What a week you guys have had! I'm self-taught, so it's always interesting to see the dialogue that goes on in an institution like this. Thank you, Cheryl, for inviting me. Essentially, this is a personal story. Earlier I heard a little bit of what you were discussing about the personal that is involved in your image making. I began this particular project, entitled A Toxic Tour of Texas, after I had suffered some detrimental chemical exposure in the darkroom, thanks to Ciba Crigy, who made Cibachrome. Here I was, merrily making these prints on my knees in a bathtub, and you know how the momentum goes, you don't want to stop. One night, I probably went to bed around three o'clock. I took a shower, which was important, to wash off all the chemical exposure I'd had. I woke up the next morning with a horrible strep throat, which I had a tendency to have as a child. I was very ill, with a high fever, so I went to the doctor, who gave me lots of penicillin. He said he almost put me in the hospital, but he thought I was strong enough to recover at home.
The point of this whole story is that, coming out of getting a degree of finance and economics, I understand what drives our corporate culture. It is, on the bottom line, the dollar, and not caring for the people who turn over their dollars willingly for the products. I thought, there's something very backwards here, in handling this chemistry in the darkroom. If you read the labels, they tell you what to do AFTER you've been poisoned. I think that's a little crazy. I feel it's incumbent upon the corporations that are making their nice, big profits to be responsible to the people that are using their products. We have a little bit of that now, with the Material Safety Data Sheets. It's up to you to ask for them; they don't willingly make them available. Also, if any of you go into teaching, you are liable for your students' health in the darkroom. That's how the law is now, across the board. I think, when I say that, people say, Oh my god, I'd better be careful, and that's the point. You have to take responsibility for your actions. I think there was a comment yesterday afternoon; Deborah was talking about a young woman who's putting these images out, and Deborah was saying it's very important that this photographer understands what the consequences of putting that work out will be. She has to inform herself; she has to know the history of them, and she has to be able to speak articulately to these issues that come up, rather than just perpetuate a stereotype.
I was asked some years later by a friend who's a freelance writer to accompany him on a visit to some grassroots environmental activists, who were having a legislative strategy meeting. You have to realize that Texas is a nice big Bubba state, and the biggest Bubbas are in the legislature. These people, basic salt-of-the-earth people, were concerned about their land, air, water, and children being exposed to hazardous waste, be it radioactive, petrochemical, or the nice big dumps that all our garbage goes into. The fact is that we are all very complicit in this issue of environmental degradation, and particularly those of us in the photographic realm. We deal with these chemicals every day. I live, now, out in the mountains of New Mexico, and I have to dispose of my chemistry responsibly. I cant could but I wont, put it right into my ground, because I'm in the septic system. I have to cart it all off, several hours away, take it to Santa Fe, have the fixer recycled, and take the other chemistry to a municipal treatment system. It may be a very small thing compared to, say, Exxon, who's injecting 500 gallons of waste per second into an underground injection well. Nonetheless, we all do have to live responsibly in following through what we create and what we create from.
What I'm going to do now is talk to you about these people that Steven and I met. Basically, Steven Fenberg, as a freelance writer, wanted to tell their story: what got them going, why they were having this meeting, why they came together, what they were going to do. We stood up and said, we'd like to tell your story. Steven's intent was to write an Op-Ed piece; my intent was to come along, photograph, and essentially take visual evidence of what was going on in these peoples communities. We asked those who were interested to give us their name and address, and then we set out across the state, to tell their story.
So what I'm going to do first is to read to you my introduction to the piece, show you some images, and then talk about this dynamic of perception that defines this issue, which is quite complex. And we'll talk a little bit about the visual problem-solving to actually get these images to work, and what I hopefully came up with was to let the people tell the story.
These are my words:
A Toxic Tour of Texas: journeys through a state that prides itself on being the biggest and the best. And it is. Texas has the largest concentration of oil refineries and chemical plants in the nation. Texas ranks first in the United States in the amount of known or suspected carcinogens released into the environment. Texas also leads the nation in the amount of hazardous waste disposal sites, seventy percent of which leak and threaten ground water. And Texas industry discharges the highest level of toxic air emissions in the country.
The guides on this tour are farmers, priests, mothers, ranchers, engineers, nurses, and teachers, who are all intent on protecting their land, children, homes and their communities from exposure to hazardous waste. Their activism crosses social, economic, and racial boundaries. This coalition for the 90s aligns the century's labor, civil rights, women's, peace and ecology movements. Their united plea now is for the basic life-sustaining elements of clean land, air, and water. They've influenced and reversed government decisions; they've halted harmful industrial practices; they've changed their personal lifestyles, habits and attitudes, as a model of shared responsibility for maintaining this balance of life on earth.
