- Invited Essay We, the HeartlandLand(scapes), Community, and the Keystone XL Pipeline
Whether noble, picturesque, sublime or mundane, the landscape image bears the imprint of its cultural pedigree.— d. bright (1992)
The air, earth, and water, which sustain us, have no voice. As stewards of the land, we are very aware of our surroundings and the footprints we leave behind. We must speak for the land. We ask you to protect our nation, the earth, air, and water. Reject the KXL pipeline.— bonny kilmurry to president obama (2014)
Photographing in the prairies is both inspiring and mind-numbing. At first, the vastness of the space lulls and overwhelms, and then eventually becomes a canvas seemingly devoid of complexity. While photographing my photo-essay, We, the Heartland, on the communities protesting the Keystone XL pipeline, I felt overcome by both, multiple times a day. However, the more time I spent looking at the environment and culture, I began to comprehend the depth of its complexity. I saw the changing in the gradient of the grasses as the seasons morphed from early spring to late summer. I saw a fullness develop in the coats of the cattle as winter began its approach. I saw the changes in light from morning to late afternoon, and from winter to spring. I started to understand how the land morphed through the seasons, and how I interacted with it needed to reflect these changes.
When I began photographing the Great Plains, I was interested in the Keystone XL pipeline protest movement and how two typically disconnected communities—Holt County, Nebraska, and the Rosebud Lakota (Sioux) Nation—are working together to stop the pipeline. I wanted to know why these particular communities are so vocal in their opposition, and if there is something about their environment and their relationship to their environment that reflects their opposition. As an artist, my work has always been about an individual's ties to the land. Whether the land is urban or rural, landlocked or coastal, my initial draw to make any photo-essay is to look at the places people occupy, and how we interact with our home environment. In Holt County and Rosebud, I saw this connection to the land. For many of the people I photographed and interviewed, their relationship to their land and water was their primary motivation for fighting the pipeline. They spoke of duty [End Page 1] to preserve a land that is voiceless, and to protect it not only for themselves but for those who came after them.
We, the Heartland came out of a desire to consider the lands along the proposed pipeline route, and the resulting series is a window into the lifeworld of communities at the center of the protest movement. The final work consists of fifty images made in the Sandhills of Nebraska and on the Rosebud reservation, along with ten handwritten letters to President Obama by landowners and activists stating their opposition to the proposed pipeline. The work is a political document, documentary photo-essay, and collaboration between me and some of the leading members of each opposition community.
What brought me to make this work in Nebraska and South Dakota came out of my love of eavesdropping. In the summer of 2012, my father and I went on a road trip in the Great Plains where we visited some of the small towns that dot rural Nebraska. In the NebraskInn, a restaurant in Gross, Nebraska (population two), we overheard a group of men discussing their dismay at the proposed Keystone XL pipeline and their worries for how the proposed project will affect the Ogallala aquifer and the Sandhills. This conversation confused me. Of all the farmers I had previously met, few were liberal, and all had a healthy disdain for "tree huggers." So, here I was, in the second smallest town in the reddest state in the Union, and I was listening to a group of farmers and ranchers discussing their anger and worries for the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. At the time, I thought that Gross, Nebraska, was just where all closeted environmentalist convened. Quickly, I realized these men were not...