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Sights of Contestation Part III: Images

Sights of Contestation Part III: Images

by Laurence Butet-Roch

Laurence Butet-Roch
This post is the third of three in the Sights of Contestation series. Sights of Contestation explores a variety of resistances, both material and discursive, found in current pipeline debates. The authors of this series focus on different sites of contestation—Keystone XL, Line 3, and the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion project—to understand the role the unconscious, bodies, and images play in the perception of these infrastructures and their linkages. Our shared interest rests in unraveling how pipeline projects, and the communities and environments they affect, are rendered (in)visible, legible, and meaningful through the intervention of various tactics, media, and discourses. The fact that pipelines are most often buried underground adds to their indiscernibility and separates the subterranean flow of oil from life above ground.  We ask: What do these “sites” bring into “sight”? How do they make visible what was previously normalised and therefore invisible to many? How can attention to the unconscious, body, and images as important sites of contestation bring new insights to the politics of visibility and shifting power dynamic in current pipeline debates?

As mentioned in the second article in this series by my colleague Alexandra Watt Simpson, bearing the ongoing actions of land and water defenders, oil and natural gas conducts quickly disappear underground, where out of sight, they slowly slip, as the expression goes, out of mind. To think of this burying of visual evidence as strictly incidental would miss the PR service that it provides to the promoters, enablers, and emitters of fossil fuel infrastructure.1

Andreas Malm states what should be obvious “Once an investor has constructed a coal-fired plant or a pipeline or any other such unit, he will not want to dismantle it. Demolition on the morrow of completion would mean pecuniary disaster.”2 Per his calculation, energy structures built today would need to stay in operation for at least the next forty years to be deemed profitable. It is thus in their champions’ interest that they stop being seen as sites that can actively be contested and transformed, but as fait accompli, untouchable, immutable, and binding. As Dayna Scott observes, any new oil development “cement[s] our commitments to fossil capitalism and constrains our abilities to choose a different route, physically, and a different energy path altogether.”3 Given the financial stakes, it is no surprise that the fossil fuel industry continues to try to mask their activities and the networks, physical or otherwise, that they are built on.4

“Actions that seek to bring and keep fossil fuel infrastructures in the spotlight are crucial ways to disrupt their naturalization.”

In this context, actions that seek to bring and keep fossil fuel infrastructures in the spotlight are crucial ways to disrupt their naturalization. But doing so is not without challenges. For those committed to providing visual evidence in the form of photographs, a series of representational challenges arises. Historically, the imagery of man-made structures is steeped in a sense of reverence for the technical prowess of engineers and builders, as exemplified by coverage of the building of the Hoover Dam in Nevada in the first half of the 1930s. Even when images are meant to decry these constructions, as per the stated purpose of many who fall within the toxic sublime genre, debates arise over the effect of their aesthetic, shifting discussions away from the ills they depict. Moreover, given the indexical nature of the photographic medium, how might it contend with the aforementioned fleeting visibility of pipelines? What can it to do once they concealed under layers of dirt? And, more broadly, how can it capture the imperceptible financial and political réseaux that underpin fossil fuel capitalism, especially, when these entanglements are also buried, not underground as per the pipelines, but in abstruse processes, normalized overtime as the way business is done to the point of being unquestionable?

Over the summer of 2020, two colleagues and I, saw these challenges as an invitation to imagine how we can transform our respective photographic practices. Concerned with how the fossil fuel industry was finding ways to further their agenda in spite of, and, at times, thanks to the pandemic, we explored the potential of a polyphonic approach to covering the consequences of oil development in Canada, each contributing stories from our respective geographical area. To create ruptures with dominant narratives, Patricia R. Zimmermann and Helen De Michiel suggest that we draw inspiration from polyphonic musical arrangements that “feature several rhythms and voices, each retaining its own beat and melody, combined contrapuntally. Through consonance and dissonance, polyphony creates order out of diversity.”5

“Concerned with how the fossil fuel industry was finding ways to further their agenda in spite of, and, at times, thanks to the pandemic, we explored the potential of a polyphonic approach to covering the consequences of oil development in Canada, each contributing stories from our respective geographical area.”