All right, so those are some of the images. This was the photo narrative that I self published, because the word needed to get out and we couldn't wait for University presses. This information was timely. Yes, it's obviously going to be around for a while, but I really wanted to get the information out pronto. I didn't have the luxury of having two or three years to work with a University press, plus raising all the money to do it.
Steven, my freelance writer friend, did go ahead and write an Op-Ed piece for the Houston Post, for Earth Day. While we were working and riding across Texas, I said to Steven over breakfast one day, It's really difficult to convey the emotion of this. We're all a little numbed by all the words and information, and we've become a little numb to what's really happening to the people. So, why don't we let them tell the story, instead of reinterpreting it through our words? Well, Steven is a writer, and he wanted his words to be written. Of course, that was fine; and it was his project in the first place. I said, after the op-ed piece was written, Steven, I think that this could go a lot further. Would it be all right if I pursued that, and used the name? The name actually came from one of the activists, who said, I'm going to take you on a toxic tour of Texas City, which is where all the oil and chemical plants are. He said, Sure, go ahead.
So, I set out across the state to balance out the issues, and also did a little more geographical balance. I wanted full representation of the state. I thought, This is amazingly hard, to illustrate something that's invisible: radioactivity. You don't see it. You have a maybe twenty or thirty year gestation period in the body. We live in a culture of immediacy; how are we going to get this message to the right ears and the right eyes? Also, some of the stuff was underground; how do you photograph that?
With all these issues at hand, it made an even stronger case for letting the people tell the story. In the story itself, we interviewed the activists. We would go in, we'd talk, we'd listen, and as we listened, images would start forming in my head. I would say, Can you take me to this site that we talked about? Can you show me what's happened to your land? They were quite willing participants, as you can imagine. They wanted their story told.
We also interviewed industry, because we wanted to balance the story. People asked how the industry responded, and I said, Well, actually, quite nicely. We weren't threatening; we just said we'd like to hear their side of the story. People were willing to open up their offices to us. There was one hazardous waste site where there was a guy standing over me, and that was a little daunting. In the end, the guy ended up asking us to lunch. We didn't go in with a very antagonistic attitude; we just wanted to go in on a fact-finding, question and answer kind of situation.
The third component in this issue is the regulatory people. There are the state regulators, who are mostly bureaucrats, if we're going to stereotype, and these are people who aren't particularly prone to challenging things. They just sort of want to go along, and make sure everything's kind of fine and nice. You have this dynamic of perception. The government people are saying, Well, we're doing the best thing we can, and, It's not so bad, to the activists saying, Hey, my well water's poisoned. This isn't cool. My family's been drinking out of it for ninety years. I have eight children. You have industries saying, We're giving jobs. We're not doing anything wrong; we're helping these communities.
What I chose to do was juxtapose these quotes, to enhance this dynamic and bring it forward. The idea, too, on this issue, was to humanize it and put a face to what's going on. We're all aware of all the forests being clear-cut and the strip mining that's going on, but these are day to day lives that are affected by these corporate decisions. What we're going to do is listen to the excerpts to the tape I made. Listen carefully to word choices. There weren't many industry people who would let us record them. In the end, there was one fellow, who is the PR man at Pantex, the nuclear weapons facility, and we were the first to be ushered into their new media center. In other words, they realized, Gosh, there's so many questions being asked. We do need to be accountable; we're the government, essentially, so they set up a whole media center. In the end, you should listen to this guy's choice of words, which was a little bit chilling to me. I had to edit down pretty efficiently, but when you're putting text and image together, people who are visual aren't necessarily prone to standing in front of an image and reading a lot about it. You'll hear a little bit more text here than you will see with the photographs. The images that we'll have are actually the 16 x 20 exhibition photographs that I made up at Light Work. (If you haven't heard of that, you should: you can get a fellowship to Light Work and go work for a month. They'll do everything for you.
