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With his camera, photographer J. Henry Fair relates the untold stories behind humanity’s rampant consumption and its devastating consequences for the planet – from the air that is polluted and the water that is contaminated to the diverse habitats destroyed along the way. His work is versed in both the language of art and of science.

Fair’s book Industrial Scars (Papadakis) compiles striking photographs of industrial sites that reveal the real cost of the things we consume every day – from the coal that powers our lights and the oil that fuels our cars to the aluminium that creates our ubiquitous soft-drink cans.

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CANADYS, SOUTH CAROLINA, USA. When ash comes into contact with water, contaminants including arsenic, lead, mercury, selenium and others can migrate into groundwater, lakes and streams. This plant (since closed) was cited by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2011 as a “proven case” of environmental damage. It is know to have contaminated groundwater with arsenic, and is one of the largest emitters of sulphur dioxide in the USA.

These large-scale aerial photographs have been captured from the open windows of small airplanes.

“Being in a plane enables me to jump the tallest fence, cover the long distances and see what is hidden from most people,” Fair says.

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GULF OF MEXICO, USA. Oil floating on the Gulf of Mexico from BP Deepwater Horizon spill at the Macondo well.

Panoramic vistas are tainted with the artificial colours of industrialisation transforming idyllic landscapes into dystopian realities. Rivers flow ultramarine blue with toxic selenium leaked from ash waste ponds, oceans float with shimmery, metallic islands of oil spilled from wells, and expansive fields of bright yellow rapeseed are interrupted with red metal drill rigs used for fracking.

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DARROW, LOUISIANA, USA. A plume of aluminium ore processing waste is pumped into an impoundment. Bauxite ore is crushed, dissolved in caustic soda to form slurry, cooked under pressure, then separated from tremendous volumes of red mud waste that is disposed of in sprawling impoundments.

The images assault the senses with stark dichotomies, pulling the viewer into a tug of war between beautiful abstraction and ugly truths, between awe and horror.  

“A beautiful image of something horrible,” Fair says, “pushes and pulls the viewer, and causes dissonance, and we should be disturbed by these things.” The beauty of the abstract artwork captivates the attention before the reality of the imagery becomes apparent. 

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WARSAW, NORTH CAROLINA, USA. Hogs are kept in sheds with grated floors which allow everything to pass down to the pipes that drain to large waste lagoons. All manner of offal collects in these impoundments, from foetuses to fecal matter. Due to the drugs and hormones fed to the sows, their faeces are pink. Once this aggregate is together in a lagoon, the wind will tend to accumulate the floating solids in one place.

Fair says his art is a tool, a way to work beyond the confines of dialogue and to connect with people directly through universals. It commands us to stop and contemplate our own complicity in what is portrayed. He wants his images to provoke, motivate us to take ultimate responsibility for our actions, put our money where our values lie and change our behaviour to reduce our own personal footprint.

“If one person buys toilet paper made from old newspapers instead of from an old-growth forest, “ he says, “that one person can save a forest in her lifetime.”

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Industrial Scars: The Hidden Costs of Consumption by J. Henry Fair with a foreword by Bill McKibben, 350.org. Published by Papadakis. Flight services provided by Lighthawk and Southwings.