J Henry Fair talks art, consumerism and responsibility at exhibition opening

Last Friday, photographer J Henry Fair spoke about his exhibition “Extraction and the American Dream” at Swarthmore’s McCabe Library.

No, wait. Last Friday, environmental activist J Henry Fair spoke about the dangers of consumerism and waste at McCabe Library.

Hmm, no. Last Friday, journalist J Henry Fair visited Swarthmore’s McCabe library to discuss his experiences documenting environmentally hazardous energy and extraction businesses along the Mississippi River and Gulf Coast.

Any of these introductions would be apt descriptions of the lecture given by J Henry Fair at Swarthmore last week. As much as Mr. Fair’s visit marked the opening of the exhibition of his simultaneously fascinating and horrifying work of environmental disasters, the part-artist, part-activist spent much of the 40 minute talk discussing the circumstances that create these scenes.

An image from Industrial Scars, a series by J Henry Fair

Mr. Fair highlighted the modern disconnect from the consequences of our decisions. Looking towards a lamp near the speakers podium—which he avoided standing behind, preferring to stay to its side, hands in his pockets, head slightly downturned—he asked us to consider “Where do we get the magical juice that powers a light bulb?” and “What are the consequences of the magical box (the iPad) in our hands, that we paid just $300 for?” The consequences of our consumption are staggering, as his images of vast landscapes, darkened by drilling and dumping, illustrate.

In talking about his work, Mr. Fair came to the question of whether he is a journalist, activist, or artist. “What you see is what was there,” he said, explaining that he had not manipulated the images in order to intensify a message. Instead, the photographs are a narrative representation of a crisis that many of us choose to blithely ignore. When asked what about the intention of this narrative, Fair asked us all to consider, “Are we citizens or are we consumers?” The question, which draws a line between informed participants in the life of our society, and mindless shoppers buying up whatever brands we identify with the most, is one of many that the exhibition evokes.

J Henry Fair’s visit marks the first Mellon Tri-College Creative Residency of the spring. It is sponsored Richter Professor of Political Science and Chair of Environmental Studies, Carol J Nackenoff. Mr. Fair will return for the second part of his residency February 18th, where he will work with Environmental Studies and Fine Arts students and faculty. To catch a glimpse of the exhibition, visit Industrial Scars.




About Tom Bonner

Mellon Tri-College Creative Residencies Coordinator
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