(tape and images played)
So that was from the uranium cycle of the Toxic Tour. Basically, in Texas, we mine the uranium, we build the bombs, and also the people who were up on that plateau had successfully fought the state to keep that low level radioactive waste disposal site out of their community. The legislatures I referred to earlier as the Bubba boys then just bought a sixteen thousand acre ranch, and told the authority to justify that as a place to put this site. In the interim, environmental racism has really come to the fore, in understanding that companies do target poor, politically weak communities. In the first round, the people won because the authority didn't even meet their own sitting criteria. In the second round, it took the authority sixteen million dollars or so to justify having it there, and the people said, No, wait a minute this is an earthquake zone. What are you doing? Then the legislature moves it on down the road, and a different group of activists pops up. It's interesting because this issue never really goes away. It's a classic David and Goliath type of struggle. There are the people having bake sales, carnivals and cakewalks to raise money, and then you have the corporations, who have all this great money. There's a lot of change that has to occur.
I heard some talk yesterday, and that's been foremost in my mind: what is my intention here in taking these photographs? What am I going to do with them? Though I am self-taught, I was very much a part of the fine arts photography world. I helped establish the Houston Center for Photography; Fotofest came in just a few years after I'd been living there. I was showing my portfolio to people in Europe, in Japan, and it was really great. I thought, I'm carrying these photographs around in my little archival box, and they're so precious. Then in some of the meetings I'd been to, there was another level of people involved, who were the Sierra Club and Clean Water Action types. I made these photographs available for legislative testimony. We put them up at the State Capitol for the legislators to see; the lobbyists tore them down. Again, there you have it. People were saying, What do you have in that box? Can we see them? I said okay. It was a very freeing moment, because I let go of the image as a precious object, and moved it into the realm of being a tool for advocacy. It made me much more of a populist in terms of where my work is seen and how it's used. I lovingly refer to museums as having the white walls of immaculate perception. That's great, and these photographs have been in museum and are even in some corporate collections. But it felt good to just let go of that and put them to work in another way, not just working for me but for the greater good, if you will. I felt very strongly that the story needed to get out and get out soon, which is why I published this. We distributed this piece. This is all self-financed, by the way, which just went with what I felt needed to be told. I had a gift; I could share it in this manner, so I should go ahead and put everything behind it that I could. We made this available to the environmental press, to other environmental activists, or just to people who could take this book and see how they as an individual could effect change. I was emotionally devastated after the Tour, by what I was seeing, by what we do to each other in the name of the dollar, and in the name of the short term. We're a society that's accustomed to the consumption of convenience and the convenience of consumption. That really feeds this whole issue, and we're all part of it. When I go into the city and I want to take food home, I say, Oh, god, here's another Styrofoam container. What can I do? Well, I could bring my own container. They're small steps, and I think it's very important to make connections between your actions and the consequences of those actions. That's what these people were doing, by stepping right in and saying, Hey, what we see isn't right. Most of these people have a strong tie to the land; either that, or they're spiritual, you could see some priests were involved. I asked a priest, Why is the church involved? He said, Well, we're the shepherds of their souls, and we're also the shepherds of their physical bodies and their land. It was the Catholic Church that was involved in this. What you see here, rather than saying, Oh, isn't it horrible and terrible? is to actually show that you can engage and you can effect change. It brought a good bit of richness to my photographic intent and purpose. I appreciate being here today and being able to talk to you about it. I'm curious if you have any reflections or questions about it.
Audience: First of all, I want to say that I think your project's great. I love the way it's presented. I had a couple of questions, actually. What I like about the project was the grassroots nature of it. I was wondering what organized labor's response to it was, and I was also wondering if you worked with any government, like Emshow.
Stewart: People asked me that question, particularly down in Texas City, where labor's very strong. I try, as a human being living on this earth, not to live out of fear. But you do hear stories. I thought, well, I just have to proceed and take these photographs. I wondered if some guy was going to come up, sock me, and take my camera, because I'm hurting his job. The glad aspect of the story is that I worked very closely with the OCAW. They are pretty enlightened. They understand that labor safety is community safety. They have people who are actually doing what they call hazmat training. They take a good bit of care training their workers in handling this stuff. One of the problems is that industry has started to hire contract labor, so they aren't answerable to the labor unions. They don't have to pay benefits, and the people aren't trained. One of the huge accidents that happened in Texas City was with a guy who didn't know how to operate a crane. He dropped a piece of equipment on an ammonium tank. It was homecoming night. The other accident happened on Mother's Day. I was actually very happy that labor was right in there.
Audience: You were saying it's an important issue that you take responsibility for the consequences of things. I was wondering if you thought of utilizing your work in some other format, in terms of billboards or some other mass media experience?