Clockwise from top: 1) The 7 Mile Lodge in Burns Lake is associated with COVID-19 outbreaks in Northern BC © Amber Bracken 2) Lifelong oil workers Sherry Gassner and Ryan Penner came to Oyen, AB, in part hoping to work on the Keystone XL pipeline © Amber Bracken 3) The main COVID-19 isolation unit in the remote Indigenous community of La Loche, SK © Sara Hylton  4) A homeless shelter set up in La Loche, SK to deal with the onset of homelessness due to COVID-19 © Sara Hylton

From the west, Amber Bracken, shared images of the small town of Oyen, where in the summer of 2020, the population nearly doubled due to the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. She also covered COVID-19 outbreaks at Coastal Gaslink and LNG Canada’s operations in British Columbia. In the Prairies, Sara Hylton, examined the ties between the high numbers of cases in the community of La Loche, in northern Saskatchewan, and the adjoining Clearwater River Dene First Nation and the nearby Kearl Oil Sands Project, while also reporting on the dismay of ranchers, landowners and Indigenous communities in the southern part of the province, who, despite the federal government promise to provide financing for the clean-up of inactive oil and gas wells, are seeing no progress on the matter. And, in Ontario, I investigated the intertwining interests of the energy industry and Canada’s wealth, traveling to Oil Springs, site of the first oil rush on the continent and to downtown Toronto where fifty percent all of mining global financing and trading takes place. This coverage , which received support from the National Geographic COVID-19 Emergency Fund for Journalists, is by no means a full overview of the many realities generated by fossil fuel extraction, production, and transport.6 And much work remains to be done, by ourselves and by our many talented colleagues.

Our decision to come together and weave these intersecting stories together was informed by the desire to unsettle the common impression that the set of circumstances they speak of are happening in a vacuum or are exceptional. Too often, when representing the damages done by industry to a particular community, it is divorced from the larger context that allows for such industrial operations to take place. In “Situating Sarnia: ‘Unimagined Communities’ in the New National Energy Debate,” Scott explains how populations that reside downstream from fossil fuel industries need to be actively unimagined in order for these infrastructures to continue to receive national ascent.7 Hence, the importance of connecting the different realities together; how, for example, the working conditions in the Alberta Tar Sands, are felt by the Indigenous communities across the border in Saskatchewan, and how the lack of care for either is rooted in the profit-driven boardroom decisions taken miles away, in major Canadian cities.

Left to right: 1) A battered stop sign on forestry roads in Wet’suwet’en territory, BC. The area is the most contested on the Coastal Gaslink pipeline’s route and has been opposed by Hereditary Chiefs and their supporters © Amber Bracken 2) As of Summer 2020, the “Big Five” Canadian banks –The Bank of Nova Scotia, seen above in Toronto, ON, the Royal Bank, the Bank of Montreal, TD Canada Trust and CIBC– owned almost one fifth of the shares of TC Energy (the company behind the Keystone XL and Coastal GasLink pipelines © Laurence Butet-Roch  3) There are eight beds for COVID-19 patients at Mills Hospital in Terrace, BC. The hospital cares for all of the region’s residents, as well as the influx of pipeline workers. © Amber Bracken

Keeping the importance of connectivity and polyphony in mind, rather than sequence each story vignette one after another —by this I mean all the images taken in Oyen, followed by all those taken in La Loche, and so on— they are arranged in such a way that each succession encourages the viewer to make connections, an intuitive behaviour that Zelizer has termed the “subjunctive voice of photography.” If denotation refers to what is in the image, and connotation draws on symbols, visual subjunctivity involves the “implicative relays, suggestive slices of action that people need to complete by interpreting and imagining what unfolds beyond the camera’s frame.”8 In this respect, pairing images of financial institutions in Toronto with depictions of injured lands and bodies can infer their relationality, how the former is inextricably responsible for the latter.

