It’s inevitable that the landscape will change, but what I’m hoping to accomplish is to create a body of work that will stand the test of time as a document of a time and place.” These are the ambitions of documentary photographer Nick Brandreth as he embarks on an inspiring project to demonstrate what stands to be lost with fracking.
Nick’s project, Upstate, is a chance to “make people aware as to what’s happening right outside our door.” His plans are both unusual and ambitious; after photographing beautiful, natural landscapes across the state of New York, he plans to use historical photo processes to create a body of work which he describes as “a special bond between subject and object”. Describing the techniques he will use, Nick said: “I will make my own emulsions, and use dry plate technology popularised by the Eastman Dry Plate Company in the 1880s. I’ll collect soil samples in the areas where I shoot and, by using carbon transfer printing processes, I’ll use these actual soil samples to create photographic prints that bear traces of the land they document.”
“With my vision and ability to shape images I can help to have a positive impact on trying to make serious change”
New York is one of the last states in the US to make a decision on fracking. The pressure is on to save the land and Nick hopes to make a difference. “I felt that with my vision and ability to shape images I could help have a positive impact on trying to make serious change.” Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing to use its technical name, is the controversial process of drilling down in to the earth and directing a high pressure and high volume mixture of water, sand and chemicals into the rock, in order to release gas and oil. Where permitted, fracking is able to make huge quantities of otherwise inaccessible fuel available for use. For many people struggling in today’s harsh economic climate, this has resulted in a greatly needed source of income.
The problem, however, is that alongside the short-term economic benefits come polluted, over-used water systems, exploited land, and the possibility of earthquakes. In the long term, this could ultimately lead to substantial economic loss. As a popular tourist destination and home to a large winemaking and farming industry, upstate New York stands to lose a lot. Nick, who spent much of his childhood hiking and fishing in this area, wants to make people aware of these detrimental effects of fracking. “People have become blind to the way things work. All we need to do is look at history and we’ll see how this will end up. People will see a few years of prosperity followed by a crash that will leave them worse off than before.”
New York sits upon the Marcellus Shale formation which is rich in natural gas and is, consequently, a keen target for energy companies. However, its waterways provide water for millions of people across New York and its neighbouring states. Contamination of this water by toxic, carcinogenic and radioactive materials, used during the process of fracking, would have devastating effects.
Despite these shocking consequences, Nick believes that many people don’t seem to have grasped the extent of the problem. “Most people today are disconnected to the world around them. People look at a map and unconsciously view New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania as different places. We all share the same air and water and what happens in one place can seriously affect another. If we end up ruining fresh water supplies there’s going to be a serious issue for millions and millions of people.”
Statistics have shown that Nick’s worries are shared by others; according to a Siena College survey in September, 45 per cent of New York voters were not supportive of allowing high-volume fracking in the state. Thirty-seven per cent did support it and 18 per cent had no opinion or did not know enough to make one.
Fortunately, New York has a governor who is sympathetic to Nick’s views. New York has managed to curb the advances of fracking so far with a moratorium launched by former Governor, David Paterson, which has prevented high volume fracking in the state for the last five years. But by summer 2014, this will no longer apply. Current Governor, Andrew Cuomo, hasn’t made his stance clear, but has delayed making decisions to go forward with fracking, until the results of a review by the Department of Health are announced.
“The dangers we face from fracking are not instantaneous: they are a long, drawn out, slow death”
With most US states jumping on the fracking bandwagon, I asked Nick what hope there was for New York. “I’m forever the optimist and I don’t think the landscape will end up being ruined, but one cannot rule out the serious possibility of that happening. It’s inevitable that the landscape will change, but what I’m hoping to accomplish is to create a body of work that will stand the test of time as a document of a time and place. If it will change in a bad way or a good way I can’t say, but we must do all we can to protect it. I’m hoping that my images will help inspire people and make them realise what we have and why it needs to be protected now.”
Nick’s reasons for the project are certainly noble, carrying the hope that it will inspire others to seek to protect their land. Yet Nick is doubtful as to whether his images will affect those running the energy companies. “I don’t see that the energy companies care one way or the other about what I have to say. This project is for the land, and the people who love and need this land. I feel we’ve become consumed in the bullshit we’re fed through the media and I hope that what I’m trying to do can break through to people if only for a brief moment.”
Talking to Nick, I could tell how much the land means to him; this project is a truly personal and important piece of work. When describing the issues involved his words are filled with a refreshingly genuine appreciation and worry. “The landscape was formed slowly and deliberately shaped into what we now know as our home. The dangers we face from fracking are not instantaneous: they are a long, drawn out, slow death. Sadly, often it’s not until our children become sick, our animals lame and our food and water poisoned that we will see what we’ve lost. By then, simply, it’s too late. I hope to make photographs that are a contemplation of what we have now, what we stand to lose and why it needs to be protected.”
The true message of the Upstate project is to not take the land you live on for granted. The earth is beautiful, but delicate, and needs protecting. “We’re at the point in human history where it’s completely about sustainability. If we don’t follow that path we’re doomed. Fracking is not sustainable in my eyes. The short term financial gains are trumped by the fact that you could potentially leave the land in ruins forever.”
All photographs courtesy of Nick Brandreth