Stewart: I think that's great. There's someone named John Craig Freeman, who did do billboards up at Rocky Flats, out of Boulder. Actually, in New Mexico, as we were driving to the airport, the Los Alamos Study Group, I believe, is putting up billboards around the state, saying, New Mexico first in poverty, first in nuclear production and research. The Tour itself is up on the web, which is another way that people can get into it. I forgot to mention that the Texas Humanities Resource Center took this on tour. It's been in shopping centers, city college galleries, small town museums, and civic centers. The point is getting as many eyes, ears, and brains as possible. That's why this was good.
It's also that it's such a complex issue, that you can't take it all in at once. I went to the Texas Environmental Center in Houston, where this was displayed, and people were actually reading it. They were standing there, looking at the images, and reading the quotes. A lot of times, when there's text, people just sort of gloss over it and keep going. Diverse Works in Houston was the only art space that would touch this.
Audience: I was wondering if you had seen the movie, A Civil Action. It takes place in New Jersey, and I was wondering if you had thought of doing this in another state. It's pertinent all over the country.
Stewart: I was asked, actually, if I could go to other states and do it. I say, if you can find me the funding, I'll do it. The money isn't the issue, really; it's a universal issue.
Audience: You had mentioned that some of these images were purchased by corporate collections, which struck me as kind of odd, given that corporations goals seem to be really at odds with what you're doing. I'm curious as to what kinds of corporations own these, and are they aware of the text that goes with them?
Stewart: Compaq and Paine-Webber. John Szarkowski put together an American Land Use Collection, and he chose these for a triennial in New Orleans, which is right in the heart of this, also. It was kind of outside of his borders to choose this kind of work. Those are the corporations that have it. But look at Mobil: they sponsor Masterpiece Theater, and pretend to be all for the environment. That duplicity is going on all the time.
Audience: So you don't feel that their ownership of these things is changing their attitudes at all.
Stewart: I think they are changing, because they've had to change. There's this accountability; people have been going to the legislature and saying, This sort of thing isn't going to do. The fact is, going back to money; we have a cash-ocracy now. We don't have a democracy. We all know about campaign finance. There's this great Iris Dement song, where it talks about preachers being involved in diamond mines, politics, and the poor being blamed. She says, That doesn't sound like a democracy to me, and we really don't have a democracy right now. But it can be a democracy if people pull themselves up and get engaged. It has to get so bad that people realize, Oh, I guess I'd better vote. There's a real asshole that's representing me now.
Younger: I think there's the other issue of the media being totally bought up by the corporations, too. All these stories never make them nationally. I can tell you a million of them that have been here.
Stewart: Exactly. Before I left, I got a call from a reporter from the Corpus Christi Times. I took forty-five minutes to talk to this guy, because the Tour is in that area in Texas. He responded to it, as a newspaper reporter, and a photographer, I found out. He got the story actually put in the Sunday issue. So, I think that's very true. I think it's endemic right now. But I am an eternal optimist, though I lost a lot of my innocence in doing this project. I do believe that people can effect change. As a photographer, I can make my contribution that way. We all have our strengths, so if you can just find how you can commit that, it makes your life a little fuller.
Audience: I have a question about the self-publishing of your book and the distribution of it. I was wondering how many copies you've made, and how many of the books have gone back into the communities that you photographed? Also, can you give some examples of direct change you think might have resulted from this?
Stewart: That's always a good question, because I hear later, Oh, I saw this, and it motivated me to get involved with this particular community group. I'd say probably about 1,400 of these have been put out. This reminds me, that one thought was to make this available in all the public libraries of these communities. I don't know about the direct results of the book. But the photographs being used in legislative testimony is probably the most direct action that came about. Another problem we have is that the people in industry are nominated by the governor to serve on the regulatory panels. Of course, that doesn't quite work. If you remember the photograph of the vast pond with the line going through it, the man who was the manager of site was being nominated for one of these panels. That photograph was used in that man's confirmation, and he didn't get on the regulatory board. In that same particular site, the company was denying there were ever barrels there. I sent off the photograph, and they used that to say, Gosh don't these look like barrels? That's the other thing about documenting this is, unless you see it, who are you going to believe? That really brings it home, and that's been the real power of this.
Audience: How is the work displayed in John Szarkwoski's exhibition, American Landscape? Is the work displayed with the text? Is there an excerpt?
Stewart: Yes, basically what you are seeing is duplicates of the exhibition prints. I thought it would be fun in a museum to have that up and as you walked past, have the voices activate. It does make it so much more personal when you can feel the heartfelt nature of these people's involvement.
