09 June 2011

El Paso

From a pilot's perspective, flying in El Paso, Texas is a stressful event. It is literally surrounded by restricted air space: Mexico to the south, and Fort Bliss military base to the north. So, one either approaches from the east or the west, talking to the controllers and watching carefully for other air traffic continually. And be careful not to hit the giant ASARCO smokestack, the phallic remains of a superfund site that dominates the El Paso skyline. The smelter that it served poisoned the air, land, and water for the 70 odd years of its operation, and is still in bankruptcy. Smeltertown, where the predominantly Mexican labor force lived, was razed by the EPA due to its staggering contamination, the residents relocated, leaving only a tremendous statue of Christ looking over the site. The border with Juarez, the notorious Mexican city across the river, dominates life in El Paso.

Mexico provides labor, an escape for corporations from American environmental regulations, and fuels an industry of border security. Copper was the primary product of the smelter. Nearby in New Mexico, are several large copper mines owned by a mining giant with an environmental record less than pristine.

When my friend the writer Roger D. Hodge mentioned he was going down to work on a book about the border, I immediately asked to accompany, and called LightHawk, that great organization of environmental pilots, asking if they had anyone in the area. Merry Schroeder from Santa Fe volunteered, and agreed to fly down and pick us up in El Paso. In spite of the forecast for high winds, which make flying and aerial photography quite difficult, the day broke calm and clear. Due to the stress of flying in and out of El Paso, Merry wanted to fly from the left seat, which has the opening window, but we agreed to touch down when we arrived at Silver City, NM and change seats. Shooting through a window is highly problematic for numerous reasons: reflections in the window, loss of contrast and resolution shooting through the plexi window, and the inability to look down. At the airfield were several fire fighting craft: a large helicopter and plane, undergoing maintenance from their duties fighting the wildfires in New Mexico. In spite of my entreaties, Merry insisted that the air space was restricted, and that we could not fly there and photograph. So we changed seats and proceeded to the nearby mines and smelter.

Open pit mines are possibly the most visible of “industrial scars” and the trick for me is to take these disasters, inherently ugly detritus of our consumer culture and create images that captivate the attention of the viewer. Ultimately this is about using the rules of color and composition, and, in that five seconds of attention, stimulate interest and curiosity, and tell a story.

By this time, the wind was picking up, which makes positioning the plane quite difficult. The details I'm interested to shoot are very specific, and in a plane, one has but a second, literally, to get them. Merry is a very skilled pilot, and was able to put me in the proper place repeatedly. Between the bouncing plane, and the wind tearing at the lens, getting that tight, exact, composition ain't easy, so
around and around we go. Thanks to exemptions in the clean air and clean water acts, mining wastes are exempt from reporting, so the real impact of these mines is unknown. Art can somehow fill that gap, as a picture does not lie (like a politician). And only through the collaboration with people like Merry and LightHawk can these stories be told. We photographed two mines and the accompanying smelter, then headed back to El Paso where we were interested to see the border fence. The fence, so imposing from the ground (and such an environmental barrier) is hard to photograph from the air. It becomes a demarcation line, an effect that is very visible. The other quite visible effect is the traffic queuing up to come in to the USA. So much money is being spent on an intractable situation that will only be remedied when the underlying causes are addressed: economic disparity and drug use in the USA. Until that time, the fence is but a monument to futility, not to mention a repeat of a similar mistake. Fortunately, the Mexicans we are trying to exclude don't have the same intent as the Germans did.

1 comment:

robbin milne said...

Thank you Henry, for once again, sharing your experience, I look forward to the images.