In Marcellus Shale Documentary Project, currently on view at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, six documentary photographers put faces to the “no” (as well as the “yes”) to shale gas drilling in Pennsylvania. By capturing it as a hazard to American values such as the home and family, curator Laura Domencic exposes drilling as a threat to Pennsylvanians livelihoods through the emblematic display of Americans fighting for their values in a world in which the meaning of patriotism is questionable.
Throughout the exhibit, many people are photographed with their cats or dogs: ‘man’s best friend’ and a symbol of home and loyalty; yet in the photographs pets are seen exploring lands contaminated by the results of drilling near family homes. Nina Berman’s photographs show protesters waiting outside the Governor’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission. Their hands are pressed against the glass, Pittsburgh pride apparent in the black and yellow of a woman’s shirt, while red white and blue signs crowd most of the photo. Noah Addis addresses the American dream most directly with his much larger than life portraits. Jeannie, Skylar, and Fred look solemnly at the viewer, eyes following you around the gallery. They have been forced to leave home, can no longer drink once potable water, and their families are plagued by illness. “I’ve been through hell” Jeannie is quoted as saying. All three are dressed in blue. The small girl sports a t-shirt with a white and red striped heart in the middle of her chest, while Jeannie and Fred on either side are dressed in navy collared shirts. These photographs are undeniably speaking to the average American: the blue collar worker with the want to succeed through rugged individualism.
Images of farmland, once viewed as sublime when depicted in artworks, are now tainted by the presence of a rig or a commentary telling of the contamination of the should be pure and perfect land you are gazing at. While traditionally landscapes of the countryside are images of tranquility and retreat, these are polluted with underlying stories of fear, denial, and helplessness.
Most consistent among all of the photographers work is the issue of water contamination.
Nina Berman illustrates this most literally in her photographs outside of the main gallery space. A mug of fizzing, white water in a mug, bubbling its acidic greeting to the viewer in a large format photograph, is clutched between bright purple fingernails, adding to the ‘poisoned’ effect of the picture. Another photograph zooms in on the face of a small boy as he peers at something out of view of the camera; his closeness to the lense reveals a rash spread across his face caused by using contaminated water.
This exhibition is the local. It is the small town, the family farm, the all-american family. In a way, it outlines the quintessential nightmare. If home and sustenance are contaminated by government endorsed projects, who will hear your protests? When nature and home turn foreign, dangerous, and harm you and your children, this is the point of pure fear and desperate hopelessness.