Audience: I think my question is an extension of the last two. Do you think you're already being appropriated by the corporate and political powers, with them buying your prints, etc.?
Stewart: I think it's just another dimension, another layer. It's what I was referring to, was the freedom of having the photos in little community newspapers, or having them put up at the Texas Land Office and the Texas State Capitol. The sale of them to corporations is just one more level to the work, and to the use of the work. I think it serves history. It's very interesting about the documentary tradition. There's a big resurgence of interest in Danny Lyon's works. Thirty years ago, no one would buy his work, but now he's Mr. It. There's a whole romanticism about the Harley-Davidson culture. There are a lot of levels to the reception of the work, and I don't think it dilutes the purpose or efficacy of it at all.
Audience: I kind of wanted to say something about the fact that they are being brought into the art world by John Szarkowski. That, to me, legitimizes the art world. It's a world that does a lot for trend and fashion, but for work that deals with real issues and real life, there aren't as many open doors.
Stewart: I agree. I came up against a lot of prejudice about what's appropriate for a museum or gallery to show. I had a show at the LACPS, and a reviewer said, What's this work doing in an art gallery? It belongs in a newspaper. I say it belongs in both. Let's not keep our little boxes so tight. Let's open them up.
Audience: I completely agree with you. I don't think there should be a strict line between what's art and what's not. It's pretty pointless. We need to use every venue we can find to reach people at any level possible. My question is about the environmental racism that you mentioned. That seems to be the next big issue. Do you work with people concerned with this along the border?
Stewart: Yes, this was a border issue, actually. There was something called the La Paz Agreement, that was signed between the US and Mexico that no hazardous waste sites would be placed within sixteen kilometers on either side of the border. That was just out the window. Clinton also one of the good things he's done signed something that was basically a presidential order, saying that environmental racism is a real factor and, in a court of law, that can be brought into a case as evidence. These people are low-income Hispanics that live on the border. It's way out there, and nobody will notice, right? Well, it's a human life. People are going to notice. It will be interesting to revisit this and find out what has transpired in the past ten years. There's going to have been successes and setbacks, but that's just the dynamic of it.
Audience: I have a question coming from a different angle. I was wondering how important is the appearance of the work, the relationship of beauty to the work? How do you feel about that as an issue in your work?
Stewart: Yeah, I'm a beauty junkie. It's true. Luckily, it's coming back. It was so out of favor. One aspect of that is to draw the viewer in; you want them to be held by the image. If it's so disgusting that they aren't going to spend time with it, you've lost your audience. I have a friend who tapes television for me, so it's nicely edited. When I go into the city and turn on the TV, I couldn't believe what was being shown, all the bodies and blood. I'm thinking, Why are they showing this? We're all going to become numb to it. We have, to a degree, become numb to it. So you also have to go through that barrier to get people to lock their gaze, to consider, and to reflect. Beauty was one of my tools for that.
Audience: I know that in Texas there are the oil and chemical industries. In areas like West Virginia, where the coal industry dominates, I think that they have a harder time getting any environmental change there because every single person is affected by the possible departure of the industry. That kind of fear breaks down their stance. How does that compare to the situation in Texas?
Stewart: Yes, that's a universal issue. If people are getting their livelihood from a certain source, are they going to criticize it? Probably not. Some will, finally. You have all kinds of different people in the world. There are some that aren't going to rock the boat; there are people who are always going to rock the boat; and then there are the people in the middle. Those are the people I was looking to motivate, to catalyze. We were in Wales about a month ago. Wales was a coal mining country; you remember that Bruce Davidson essay on the Welsh. Coal came out of favor because it pollutes like it does, so they went through a horrible depression there, for about ten to fifteen years. Now tourism has brought them out of that economic hardship. I think there are answers out there.
Audience: I have a question about what your work was prior to this project. I ask that question because you define yourself principally as an image-maker and you talk about the aesthetic you like in the work. I'm interested in your experience of being so wedded to testimony and text in this particular image-making project.
