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A journey through the oil sands

The impact of oil on Alberta, Canada

The impact of oil on Alberta, Canada

In 2010 Alan Gignoux and his team went to Alberta to investigate the impact of the oil sands industry. It’s sparked many questions, and even more answers. In the weeks leading to our annual meeting which will explore how arts and culture can enrich lives and build a healthier and more sustainable society, we also look at the link between journalism, arts and environmentalism.

“In the beginning, oil was a blessing. It brought Alberta from the ranks of the ‘have not’ provinces, to the ranks of the ‘have’ provinces. It allowed schools, roads and hospitals to be built.”

These are the words of an elderly cowboy from Alberta.

It’s undeniable that oil and fossil fuels can bring immediate prosperity to an impecunious community. When we think of the phrase ‘strike oil’ we instantly associate it with fortuitous upward mobility; both oil and riches are wedded together harmoniously.

Before the 1970’s, the oil industry in Alberta was not seen as economically viable, but due to massive subsidies, technological breakthroughs and the rise in oil prices, extracting Bitumen became a reality in the early nineties.

Alan Gignoux

Alan Gignoux

Below the surface, oil was becoming a burning issue for local people. Health problems have continued to plague local residents of these areas, as the regulations currently in place do not take into account the health and livelihood of those most readily affected. As such, despite people continuously getting sick and farmers having to vacate their land, not enough is seemingly done to fix this problem.

“Despite the obvious and significant health issues, there are striking economic benefits that simply cannot be ignored. The essence of this project is to allow our interviewed participants involved to tell their own story, to describe what they are experiencing, whether that be their frustrations and fears or their hopes and rewards, to the outside world.”

Alan Gignoux

In 2010, Alan Gignoux began photographing the social and environmental impacts of the Oil Sands, and how it was affecting the lives of the residents in Alberta, primarily focusing on the Fort McMurray and Peace River areas. With his team, Alan interviewed farmers, local businesses as well as employees, which allowed for a varied insight into how the areas were beginning to change.

Alan visited the region several times over the next five years as the project has expanded from its photojournalistic roots to include video footage, and his team are developing an interactive web-documentary to bring all of this media together.

One of the elements which is very clear in Alan’s work is his commitment to objectivity and transparency, recognising that to understand the complexities of how fossil fuels can affect a community is to comprehend the different impacts and attitudes.

“This topic is more complicated than it appears” said Alan.

“Despite the obvious and significant health issues, there are striking economic benefits that simply cannot be ignored. The essence of this project is to allow our interviewed participants involved to tell their own story, to describe what they are experiencing, whether that be their frustrations and fears or their hopes and rewards, to the outside world.”

The next stage of this project is exploring what other alternatives there are to fossil fuels in Alberta. Currently wind, solar and biomass are beginning to develop in the Southern region of Alberta, but are still very much in its infancy. As Canada is beginning to look at renewable energy and looking for ways to create a more sustainable future, digital storytelling and photojournalism can be a mechanism for widening this discussion.

Both good journalism and the creative arts in their different forms will be an instrument to involve more people in an ever-growing conversation. Which can only be a good thing.

It’s an ongoing debate whether journalism and artistry should remain intentionally separate, whether they are the same thing, or if they exist as a hybrid form. But it’s clear that they can share the same aims and conjure similar responses.

Gignoux photos

Journalism favours transparency, helping audiences to move outside of the ideology of activism and formulate an opinion with a more complete context and perspective. However, imagery such as photographs and video use creative skill, and can summon a reaction based on their beauty and emotional power.

For Alan and this project, the underlying purpose is to stimulate a conversation and fashion a personal connection with audiences.

“By creating a thought provoking documentary, driven by a passion and an understanding of the socio-environmental and political issues that the oil industry has on Alberta, my aim is that visual storytelling will inform, inspire and change ideas previously thought unchangeable.”

The topic inexorably leads to a discussion on the future of climate change, and action on climate change will take a huge commitment from Governments, businesses and individual people. Both good journalism and the creative arts in their different forms will be an instrument to involve more people in an ever-growing conversation. Which can only be a good thing.

As for the oil sands of Alberta, this project reminds us that there are several truths, numerous perspectives and indisputably high stakes, and that the journey never ends.
How do you feel? It’s best you find out for yourself.

words: chris yong

CV
Gignouxphotos

Gignouxphotos is an established photojournalistic and multimedia company, whose projects focus on the socio-political and environmental aspects of controversial issues around the world. Working with Non-Governmental Organisations such as CARE, Oxfam and the British Council, their projects have all achieved international success. The exhibition Homeland Lost was exhibited across the Middle East, including the Cinematic in Tel Aviv, one of the few times that the Palestinian refugee issue has been exhibited in Israel, as well as being showcased in the Palestinian Film Festival at the Barbican in London.

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Tim 1 year ago

Really interesting article, journalism and arts are entwined I think. Journalism a form of art? Probably.

Rosemary Rylands 1 year ago

The little video is pure propaganda. No economic “benefit” is worth the devastation caused by the Tar Sands oil extraction – the worst man – made environmental disaster on the planet today. The vast lakes of toxic waste, poisoning of land and wildlife, and water tables on an unprecedented scale, atrocities committed to a pristine living landscape come under ECOCIDE. Prosecutions and imprisonments for crimes against people and the Earth should be brought immediately and it should be shut down. I live in North Yorkshire and we have had many mines here over the centuries but the Tar Sands is pure apolcalypse, a horror beyond horrors and I will withdraw every penny I have with Triodos Bank if I see you have anything at all to do with this project. I am appalled you have even displayed this wimpy, pathetic little argument, this badly disguised attempt to portray the oil companies as caring and altruistic. They are voracious and amoral in their destruction. This planet deserves so much more respect than that. It is alive and should be treated accordingly. You idiots. I thought you were a green and ethical bank!!!!

P J Ellis 1 year ago

One can’t help seeing this article and reported viewpoints as being a whitewash. One has to ask why, in the face of all evidence on climate change and international agreements to reduce carbon emissions, Canada didn’t set out down the renewables road much earlier?