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Bitumen beautiful

Aerial photographs show another side of the Alberta tar sands

Crumbling earth, oil, and toxic water encapsulated within the faulty restraints of a tailings pond, unfathomable magnitudes of bitumen, rich hues of poison, piles of sulfur, heavy metals gushing out of a metal pipe. All this portrayed as beauty?
Combining both his talents as photographer and pilot, Louis Helbig has created “Beautiful Destruction” – a photo exhibit featuring aerial photographs of Alberta’s Tar Sands, currently showing in Ottawa. Helbig’s exhibit offers emotionally conflicting images that oscillate between the beauty of the visual and the atrocity of the large-scale industrial project. This, he explains, is the result of his effort to delve into more serious subject matter. “While it’s nice to take pretty pictures I wanted to do something that was more politically compelling, more topical.”

Helbig’s photos deliberately blend the lines between reality and artistry. In his photos, the residual bitumen is confused with a painter’s brushstroke, and an alluvial fan laden with oil is mistaken for the shimmering roots of an ancient tree. The swirling shades of copper mix with the blue tinge of oily waters, reflecting a late summer’s sunset. The viewer is dizzied into a fantasy world of dreamy hues and glistening colours; photographs become nearly impossible to identify from their true form. “It seems to engage people. They get drawn into the art as well as the aesthetic and then it opens a place to think about, to reflect and to identify with the imagery, however they might do that,” said Helbig.

But the massive scale of this environmentally devastating endeavour shakes us from this dream world. The sheer extent of the industrial project becomes undeniable. A Greyhound bus is dwarfed by the immensity of a tailings pond, the Tonka trucks tearing up the boreal forest appear minute, a lone sailor is unidentifiable in a sea of oil, and a sound cannon (used as noise pollution to deter migratory birds) is dwarfed against the immense backdrop of bitumen slick.

“What I find most compelling is what the whole project says about Canada, and Canadian institutions… It’s a bit of a déjà-vu in terms of natural resource exploitation,” noted Helbig, citing the depletion of cod fisheries in Newfoundland as an example. Helbig’s photographs also resonate with the number of social issues inherent with the project, including the housing conditions of the numerous migrant workers and the artificial landscapes that are created around these areas.

Helbig’s exhibit colourfully aestheticizes the tar sands project, while still vividly portraying the environmental destruction the tar sands project has caused. A photo of a misty evening near Fort McMurray captures the serene beauty that is the boreal forest, evoking an honest and sincere depiction of the land. This is contrasted with the horrific scenes of open-pit mining that take place once the so-called “over-burden” is removed. In this way, Helbig plays with the senses to truly engage the viewer. “The purpose of the exhibit is to have people reflect and think and that is way more powerful,” said Helbig. “That reflection, that philosophical space or imaginative space or emotional space, that speaks to us as individuals, as a community, our human spirit, and that’s really powerful.”