Stewart: Cheryl said earlier, Photograph yourself. That's certainly what I do. My work is autobiographical. So the tour was a huge departure for me. It defined itself. It was problem solving. It was pretty exciting to get out of my world of beauty. I did a portfolio called The Beam of Eros, on human sexuality; I did an infrared portfolio on the temples and sanctuaries in Greece lots of beauty. I did a lot of landscapes. I've always photographed people and the land. That has defined me. I think our work can teach us so much about ourselves. Where I live now, I'm photographing what we would call the cultural landscape. It's about how people of different cultures come together and influence the land and how the land influences them. There's all this outside influence through Wal-Mart and the satellite dish, etc., on these traditional communities. I'm interested in how that defines the place that I now live in. I'm also doing a project on water and community, which is a little gentler than the Toxic Tour. I really was kind of wrung out by this. In fact, I wasn't even sure I was going to continue photographing after this.
Stewart: I was born in the West, yes. That's another layer to this. I think they asked me into the Water in the West project because of the advocacy aspect. They were looking for an avenue to make the images they were taking in the West of use. A very fascinating dynamic at this point is this whole controversy of taking the dams out of the West and letting the rivers run free again. Marty Stupichs contribution to the Water in the West project was that he photographed all those dam projects out West. Those may become historical documents. Again, as time goes by, they will have a greater context, perhaps, and a greater depth.
Audience: I was wondering if, and how, your work was going to address George Bush's campaign?
Stewart: Oh, god. There's not a whole lot of substance to him. I won't address that, to answer your question. But just this spring I was speaking to the University of Texas School of Public Health. The Tour was there, and it was so exciting because these were the people who hold the key. They're the scientists; they're going to get us the hard evidence that can be put forth in a court of law that says if you breathe this horrible air in Texas City, you're going to have lymph gland problems. Some people won't and some will; it depends on your body, but it does cause it. When a lot of these environmental laws came in, a lot of the old plants were what is called grandfathered in. Because they'd already been established, they didn't have to meet these new environmental regulations. That time period came up. So George W., or Shrub as they call him in Texas, said, Well, we'll just let them voluntarily comply.
Audience: He's really accommodating to the corporations.
Stewart: Yes. He is a corporation.
Audience: But when we're talking about this being a national problem, it's disturbing because he is the strongest Republican out there.
Stewart: I'm going to be curious how this shakes out. On the other hand, you have Al Gore, who has done some really fine things, in terms of environmental awareness. But it's not just the president, as the figurehead; it's the legislators. Those are the ones who are representing the people from the little small communities.
Audience: I think it would be very important to get your work out on a national level.
Stewart: Yes. It's difficult, and it can all be very frustrating. Anyone else have any questions? All right thank you very much!
Synopsis by Carol Inez Charney
Sharon Stewarts Toxic Tour of Texas began by her account of being detrimentally exposed to chemicals in the darkroom and subsequently becoming severely injured due to making Cibachrome prints while on her knees in the bathtub. After printing she showered and went to bed and then later awoke with a severe sore throat and high fever. She immediately went to the doctor and received large dosages of penicillin and was almost hospitalized due to the severity of her condition. She is a self-taught photographer. After receiving a degree in finance she feels that what drives corporate America is the almighty dollar. It is this driving focus that she feels is very backward, especially in reference to the warnings posted on chemical labels used in the darkroom. They inform you of what to do after you have been poisoned, which she sites as defeating the purpose of the warning itself. Stewart feels it is the role of the manufacturer to inform the user of the potential hazards. Fortunately now, we have hazardous materials forms, which we can refer to before the usage of such hazardous materials. She states her point repeatedly that we have to take responsibility for our actions. Stewart was asked a few years later to accompany a freelance writer friend who was going to meet with some grassroots environmental activists who were having a legislative strategy meeting. This was in Texas, where Stewart states has tremendous resistance to address environmental issues.
The common people who were involved in these grassroots groups were quite concerned for their children, air, water and land being exposed to hazardous waste, be it chemical, garbage dumps, etc,. Stewart now lives out in the mountains of New Mexico and chooses to dispose of her photo-chemistry in an environmentally safe way, as opposed to pouring it down her sink and into her septic system. She now has to take her chemicals in large containers to Santa Fe to have them recycled in the appropriate reclamation facility. She feels that we all have to live responsibly and follow through on what we create from. Basically, Steven, Stewarts freelance writer friend, wanted to tell the story about why the grassroots groups were even having this legislative meeting. So Stewart and her friend said that they wanted to document the grassroots groups story to write an Op-Ed piece for the Houston Post. After following up on which people were willing to participate, Stewart and Steven set out across the state to tell those individuals stories.
