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Richard Misrach and Kate Orff Discuss Petrochemical America

KO: The word “throughline” had to do with the idea of tracing the line of a story through many different moments, and moving from almost an intuitive reading through a deep research process based on interviews, newspaper searches, and library work. The process started with me beginning to cluster and sequence Richard’s photographs, based on the larger sets of stories that we wanted to tell—oil, waste, displacement, etc.—and beginning to sequence and organize a set of concepts into throughline chapters, which were then sequenced into the larger story of the Atlas. The Displacement section was really generated from the starting point of Richard’s photograph of Morrisonville. Knowing about the typology of small houses and settlement clusters of the time, we just thought to start by drawing out the first images in my mind’s eye of what the context of the two asphalt pads might have been so many years ago, to imagine sort of a mirage of what might have been there, based on photos from the same era that we found in a Louisiana state historical archive. The second drawing in that series, the map at river scale, was one of the last drawings in the entire book to be completed and represents the combined work of a number of people in the office, seeking to understand and compile stories of buyouts and displacement from probably thirty different sources—interviews, books, newspaper articles, legal records, e-mails, etc. We overlaid those stories with information about when the plants were established, so it becomes a portrait of a certain scale and type of community fabric and relationships being replaced by a different scale of industrial fabrics, scales, and material relationships. I think what’s interesting about that map is that it represented a tremendous amount of digging and synthesis, but for example our friend Willie Fontenot said he’d never seen these stories together, and that it was revelatory and important, but he would be the first to point out all of the stories that we missed just outside of the “crop” of the map, just upriver or downriver or in the bayou. The third and fourth spreads in that chapter relate to the desire of wanting to know more detail and to recreate to the best of our ability a closer look at neighborhoods and lives touched. During this time, Anne Weber in the office learned about the Locke Breaux Oak from the President of the Live Oak Society, who sent us a newspaper article from the 1960s—a story about a massive and resilient oak tree, hundreds of years old, that died because of exposure to chemicals from a nearby plant, and resisted several rounds of dynamite, so we thought that was a great metaphor and a very specific moment to include about nature, community, and change.

Cancer Alleys Around the World
Some communities have organized and used environmental regulations and democratic processes to push back against polluting industries. In response, many companies have simply outsourced operations and concomitant waste to developing countries. Today the stories of pollution, economic displacement, and environmental injustice from Cancer Alley are echoed in the impoverished regions and neighborhoods of India, Russia, China, Nigeria, and Myanmar, among other countries. There, residents have even fewer avenues of opposition and self-determination. Meanwhile, oil spills and pollution carried by deltas create marine areas inhospitable to wildlife species and wreak havoc on subsis- tence economies. It is not only producers of petrochemicals but consumers of their products in developed and developing nations who benefit from and bear responsibility for this dark new global scale of waste and displacement.

Finally, the last spread, Cancer Alleys Around The World, evolved concurrently—as we were learning more about Cancer Alley and the many successes that were achieved by the environmental justice movement there, we were constantly learning of stories about zones around the world that are now going through the same cycle of extraction based industry, waste, displacement, and resistance, whether in the Nigerian Delta, or the rice fields and fishing grounds of Myanmar. Gena Wirth found a sourceable dataset from the Blacksmith Institute that built the framework for this map. Probably ten different people on the project team contributed to this section in different ways, on different drawings, or researching different stories, and making phone calls. In addition, we probably reached out to fifteen people in Louisiana, who corresponded with us over e-mail, with a phone call, reviewing specific drawings, or just sharing local knowledge with us to help us try to get the full picture. That’s a Throughline. This is not “detective work,” but rather a creative and imaginative process that interweaves intuition and research.

 

MH: Richard, you’d never worked with anybody who does what Kate does, so that was a huge leap of faith, and also of aesthetics and everything else. Kate, I don’t know whether you had worked for photographers or with photography before in this particular way. What is the efficacy of this interdisciplinary approach?

 

RM: I’m hoping that graduate students in departments everywhere—the next generation of engineers, chemists, physicists, urban planners, architects, landscape architects, designers, photographers—will work together to address one of the biggest environmental threats of our historical moment. Some cross-fertilization of disciplines might not be a bad model for opening up new ways of approaching these problems.

 

KO: I think a major challenge of making change is being able to visualize issues and to have an informed conversation about these issues. Richard’s photographs are experienced almost intuitively and emotionally. My hope is that by integrating emotion and analysis, photography, research, and speculation, the book can play a role in sparking a deeper discussion about the future of energy and our shared climate and the landscape that we have made. The sort of fragmented way of thinking has gotten us to this point, but to move forward into a cleaner, more just energy era we’ll have to have a different, more synergistic approach. We tried that with this book, and hopefully it will spark other sorts of collaborations and exchanges.

Abandoned Trailer, Mississippi River, Near Dow Chemical Plant, Plaquemine, Louisiana, 1998

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