There is never a single approach to something remembered. The remembering is not like a terminus at the end of a line. . . A radial system has to be constructed around the photograph so that it may be seem in terms which are simultaneously personal, political, economic, dramatic, everyday and historic.– John Berger
Land’s End is a visual journey through several small coastal communities in British Columbia. Its purpose is to explore memories of the progress and sometimes decline of these communities; to collect visual evidence of the relationships that these coastal towns and villages have developed with the land and sea.
Background to Land’s End
In February 1999, The Globe and Mail reported that: “the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans withheld a major study of economically devastated West Coast fishing communities and then released a sanitized version, omitting criticism contained in the original report.” The original study had concluded that the communities had not been well served by the existing government assistance programs and made recommendations for more effective handling of economic aid. The amended report made no reference to these recommendations.
To farther explore the story first published in The Globe and Mail, I applied for the Michener-Deacon Fellowship to support a photographic essay that would examine the inherent potential of BC’s coastal communities for long-term sustainability. A major part of the project would be a series of portraits of people who live in these villages and towns. A selection of these images was eventually exhibited in Gallery WM in Amsterdam in December 2000 and illustrated a special section in the Vancouver Sun newspaper. (Samples of these photos can be seen in the photo gallery)
During the summer of 1999 and then 2000, I spent several months in some of the communities mentioned in the Department of Fisheries study.
When I photographed Rick Telford, a former logger and recently somewhat reluctant tourist guide, we climbed Radar Hill overlooking Clayoquot Sound and looked down at one of the finest old growth forests on the planet. “No matter the protests. This forest will be eventually logged, one way or the other,” Rick said, “The wood down there is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. If we’d like to get the same economic value from tourism we would need to charge a hundred dollars for a post card.”
A few days later, I photographed Flora Rufus in her mother’s ceremonial dress among time-weathered totems carved by her nephew Mungo Martin.
The Alert Bay burial ground, where we took the pictures, was the perfect place to reflect on the Kwakwaka’wakw’s relation to the land and their concept of the ownership of the land and its resources.
As Lewis Hyde wrote in his book The Gift, the Kwakwaka’wakw, Tlingit, Haida, and others – that once occupied the Pacific coast of North America from Cape Mendocino in California to Prince William Sound in Alaska – developed a relationship to the natural abundance of their environment based upon a cycle of gifts. It was their belief that all animals lived as they themselves lived – in tribes – and that the salmon, in particular, dwelt in a huge lodge beneath the sea. According to this mythology, the salmon go about in human form while they are at home in their lodge, but once a year they change their bodies into fish bodies, dress themselves in robes of salmon skin, swim to the mouths of the rivers, and voluntarily sacrifice themselves so their land brothers may have food for the winter.
The ethos of coastal peoples and myths reflecting their values defined the relationship between humans and nature on the BC coast since time immemorial. In the 19th century a transition took place, and all those things that had been considered gifts became commodities.
In 1883, as predicted, the sockeye runs were outstanding. “Day after day, anxious crowds gathered on the banks of the Fraser estuary to watch boatloads of unprocessed salmon being chucked overboard after the canneries had reached their physical limits. Much fish was wasted in the canning process, too. There was time to can only the thickest part of the fish; the rest of the carcass joined the entrails and the floating, rotting mass of rejected salmon already in the river.” (Dianne Newell, Tangled Webs of History)
Bill Proctor, the old fisherman and logger, described with a degree of irony some of the measures taken in more recent times to protect the fish stocks. In his book, Heart of the Raincoast, he wrote: “From the 1930s into the early ’60s, the Department of Fisheries placed a bounty on all predators, to encourage people to exterminate them. They considered this an effective conservation measure for fish and deer. Fisheries even rigged a boat with a big knife on the bow, to cut in half every shark they encountered. Basking sharks fell prey easily to this vessel, as they lay on the surface. Unfortunately, their deaths did nothing to increase fish stocks because basking sharks eat plankton. Soon the huge creatures disappeared, and they have never returned.”
“What has happened?” David Suzuki asks in the foreword to The Plundered Seas. “At the heart of the global eco-crisis of which the ocean fisheries are a part is a profound change in the way we perceive the world.” He goes on explaining that, “Parts of nature become ‘commodities’ or ‘resources’ that could be exploited to the maximum.”
The memories of the British Columbia coast are complex – mythical, historic and personal – and many are still waiting to be told to a larger audience to enrich the collective memory of the province and the country.
My thanks to the Michener Awards Foundation for providing the funds for the study-leave that allowed me to develop the Land’s End project.
The Fellowship of the Michener Awards Foundation, introduced in 1987, is known today as the Michener-Deacon Fellowship (named after the late Roland Michener and the late Paul Deacon, a senior media executive and Michener Awards Foundation President). This fellowship is to advance education in the field of journalism and to foster promotion of the public interest through values that benefit the community.