Stewart showed slides of her work while playing an audio-tape of the experiences of some of the victims of these toxic disasters in their actual. Stewart stated that the Toxic Tour of Texas journeys through a state which prides itself on being the biggest and the best. Texas has the largest number of oil refineries and chemical plants in the nation. It is ranked first in the US in the amount of known or suspected carcinogens. Texas also leads the nation in the number of hazardous waste disposal sites, which threaten ground water. They also discharge the highest level of toxic air emissions in the country. The people encountered on the Toxic Tour of Texas were farmers, priests, mothers, rancher, engineers, nurses and teachers who were all intent on protecting their land, children, homes and their communities from exposure to hazardous waste. Their activism crosses social, economic and racial boundaries. This coalition for the 90s aligned labor, civil rights, women's, and peace and ecology movements. Their united plea now is the basic life-sustaining elements of clean land, air and water. They have influenced and reversed governmental decisions, they have halted harmful industrial practices, and they have changed their personal lifestyles and habits as a personal model for maintaining this balance on earth.
Stewart self-published her own photo narrative in order to get the word out to the public. This information was timely and she felt she couldnt wait for a university press to go through with the lengthy task of producing an actual book. While they were working on the tour they covered a lot of ground. They went from Amarillo up to east Texas, down to southern Texas and out to west Texas in about ten days. She felt it was difficult to convey the emotion of their work and that they had gotten numb to what was happening to these people, so she decided to let the people tell their own stories.
After Steven wrote the Op-Ed piece, Stewart felt the project could go much further. She set out to do a more geographical representation of the state. She realized that radioactivity was invisible and long-term exposure was hard to see as well as the problems with underground radioactivity. She had the people talk about what they had seen and felt about the problems, and then had the people take her to the sites of toxicity. This is where she photographed many of her subjects. They were willing participants because they wanted their stories told. People were willing to talk to her from both sides of the issue because they wanted to tell their side of the story. The regulatory people are not prone to challenging things. They wanted things to go along as they had always done it, and the activists were saying that their well water was poisoned, and then the industry people say, Hey were giving jobs, aren't we? Stewart chose to juxtapose the quotes of the different sides in order to enhance the dynamic of the work and bring it forward to humanize the issues. Her approach to the use of text and image stemmed from the knowledge that she was dealing with presenting people's day to day lives which were being affected by these industry/corporate decisions.
She and her freelance writer friend were asking so many questions that the nuclear weapons facility ushered them into their new media center to answer questions. When putting text and image together, people who are visual arent necessarily standing in front of an image and reading about it. Stewart was able to complete this work during a month long fellowship to Light Work in upstate New York, there she printed her 16 by 20 exhibition print photos and refined her presentation of the work.
One of the people Stewart and her writer friend interviewed was a priest who stated in his own words that his parishioners said that the Texas Department of Health stated their water was unsafe for drinking due to chemical and radioactive metal contamination. This man also said there were birth defects in their cattles offspring. The people in his parish were experiencing miscarriages, getting cancer and birth defects and some of them died. These people were breathing in radon, as well as drinking contaminated water. People were concerned for their children. The government and local organizations denied any involvement with the contamination of the water and acted completely blameless, later denying knowledge of the report that the water was unsafe. This attitude struck the people as heartless; they felt that the government agencies could do whatever they wanted to the people, even if it meant slowly killing them. This was from the Uranium section of the Toxic Tour.
The people successfully fought the state to keep a disposal site out of their community. Stewart states that environmental racism has come to the forefront of this toxicity problem with companies targeting poor and politically weak communities. This issue of uranium mining and toxic waste disposal in residential areas which are unsafe to people, land, and life itself is at the top of the legislative battle.
Though Stewart was self-taught, she lived in Houston and helped establish the Houston Center for Fine Arts. She was showing her photographs to people from Europe and Japan at Fotofest and began to realize she needed to make her images available for legislative testimony if she wanted to make an impact on a local level. By removing the preciousness from her work and using it more like a tool, she found it more freeing. The imagery was placed in the state capital for the lobbyists to see. The images were seen in museums as well as purchased for some private collections. She felt that the story needed to get out as quickly as possible, so she self-published. She made her work available to the environmental press and the activists. People who saw this could get a sense of how they could affect change in their community. She was fascinated by what she saw in the name of the dollar.
She feels that we are a society, which is accustomed to convenience and the convenience of consumption. This feeds the whole issue. We are a part of it. She feels it is important to take responsibility for our actions. What she saw is that it is important to see what's going on around you to affect a change.
