Va Hanusik on changing the particular visual narrative of weather change

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In response to the proliferation of disaster symbolism following events such as Storm Katrina, Hanusik, one of survive year’s Decade of Shift winners, has spent 7 years documenting the landscaping and architecture of Southerly Louisiana, showing how much we are able to learn from it.

“Many weather change stories tend to use the same type of image repeatedly to add shock value to the narrative, ” begins Virginia Hanusik , speaking about the oversaturation of disaster imagery in the mass media. “Whether that’s aerial pictures of flooding, wildfires, or even a polar bear in the melting Arctic, these scenes happen to be synonymous with the climate debacle. But the reality is that every community is currently living with the impacts of climate change only at that very moment. ”

For Hanusik, this is evident even in her own adopted home of Louisiana, which because geographical location, is experiencing coastal retreat, climate migration, and rising sea levels at an accelerated rate. Visually, these effects may pale in comparison to the sheer destruction caused by natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina. The storm ripped through the state’s city of New Orleans in 2005 and captivated a global audience. Yet photographing these more subtle scenes and studying them is equally as important in our efforts to understand and combat climate change.  

Venice, Louisiana_On the Origins of High Water © Virginia Hanusik.

In her recent series All the Good Earth , Hanusik explores how this ongoing crisis is putting unprecedented pressure on Louisiana’s extensive infrastructure. The canals, levees, floodwalls, and drainage pipes that are particularly concentrated in the south of their state are coming up against large amounts of encroaching water, as more land continues to be lost to the sea. These systems, originally built to control the Mississippi river as it forms a labyrinthine delta in the surrounding area, are testament to humanity’s long-held want to dominate nature. This desire exerts significant influence on the geography of our towns and cities, dictating urban planning and the ways in which we exist within the landscape. As such, Hanusik’s photographic study of this infrastructure looks not only at the present and future effects of climate change on the region, but more widely at our relationship with natural forces during history.

“I talk a lot about the role of the fossil fuel industry in destroying Louisiana’s coastline and simultaneously making hurricanes stronger. Disaster imagery may focus on the destruction caused by a storm immediately after it happens, but my approach is to talk more about how exactly the communities of South Louisiana have systematically been exploited by Big Oil and its role in making storm recovery much harder. ”

This topic is also the focus of her series A Receding Coast: The Architecture and Infrastructure of South Louisiana , that was created as a direct response to the pervasiveness of disaster imagery in the climate change narrative. In these photographs, Hanusik examines the state’s built environment, proposing it as a symbol of “what we value, how exactly we inhabit space, and the unequal exposure to risk attributable to rising sea levels”.

Even surface-level contemplation of these structures offers interesting, yet unsurprising conclusions. For instance, much of the infrastructure was built by and for the Big Oil companies – the six largest coal and oil companies in the world, also known as supermajors. “I talk a lot about the role of the fossil fuel industry in destroying Louisiana’s coastline and simultaneously making hurricanes stronger, ” explains Hanusik. “Disaster imagery may possibly focus on the destruction caused by a storm immediately after it happens, but my approach is to talk more about how the communities of South Louisiana have systematically been exploited by Big Oil and its own role in making storm recovery much harder. ”

Power lines over Kenner © Virginia Hanusik.

This exploitation extends to the infrastructure itself, which serves to guard only certain parts of the populace. A floodwall, for instance, acts as a barrier to disaster for some, and as a reminder of potentially unavoidable danger for others. These politics of space, which play out in myriad ways throughout Louisiana’s heavily-engineered landscape, provide crucial insights into how we have historically dealt with nature’s challenges, and how we might do so inside our uncertain future. Though we now have no control over where a hurricane hits, we can influence which sections of land become “sacrifice zones” as sea levels rise. The areas we designate to be swallowed up say a whole lot about what – and more importantly who – we value.  

Daniel Milroy Maher

Daniel Milroy Maher is a London-based writer and editor specialising in photographic journalism. His work has been published by The New York Times, Magnum Photos, Paper Journal, GUP Magazine, and VICE, amongst others. He also co-founded SWIM Magazine, an annual art and photography publication.

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