Toxic-waste sites hiding in plain sight

Story highlights

  • Photographer David T. Hanson focuses on sites of environmental destruction
  • His aerial images, shot in the '80s, highlight a problem that's often difficult to see

John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion who focuses on climate change and social justice. Follow him on Snapchat, Facebook and email. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)David T. Hanson documents the massively invisible.

A nature photographer by trade, he long ago abandoned Ansel Adams views of wilderness. Those shadowy canyons and vaulted peaks seem so antiquated in the modern era -- a time when mountains are crushed for coal and rivers are silenced by walls of concrete.
Hanson's lens, instead, focuses on a nerve-gas dumping ground outside Denver; the choking scale of a coal-fired power plant in Montana; a shuttered aluminum mine in Oregon.
    These are airport-sized sites of environmental destruction. Consequences will span generations. Yet, without Hanson's images, these places would remain in our collective blind spot. They'd disappear into the imagined infinity of the American West.
    Later this month, we will be reminded of the power of Hanson's sickly beautiful images when a book of his work, "Wilderness to Wasteland," publishes. It features previously unpublished photographs Hanson shot between 1982 and 1987.
    Photographer David T. Hanson
    The photos range from eerie aerials of toxic-waste sites to empty-yet-intimate portraits of towns that have been despoiled and abandoned by extractive industries.
    I recently talked with Hanson about the book and his work. I was struck by the degree to which these massive environmental atrocities attempt to hide in plain sight.
    They often succeed.
    Hanson had to trespass to get images of a power plant and coal-mining operation in Colstrip, Montana. Other times, the only way to gain safe access to these wastelands was to shoot them from the sky.
    He found the aerial vantage also served an artistic function.
    "I sort of felt like the aerial view was maybe the most appropriate way of representing the late 20th-century landscape, and so I really started focusing on aerial views," he told me. "I felt like the aerial view was particularly interesting for its abstracted and distant technological view of the Earth -- mirroring the military's applications of aerial photography for surveillance and targeting."
    These photos, like Hanson's work more generally, grew out of his childhood in Billings, Montana. Hanson told me he loved backpacking and fishing near his home, appreciating the unspoiled wonder of the place. His photography initially focused there, too.
    Soon, however, he realized highlighting that beauty was "out of touch."

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    "I was sort of photographing the dream -- or the old utopian vision of what our ancestors found when they came to this country," he said. "I realized it might be more interesting and challenging for me to investigate our contemporary American landscape."
    Early in his career, Hanson's parents gave him a copy of Karl Bodmer's 1830s sketches of the Missouri River. He also stumbled onto the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville, who was exploring the country and writing about it around the same time Bodmer was sketching. These works made Hanson realize just how much the landscape had changed in 150 years.
    His photos ask us to grapple with this seismic shift.
    And there have been tangible results.
    Montanans, for example, enacted a law in 1998 that banned new mines from using an environmentally damaging process involving arsenic. Hanson's images were used in the campaign for that law, he said.
    More significantly, he's also succeeded in helping reframe the way we see nature.
    "The power of these photographs is in their terrifying, because undeniable, particularity," the author Wendell Berry wrote in the introduction to one of Hanson's earlier books. "They are representations of bad art -- if by art we mean the ways and products of human work. If some of these results look abstract -- unidentifiable, or unlike anything we have seen before -- that is because nobody foresaw, because nobody cared, what they would look like."
    But it's also clear that history continues to repeat itself.
    The Superfund toxic-waste cleanup program, which gets substantial attention in the book, languishes with too little funding. Of the 1,714 toxic sites listed as national priorities since the federal program began in the late 1970s, only 391 have been declared fully remediated.
    Then there's the recent tragedy in Flint, Michigan. An untold number of kids were poisoned because of lead in their water.
    In the era of climate change, environmental collapse becomes all the more insidious because it's harder to see and it's harder to find the villain. Most of the sites highlighted by Hanson have a clear culprit. There's a mining company or federal agency responsible for a gaping pit in the earth or for contamination of waterways with toxic metals or chemicals.
    Climate change, which I would argue is an existential threat and one of the most significant social-justice issues of our time, poses new challenges for photographers and storytellers. The causes are distributed -- blame Exxon, blame China, blame me for taking airplanes around the world writing about this -- and the effects are diffuse: melting ice, rising seas, heatwaves, animals pushed towards extinction. The consequences of our addiction to fossil fuels are so big, so everywhere, that they can seem unreal. Like remote mines, they hide unhidden.
    But we can't let these problems get too big to see.
    We have clear solutions to toxic-waste cleanup and climate change. Taxing carbon pollution and slashing fossil fuel subsidies, for example, would help us detox from the dangerous and dirty energy sources that pollute the air and raise global temperatures.
    We must find bold, creative and upsetting ways to carry Hanson's torch into this troubling time.
    Because rekindling a healthy relationship with nature starts with really seeing it.