Land's End Project - Interview

Josh Wallaert: Tell me about your methods. When you arrive somewhere newóAlert Bay, for exampleóhow do you go about entering the story of a place?

Christopher Grabowski: Alert Bay is one of those places where you canít just step out of the car, or the boat in this case, and start asking people questions. You have to know how to ask the right people in the right order, making yourself known to people first. The same applies to places like Jabal Saraj in Afghanistan, and to many social groups here in Vancouver. You have to figure out the order. Thatís the difference between a spot news photographer and a documentarian. The first one comes when things blow up, and he photographs them; itís about direct impact. When a documentary photographer comes later to do the after bombing story, thatís a different way of approaching the situation; itís about how the community adapts.

You donít start photographing right away, of course. Iíve been to Alert Bay probably seven times. On my third visit, perhaps, people started treating me seriously, not as a tourist but as somebody who comes and goes and has some sort of long term interest in the place. Now youíre this guy who comes from time to time and takes pictures. Youíre part of the story in a way. What photography does as a medium, and itís invaluable, is that itís really about documenting the photographerís own relation with the subject. That relation is always in the picture, but itís not always apparent.

JW: Youíre a writer as well as a photographer. Which comes first in your process? 

CG: I learned English in my late twenties, so as much as I enjoy writing, itís a much harder part of the job. But this is an important point. I would like to dwell on this a little bit. Generally, the way photography is used in the news media, the story is written first, and the photographer is brought in later to make it more realistic. That process is affected by the ďrelentless melting of time,Ē as Susan Sontag would say. When the photographer is sent to illustrate a story after the writer has done his part, you might have people in the photograph at different moment in their lives, at different places, sometimes different people entirely. Itís just the issue that is supposed to be illustrated. In the mainstream media world, the editorial side has too much control over the process of producing that picture. The character and thrust of the story is already determined, and theyíre just looking for a photograph to illustrate it. Iíve done it a million times myself. I donít bitch about it. Thatís the nature of the beast. But as a documentarian I want a little more leeway. Usually I take pictures first, and then I have to write the story in a way that accommodates those particular images. 

I think thatís the right way of doing things, because photography is a different reflection of reality than the text. People have political opinions and ideas, and sometimes they are unable to see things, but the camera does see them and allows us a rare occasion to spend some time with that reality, because itís now frozen in front of us. If our news stories relied more on photography for content and meaning, and if writers would have to go and describe whatís in those pictures, we would probably have more honest, true reporting.

JW: It seems like the problem is writers fixing the meaning of a story too early. As youíre taking pictures, is there a point when you say to yourself, ďOkay, now I have this. Now I understand this storyĒ?

CG: No, itís really a process. It has to be open ended. I surprise myself some≠times because I interview people and just keep listening, and I end up with half a notebook full of notes. And then, just as an example, I show the story to Geist publisher Stephen Osborne and he says, You know, it would be better if it had more of this and that and that, and then I go back to my notebook, and I see, Oh, itís there. And then I will write that. But thatís hardly possible for a reporter working on a deadline. Itís fixed, bang, goes to the newspaper, and that becomes our point of view. Documentary is really a process of discovery and you canít end arbitrarily at any given point.

JW: As youíve returned to these West Coast frontier towns over the years, what kinds of changes have you seen?

CG: In some communities, there is sort of a diminution. Like over these last ten years, Port Hardy, I think they lost one third of the population. They lost several shops, restaurants. The whole fishing business is gone. The mine is closed. So itís shrinking, and you can feel that. And some other communities, like Alert Bay, they just go on. Theyíve been in some sort of crisis for the last century, so they donít really think itís any different. Maybe there is something in their hunting-gathering past that allows them to be more flexible than other North American folks who just transplant typical expectations to any place that they goóso Port Hardy has its own suburbs, its own west side and its own east side, sort of a miniature typical North American city. They try to live their lives in an expected sort of manner. But it can only be sustained to a certain point, as long as the mine is open, and then it collapses. It doesnít mean that a comfortable life there is impossible. Itís just not sustainable this way.

JW: Is there something unique about photography that lets you approach these issues differently than, say, a professional historian or a news journalist?

CG: The photographic image works with the human mind on many levels. The first thing isóitís an indexical reflection of whatís in front of the lens. So that gives it a sort of embedded credibility. But then most of the time we donít really know whatís in the picture without knowing a context, so you have the whole package, which includes your culture, the millions of photographs youíve already seen, and so on. So the purely documentary, indexical reflection is one thing photography does, but it does not really determine the photographís social meaning. What happens with some photographs, like several photographs from the Vietnam War eraóyou remember Nick Utís picture of the kids running, being burned by napalmóthat sort of photograph allows people to focus their emotions and weight the photograph with a meaning that is not necessarily there or wouldnít be understood the same way in some other societies. American society at that point was really looking for a focal point for their anger and frustration with that war, so the photograph acquired so much meaning, but that was sort of a content projected on the photograph. Photography allows this in a more direct way and brutal way than text. 

JW: Iím looking at your photo of the former Ocean Falls high school library, now overtaken by mosses and small trees. It reminds me of Camilo Josť Vergara, who has photographed the ruins of American industrial cities from a sociological perspective. What is the relationship between photography and politics in your work? Do you want your work to contribute to conversations about Canada and its future?

CG:Yes, thatís a very important question. Vergara is a great photographer. He sort of noticed things in American civilization, letís speak broadly, that were hidden in plain view. And he brought together a body of work that was looking at these issues in a way that surpassed the consensual, habitual way of looking at economies and cities. And thatís an absolutely great documentary work. Very similar in terms of impact is Ed Burtynsky, his project Manufactured Landscapes, or his book on China, basically showing what our civilization is really based upon, the extraction of resources, and what this does to us and to the planet. He found a visual language to present that issue, bypassing the economy vs. preservation controversy, and bring it to peopleís attention from a different perspective. Fantastic work, and very important. 

I donít want to put myself together with these giants, but my work is in a way about trying to show the relation between the dominant economy and the communities that actually make this economy possible through resource extraction, the frontier communities. And they can be anywhere, in Sierra Leone, digging up diamonds, or in North America, cutting trees or mining nickel or something else. There is an uneasy relationship between this economy and the communities that make it possible, which are really considered expendable. The wealth is transported somewhere else, to some sort of center, however we define that. Itís tragic, actually, the tension between economy and community, whole towns bought and sold and bulldozed or abandoned. I donít claim I ever succeed to the degree letís say Burtynsky succeeded in tightening up his message or presenting his vision, but itís still in the works. Itís a project in progress, so I still have a chance.

 All pictures (c) Christopher Grabowski