

Coal must be washed with water, and processed with a variety of chemicals, before it is used. This creates a slurry that is stored in temporary earthen dams across the end of a valley called impoundments. On numerous occasions, impoundments have failed, releasing large quantities of the toxic mixture to devastate the valley below. (© J. Henry Fair / www.jhenryfair.com, with credit to SouthWings http://www.southwings.org/)

Coal must be washed with water, and processed with a variety of chemicals, before it is used. This creates a slurry that is stored in temporary earthen dams across the end of a valley called impoundments. On numerous occasions, impoundments have failed, releasing large quantities of the toxic mixture to devastate the valley below. © J Henry Fair with credit to SouthWings.

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.

Mountaintop removal coal mine at night. Mining operations work around the clock at amazing speed; this lonely stand of trees disappeared in barely a day. The small bulldozer on the upper level pushes loose material down to the loader, which scoops it up into the next earth mover in line which will dump it into a nearby "valley fill," burying the stream there.

Mountaintop removal coal mine at night. Mining operations work around the clock at amazing speed; this lonely stand of trees disappeared in barely a day. The small bulldozer on the upper level pushes loose material down to the loader, which scoops it up into the next earth mover in line which will dump it into a nearby “valley fill,” burying the stream there. October 28, 2005. © J Henry Fair with credit to SouthWings.

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?’”

The farmlands that once surrounded this quaint German town were destroyed to excavate the coal beneath them, which will fuel the nearby power plants to provide electricity to Berlin and the other large cities in the east of Germany. When the decision is made to mine in an area, the population is relocated, and the whole town is dismantled and destroyed. Nothing remains but a hole in the ground that can never be filled. Griessen, Lausitz, Germany

The farmlands that once surrounded this quaint German town were destroyed to excavate the coal beneath them, which will fuel the nearby power plants to provide electricity to Berlin and the other large cities in the east of Germany. When the decision is made to mine in an area, the population is relocated, and the whole town is dismantled and destroyed. Nothing remains but a hole in the ground that can never be filled. Griessen, Lausitz, Germany. © J Henry Fair.

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.”

Top of oil tank at tar sands upgrader in Fort McMurray, Canada. The first step in the oil sands process after extraction is upgrading, in which the particulate matter is separated from the bitumen and brought to a stage from which refineries can process the different products. This is a photograph of the top of a rusting petroleum tank, with a walkway out to the covered inspection hole in the center. The rust on this oil tank does not diminish its function: storing 400,000 to 500,000 barrels of the world’s dirtiest oil, obtained by excavating large areas of the tar sands in Canada. July 23, 2009.

Top of oil tank at tar sands upgrader in Fort McMurray, Canada. The first step in the oil sands process after extraction is upgrading, in which the particulate matter is separated from the bitumen and brought to a stage from which refineries can process the different products. This is a photograph of the top of a rusting petroleum tank, with a walkway out to the covered inspection hole in the center. The rust on this oil tank does not diminish its function: storing 400,000 to 500,000 barrels of the world’s dirtiest oil, obtained by excavating large areas of the tar sands in Canada. © J Henry Fair.

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.

Rainbow refraction in liquid jetting from pipe and blown by wind in a petroleum coke terminal in Texas City, Texas. Petroleum coke is the final residue of the oil refining process, which is often cooked down to become asphalt. Depending on the quality, it is also used as an energy source or a carbon source in certain chemical processes, one of the most important being the refining of aluminum. The liquid being sprayed is probably water for dust abatement. March 24, 2006.

Rainbow refraction in liquid jetting from pipe and blown by wind in a petroleum coke terminal in Texas City, Texas. Petroleum coke is the final residue of the oil refining process, which is often cooked down to become asphalt. Depending on the quality, it is also used as an energy source or a carbon source in certain chemical processes, one of the most important being the refining of aluminum. The liquid being sprayed is probably water for dust abatement. © J Henry Fair.

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?”

You can view more of Henry’s photographs at the Industrial Scars website and donate to his work at his kickstarter. The campaign ends on May 29.

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