The tour is available on the web. She was asked to come to other states to do a similar study of what's wrong environmentally in other states, but she says it's only possible with the proper funding and that it's a universal issue, not only in Texas, but is global in scope. Her work is in some corporate collections and was chosen by John Szarkowski to be put into his book on land usage and for a triennial in New Orleans.
Stewart feels we live in a cashocracy not a democracy anymore. We can have a democracy only if people get engaged. She feels like things have to get bad before anyone is willing to take some responsibility. She feels that we can effect change through our specific strengths. From this philosophy she states that her book effected change through the 1,400 or so books that were sold. But she feels her images that were used in direct legislative testimony were most helpful as proof of what had really happened in the areas in dispute. By documenting the atrocities, she directly affected change. The work is displayed with the text in an exhibition setting.
She feels that the aesthetic quality of her work is an important component because she wants to draw the viewer into the work. If people are getting their livelihood from a source, they are not willing to criticize it. She knows this and realized that she wanted to target the population of people caught in the middle, because those are the group of people who will be able to effect change, and will be most affected by it. She feels her work was autobiographical. She states that she always photographed people and their land. Her current work is on people in the cultural landscape. How the people of different cultures come together and influence the land, and how the land influences them, and how this defines the place in which we live. She is now working on a project on water in community.
Analysis by Jeffrey A. Nilan
Sharon Stewarts articulate slide lecture raised interesting questions about the role and character of contemporary documentary photography. Specifically, her presentation raised questions about the ability or the ineptness of documentary photography to ellicit change, the importance of aesthetic concerns in documentary work, the impact of text with images, as well as problems in finding appropriate venues to exhibit documentary photography.
Sharon Stewart, who herself experienced detrimental chemical exposure in a color darkroom setting, began the photo narrative, Toxic Tour of Texas, because she was emotionally devastated by what she saw happening in Texas concerning hazardous waste disposal. Stewart's photographic style has the familiar guise of objectivity seen in the subtle yet poignant work of the photographers from the New Topographics exhibition in the mid 70s, including Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, and Frank Gohlke. A fundamental difference in Stewarts work is the addition of text directly related with each image.
Her photographs, though understated and at times banal, are slowly seductive, and thus in addition to their socially conscious message, assert themselves aesthetically. The addition of text more than the images alone, however, seems to be the catalyst for furthering discussion of the hazardous waste issue. The text is direct and stems from a range of perspectives on the issue. Her work seems to question the legitimacy of other so-called socially conscious work that does not include a textual framework. Is it possible for photographs to inform a wide range of viewers without the addition of text? A good comparison might be Joel Sternfield's series, On This Site, in which each photograph is completely informed by an adjacent description of an event, which took place on the particular site of the photograph. Without the text, the viewer is left to determine the meaning based on the visual information alone.
An interesting aspect of Stewarts work lies in her transition from the fine art photography world and mode of presentation to a more utilitarian mode with an emphasis on mass dissemination. She spoke about the liberation she felt after letting go of the notion that the photographic image is a sacred and precious object and of the museum ideals or emphasis on aesthetics over message. This opened her work to a larger and more diverse audience. For Stewart, mass dissemination meant the production of a self published photo-narrative, Toxic Tour of Texas. Working with a small budget meant sacrificing image quality; they lack the richness of a photographic print or a fine reproduction. This sacrifice for the sake of propagating her message seems to beg the question of other photographers who merely aestheticize environmental problems, believing that depicting the situation is enough. It may have deepened our understanding of this fundamental shift in Stewarts work if perhaps we had seen some of her earlier work for comparison.
In response to a question addressing how she goes about making aesthetic decisions in her photographs, Stewart explained that she is a beauty junkie. In defense of this statement she suggested that beauty could be used as a device to draw the viewer into the content of her photographs. A question which could further this line of discussion; what is the role of aesthetic value in work that proposes social awareness over visual pleasure? Given the shortcomings of visual representation; is there a line which once crossed renders a photograph less effective as a document or as a tool for social awareness?
Stewarts lecture illustrated the need for additional and more appropriate venues for socially and environmentally concerned photography. Magazines such as Doubletake and Mother Jones are two that come to mind which have a commitment to supporting and showing this kind of work. The question of whether or not art museums and other fine art institutions are appropriate venues for exhibiting documentary work was raised; if not, what are more appropriate outlets? Additionally if work becomes co-opted into the fine art money market or by large corporate collections, does the message become muddled? Stewart explained her strategy of using every possible venue to disseminate her work, arguing that any exposure of the problem of toxic waste disposal in Texas would be beneficial to society.