For the past 8 years, Alan Gignoux has been documenting the ways in which natural landscapes have been ravaged by the fossil fuels industry with devastating consequences for the environment and local populations (oil sands extraction, Alberta; mountaintop removal mining, Appalachia.) His latest project, Human Accumulations, documents the long-term effects of the historical exploitation of Niagara Falls by industry and tourism. Alan Gignoux is partnering with curator Jenny Christensson for this project, which will culminate in a photographer’s book and an exhibition.
“I became interested in Niagara Falls when I discovered the paintings of my ancestor, Hudson River School artist, Regis Gignoux, who painted the Falls obsessively. Working in the mid-19th century, he presented an idealized version of the scene, leaving out the ugly trappings of tourism and industry that even in his day disfigured the surrounding landscape”, says Alan Gignoux.
The beautiful photographs of the American and Horseshoe Falls that tourists nowadays post on Instagram every summer disguise a disturbing truth. Although there is a narrow band of protected land on both sides of the Niagara Gorge, on the Canadian side the city offers a Las Vegas style tourist experience with casinos and amusement park attractions. The U.S. city of Niagara Falls opposite is an industrial graveyard and one of the most polluted places in America. Drawn to the Falls because of the supply of cheap hydro-electricity and water, industries flocked to Niagara as early as the late nineteenth century. They brought prosperity in the medium term but left a devastating environmental legacy.
In the 1970s the Love Canal disaster in Niagara Falls, New York, revealed that chemicals companies had been disposing of hazardous waste, including radioactive materials, throughout the city at undisclosed sites for three decades. Now, a declining and impoverished population is condemned to live alongside Superfund sites that will require regular monitoring “in perpetuity” and amidst former industrial areas with unknown histories of chemical dumping. In a bid to bring about a recovery, Niagara Falls, New York, is trying to reclaim the city’s many brownfield sites and to develop a more nature-based alternative to the consumerist tourist experience on the Canadian side, with mixed results.
'For centuries, before it became associated with honeymooning and mass market tourism, Niagara Falls was an international symbol of both the Natural Sublime and American industrial potential. The idea of America as Nature’s Nation was ultimately at odds with the drive to harness the country’s apparently limitless natural resources to the service of technological progress. The poor, depopulated, shuttered and environmentally compromised city on the American shore warns of what happens when technological and commercial hubris trump all other concerns”, says Jenny Christensson.
Residential streets in Niagara Falls today are situated alongside or nearby active industrial sites and brownfield areas. At the time when these communities were developed, in the middle of the last century, the prevailing logic was to build workers’ houses near their job locations. Neither employers nor workers gave much thought to the unpleasantness of living next to factories, let alone to the potentially harmful effects of doing so. As the city went into economic decline people betrayed their ambivalent feelings in the line: “When the smell goes, the jobs go.”
Niagara Falls, New York, was late in realising the economic potential of tourism. By the time the opportunity became clear to them the factories were leaving and the city was in a steep decline. Desperate to reverse these fortunes, city hall pursued a series of ill-conceived, grandiose projects that have left the downtown tourist area decimated. While the city has been trying to work out where to go from here, Sikh immigrants from other parts of New York have moved in, taking advantage of the city’s depressed property market to set up businesses catering to the increasing number of Indian tourists.
The project team of Human Accumulations
Alan Gignoux and Jenny Christensson have known each other since childhood. As adult professionals they have co-operated on documentary photography and multimedia projects since 2005, with Alan acting as photographer and videographer and Jenny assuming the roles of researcher, writer and curator. Projects on which they have worked together include: Homeland Lost, a series of photo essays looking at long-term refugee crises around the world and two multimedia projects which explore the environmental effects of fossil fuels extraction – Appalachia: Mountaintops to Moonscapes and Oil Sands.
Alan Gignoux is the creative force behind Gignouxphotos, an established multimedia company, focusing on socio-political and environmental controversies around the world. www.gignouxphotos.com
Jenny Christensson is a freelance curator working with artists from around the world on commissions, exhibitions and public art projects.
Alan Gignoux: Photographer Jenny Christensson: Co-Creator Chloe Juno: Creative Consultant Emily Macaulay: Graphic Designer
More of Alan Gignoux's photography may be found online at