Left to right: 1) The Fairbank Oil Fields have been owned by Charles Oliver Fairbank III’s family since 1861. They still operate 311 wells in Oil Spring, ON © Laurence Butet-Roch 2) Summer 2020 marked the third time pipes were shipped to Oyen, AB in preparation for construction of the beleaguered Keystone XL pipeline © Amber Bracken

Harnessing the subjunctive voice of photography is also a fruitful way to move past the fixed temporality of photography that I evoked earlier. Through polyphonous juxtapositions, we can hint at connections between different times. For instance, by placing an image of the current work camps housing the hundreds needed to operate large extractive sites next to that of a family-owned operation in Oil Springs, Ontario, site of the first oil well in North America, we draw out the transformation of the industry from its inception through today.

Left to right: 1) Kevin Peters a member of the Yellow Vest pro-energy movement, attends an anti-mask Canada Day celebration in Edmonton, AB © Amber Bracken 2) Edward Dennis is a survivor of Lejac Residential School where a work camp has now been built in Northern BC. “They could pass a deadly disease to the people,” he says, noting parallels with the smallpox blankets and other diseases that colonizers have brought to Indigenous communities in the past. © Amber Bracken

Visual subjunctivity can also allow the viewer to go beyond this linear timeline. Barnett (2015) reads subjunctivity as “a grammar of hope capable of suggesting multiple and contingent futures” since it gives imagination room to envision different possibilities.9 To honour and encourage viewers to envision different futures, we include portraits of people who have indeed imagined the future differently; from the Yellow Vest sympathizer, Kevin Peters, who wishes there were less governmental oversight crippling the market, to Edward Dennis, a Dakelh (Carrier) elder and Lejac residential school survivor, who believes that those who have respect for the land will carry us forward. The viewer is therefore asked to engage deeply with these different views, considering where they might originate from, and where they can lead us.

If polyphony creates order, as Zimmerman and De Michiel explain, it doesn’t imply tidiness or harmony, but rather a more accurate representation of our fossil societies’ contested sites. For more info, see NiCHE Conversations 2.15 with Laurence Butet-Roch.

Laurence Butet-Roche is a PhD candidate in Environmental Studies at York, where she studies visual narratives of environmental contamination and systemic environmental racism. She completed a Masters in Digital Media (Ryerson), where she teaches Interactive Storytelling, a B.A. in International Relations (UBC) and a two-year training in photography at the School of Photographic Arts: Ottawa. A photographer, photo editor, writer and art educator, she contributes to Aperture, The British Journal of Photography, National Geographic, Photolife, Point of View, Polka Magazine, The New York Times Lens Blog, The New Yorker Photo Booth, amongst others. This article was originally published by the Network in Canadian History & Environment (NiCHE).


1 See Corporate Mapping Project (n.d.). Fossil-Power Top 50 available online: Accessed January 26, 2022.

2 Andreas Malm, How to Blow Up a Pipeline (London, Verso Books, 2021), 28–29.

3 Dayna Scott, “Situating Sarnia: ‘Unimagined Communities’ in the New National Energy Debate,” Osgoode Legal Studies Research Paper Series. Paper 83 (2015): 16,

4 Alexandra Watt Simpson, “Along Line 9: (un)masking as a performance strategy along the Line 9 pipeline” Oxford Research in English (forthcoming). See also Alexandra Watt Simpson’s conference presentation for the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment. “Along Line 9: Masking, Camouflage and Survival” (2021).

5 Patricia R. Zimmerman and Helen De Michiel, Open Space New Media Documentary: A Toolkit for Theory and Practice (New York, Routledge, 2017).

6 Amber Bracken, Laurence Butet-Roch, and Sara Hylton “Essential Oil” Maisonneuve 80 (Summer 2021).

7 Scott, “Situating Sarnia.”

8 Barbie Zelizer, About to Die: How News Images Move the Public (New York, Oxford University Press, 2010): 6.

9 Joshua Trey Barnett “Toxic Portraits: Resisting Multiple Invisibilities in the Environmental Justice Movement” Quarterly Journal of Speech 101, no. 2 (2015): 413.