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Ashley Cooper photographs the destructive impact of the tar sands


October 30, 2012

Photography has a history of raising awareness and acting as a powerful influence — from its inception in the mid-19th century to our modern social feeds.  If seeing is, in fact, believing, global warming photographer, Ashley Cooper hopes the world hasn’t become too busy to pay attention.

Ashley Cooper has been documenting the effects of global warming for the last ten years, and with a background in natural sciences, his work is well informed. Most recently, he’s turned his attention to the tar sands of Fort McMurray, Albert, Canada.

We asked Ashley a few questions about the tar sands and why it’s imperative that the rest of world understands the severe consequences of its existence.

CORBIS: How did you hear about the tar sands of Fort McMurray, and what made you want to document the destruction?

A. COOPER: I have been photographing the impacts of climate change around the world for the last ten years, and the tar sands are something that have been on my radar for several years now; if you are interested in climate change, you have to know about the tar sands. They are a complete game changer in terms of the climate. Stephen Harper pulled Canada out of the Kyoto agreement that they had signed, purely as a result of emissions from the tar sands. If development continues in the tar sands, they threaten to push the climate over a tipping point, from which there will be no return.

I wanted to document the destruction, as the tar sands exploitation is wrong on every level. The emissions are a disaster from a climate change perspective. They are responsible for the second fastest rate of deforestation on the planet, destroying huge areas of valuable wildlife habitat and a very important carbon sink. The pollution from the tar sands is incredible, with many first nation people downstream of the tar sands suffering rare cancers. In Fort McKay just downstream of the tar sands, it is no longer safe to drink the water.

CORBIS: What is the overall impression of the tar sands from locals? It is conflicted or unanimous?

A. COOPER: Most locals are employed either directly or indirectly by the tar sands, and most of them are making an extremely good living out of them. A dump truck driver can make $200,000 a year. I didn’t get the impression that many white Canadians in Fort McMurray were against it. It was a different matter in the First Nation communities downstream of Fort McKay and Fort Chipewyan. The health problems here are extremely serious and most of the residents would like to see the mines shut down. Even here though, the situation is complicated, as the mining companies throw so much money at these communities to try and buy their silence. I got the impression in Fort McMurray that if I had tried to raise opposition to the tar sands, I would at best have been run out of town. In all my travels I have never experienced such hassle and attention from both security guards and the police.

CORBIS: Which of your images do you feel has the most impact?

A. COOPER: I guess that would have to be one of two. Either the tailings ponds from the air, the pollution from these unlined waste dumps is so obvious and shocking to see, or my images of Clara Mercer being treated by Dr. John O’Connor–both are really powerful. Clara is a First Nation resident of Fort McKay. She has had half of both kidneys removed following cancer.  Dr. John O’Connor has worked for years in these communities. He was the first to identify the extremely high levels of cancer here. When he tried to get the government to investigate what might be causing the problems, their answer was to charge him with four cases of gross professional misconduct. He has spent the last five years battling to clear his name. The Health board of Alberta has finally exonerated him on all charges. It was a shameless attempt by the government to silence him.

CORBIS: What’s it like seeing this kind of destruction from above?

A. COOPER: Taking to the air for me was great, as it was the only time I escaped the security guards. It is only from the air that the sheer enormity and scale of the destruction become apparent. Also from the air you see that the majority of the Boreal forest, for hundreds of miles, has been burned out. Forest fires are becoming far more frequent as climate change causes hotter and drier conditions. You would think this might flag up that there is a real problem here.

CORBIS: What’s the most important message you hope to leave with people after photographing the tar sands?

A.COOPER: That the tar sands are the most environmentally destructive project on the planet. They are also the largest industrial project on the planet. Their continued exploitation will wreck any chance we have to tackle climate change. We are also all responsible for their development if we live a carbon intensive lifestyle, which most people do in the west. We need to move rapidly to a low carbon economy. In addition the tar sands are a great example of how money corrupts people, companies, and even governments.




  1. well done !!

  2. [...] to this pipeline’s market purpose is to carry oil sands dilbit (i.e. tar sands) from a “carbon bomb” development project on previously-forested, indigenous lands in Alberta, Canada——— all the way across [...]

  3. [...] Photography has a history of raising awareness and acting as a powerful influence — from its inception in the mid-19th century to our modern social feeds.  [...]

  4. find the alternative. I am employed in the oil sands by a supplier for these mines. I understand the need for contrary opinion, and welcome the need to hold the players accountable. But, this is far from the worst environmental destruction on the planet. The title is held by the urban populated cities that are desperately trying to find new locations to dispose of their waste. I am concerned for the imapct of the oil sands on our environment. But i believe the impact in “earth” terms will be little more then 2 centuries. Carbon fuels will be depleted by the end of this century. Without a replacement fuel, the depopulation of the planet will begin by simple environment reality. The populations increases of the last century and the early portion of the 21st, will be reversed. My questions are … Do the environmental groups wish to depopulate the planet by removing carbon fuels and products from the people? DO they really understand the earth’s capability for fighting global warming caused by carbon fuels? Do they have a answer to the successful sustainability of food supplies when the carbon fuels are not readily available for farming? Do they put humans ahead of their myopic view of the environment? Do they have a replacement for the non-fuel products used by urban populations? Why is Asia consuming more of North American and European waste for recycling? Is the environmental community working on the next generations?

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