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Oil Sands

Alan Gignoux

On of the land & us today, we are featuring the work of photographer Alan Gignoux — Oil Sands, an on-going long term photojournalistic and documentary project on the gigantic oil sands industrial project in Canada.

Gignoux’s work stood out to us as a work which has had and continues to have absolute dedication and tireless effort poured into it, to bring to light the goings on around topics such as this. Prior to this project, we ourselves had little-to-no knowledge of the oil sands, and, essentially, the consequences of these works.

Read our interview with Gignoux below, who tells us all about Oil Sands — and please give some time to see the full project on his website.

Tell us about yourself.

I am a London-based photographer, bringing unknown stories to the forefront. The majority of my work is based around people and place, and their relationship to the land they live on.

I work also with a small creative production team on multimedia projects, my company – gignouxphotos.

I just have just returned from Tindouf, Algeria. Over the years, I have been documenting the Saharawi refugees living in camps. I have compiled a body of photographs and interviews commissioned by Sandblast Arts.

Already, the work has been exhibited at London’s Photomonth and will be made into documentary about the Al’Walid musical troupe, who sing about injustice and the Moroccan occupation.

Throughout my life, I have been fortunate to travel the world and I have collected paintings, photographs and photobooks.

How did you become interested in photography?

I am a visual and oral person and have always enjoyed telling stories. I discovered photography in my thirties, by falling into it whilst working in South Africa for CNN.

I was given the opportunity to work with journalists – they would write and I would take photographs (self-taught!) for news and features.

This is how I discovered I had a natural ability to take photographs, and I relished the whole process. Upon my return to the UK, I enrolled on a course at the London College of Printing.

After graduation, I worked as a freelance photographer for photographic agencies and worked on commissions for NGOs, Oxfam and Care.

While working in Lebanon, I came up with the idea for a project entitled, Homeland Lost. I pitched the idea to the British Council in Jerusalem and was successful with funding.

Subsequently, I collaborated with a curator — Jenny Christensson — and I photographed a body of work that travelled across Europe and the Middle East, which was also exhibited at The Barbican, London.

For Homeland Lost, I worked with the British Council in Jerusalem photographing Palestinian refugees in camps across Lebanon, Jordan, Gaza and the West Bank, as well as internally displaced people inside of contemporary Israel. I also photographed where the refugees had fled from; what had happened to their previous homes, the landscape and who were the new occupants?

I am interested in using photography in multimedia, for example interactive web documentaries. I have started to incorporate interviewing people alongside the stills with all my work to date.

Please tell us about your work Oil Sands.

I have submitted images from my long-term project Oil Sands, A Journey Through. This project focuses on Alberta where the land has been ruined; what struck was me was the level of destruction – the boreal forest there had been completely removed. I wanted to show this through my photography, and speak to those affected in some way.

I had originally heard about the oil sands from a friend; it is the largest oil sands industrial project in North America. To put this into context, it is larger than the size of England, or the US state of Florida.

I am deeply interested in issues facing people and their environment, so I just had to go. Early on, the work was completely self-funded.

On my first trip, I wanted to photograph the land and also interview the people who were affected — those being swept away by government and industry, and I interviewed farmers and First Nations elders.

The editor at Revolve Magazine then saw the work and commissioned me twice to go back and get further images and interviews for their magazine.

I have been working on this for five years now, going back and forth to build a bigger picture, along with my creative team, and film editor Chris Kemble. I am also working on a photobook with Stanley James Press and Chloe Juno, and I hope to make an interactive web documentary.

During this year, we are hoping to crowdfund, to help build the documentary. We have, so far, interviewed over forty people for the project whilst also photographing the effects of the industry. I am hoping to gain more engagement from people in Alberta — an interactive social aspect to be included within the documentary.

Why this particular oil sands project? The sheer size of the industry and the process that is used to extract the Bitumen — which is known as the dirtiest fossil fuel — is an example of the bottom of the barrel, as the costs, although falling, are also the highest. I wanted to explore and show the experience of those living on and alongside land that is being used in this way.

I focus on this project and this topic because the environment is the biggest challenge facing humanity. We need to have a clean earth to survive as a species.

What are you recommending?

I listen to various podcasts such as the Glass Bead Game, the Photo Brigade, and Multimedia week. I keep myself informed of current political and social topics by reading and watching different news streams: Al Jazeera, the Real News Network and the British Journal of Photography. I enjoy watching documentaries as it satisfies my curiosity about the world around me.

I also like to look at books by the great photographers. There are so many great ones out there but to name a few: William Eggleston, Stephen Shore and Pieter Hugo.

Tell us about an artist who inspires you.

My number one inspiration is the work by David Goldblatt, a South African photographer who started the Market Theatre photography workshop in Johannesburg. Goldblatt is famous for his large format photographs depicting the sadness of the Apartheid system.

While in Johannesburg, I had the privilege to work as workshop leader with the group.

What are you up to next?

I am still working on my long-term projects Oil Sands and Appalachia, but a new landscape project that I am currently researching and engaged with is Régis Gignoux, which will become a photobook and touring exhibition.

My ancestor, Régis Gignoux was a painter with the Hudson School of Art. His paintings currently hang in the United States Senate and the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

Gignoux painted American landscapes, bringing a European perspective and sensibility to the American wilderness. Gignoux’s art depicted contemporary 19th century America.

I am going back to the locations that my ancestor painted, to photograph the places and also explore the socio-political issues around the land now.

His paintings raised many questions: the injustices of slavery, the treatment of Native Americans and the brewing tensions between North and South. Some would say that America is still experiencing the same tensions that could rip the country apart.

One painting depicts a farmer beating his cow outside of Peekskill, New York. Peekskill was a part of the Underground Railroad that allowed slaves from the Confederate States to flee to Canada.

The painting tells us about the cruelty of slavery in Gignoux’s day, but could also talk about the cruelty that America has towards its poor and minorities.

Gignoux also painted Mammoth Cave in Kentucky where, during the American Revolution, the bird droppings were transformed into gunpowder by the Dupont family and allowed America to win its independence.

This painting could be juxtaposed with an image of drone bases in Nevada, showing how American power now spreads across the globe, from being colonised to the coloniser.

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