Oil Man and the Sea

May 29, 2012
Raina Delisle
Ilja Herb and Shawn Morris.

Writer Arno Kopecky was in Colombia when he had a Skype conversation with photographer Ilja Herb that set the stage for their upcoming sailing journey to the central coast of British Columbia, along the path of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline project.

Kopecky was working on his book, The Devil's Curve, a narrative nonfiction account of free trade in Peru and Colombia, which will be published in September. The longtime friends, who have collaborated on creative projects in the past, discussed one of the themes in the book: natural resource extraction in the Amazon and the effects on the indigenous peoples.

"Arno and I both have experience working in foreign places and we're always wondering what's going on at home," says Herb, a 2011 MA in Intercultural and International Communication graduate who lives in Victoria. "I realized that there are similar things - tons of super heavy-hitting stuff - going on right here. Royal Roads gave me the language and credibility to chase down those things and do work with more context."

One of those things is the debate surrounding the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline project. The twin pipeline system would cross more than 1,000 rivers and streams and the Rocky Mountains on the way to B.C.'s coastline from Alberta. The project would bring more than 200 crude oil tankers through a series of narrow channels and inlets along B.C.'s north coast each year. While environmental groups and First Nations oppose the project, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has declared creating capacity to export energy a national priority.

"This is an issue we can really get behind because we really care for the coast," says Herb, whose photography has explored the ancient ski culture of China's Altai Mountains and captured river rafting in Ethiopia's Omo Valley. "It just seems like the right thing to do."

Next month, Herb and Kopecky will set sail on Foxy, their 41-foot sailboat, bound for the tanker zone. For three months, they will visit communities that would be affected by the Northern Gateway project, which are largely First Nations. Through photography, video and the written word, they will share the stories of those they meet as part of their project dubbed Oil Man and the Sea.

"We want to be the eyes and the ears and the voice for what's going on up there," Herb says. "We may personally be anti-tanker, but we're interested in hearing everyone's take on things. It's not entirely activism, it's not entirely environmentalism - it's celebrating those lands that are somewhat intact right now. That's where the storytelling, art and photography come in."

Kopecky says the project speaks to a couple of major issues that are floating to the top of Canada's collective conscience. "First, what does it mean to be an energy superpower, as our government keeps saying? And second, now that we've officially apologized for the residential school system legacy, what comes next? Both these questions, which overlap in every aspect of the Northern Gateway proposal, are central to Canada's self-identity; I'm hopeful this project will help advance the national conversation, by giving Canadians a chance to get past generic news headlines and sound bites and really see what, and who, is involved."

To this end, Kopecky will be writing along the trip and has a book contract with Vancouver publishing house Douglas and McIntyre. Herb, whose work has been published in magazines such as National Geographic, will be engaged in a creative photojournalism project that builds on his Royal Roads thesis. Herb will shoot double-exposure images that connect individuals to the land or a resource. For example, one of the images from his thesis showed the physical outline of a logger, his body filled with timber and a scene of harvested trees in the background.

"It's a way to represent how connected we all are to the earth," Herb explains. "Connecting the background to the foreground image, the land or the resource to that person who has something to say about that land or resource, is challenging the viewer." 

Herb recently spoke about his photos and Oil Man and the Sea at a BA Professional Communication (BAPC) course. Some students were so moved by the presentation, they wanted to get involved. Leading the student effort to help with the project is BAPC student Shawn Morris, who is also an accomplished photographer and has been a friend of Herb and Kopecky for more than a decade.  

"One of the things that's exciting about the project is watching Ilja and Arno progress as professionals to get to the point where they have the credentials to see something like this through," says Morris, who has been supporting communications and fundraising for the project. "My class was really encouraged and inspired by the fact that this is what you can do if you continue to push forward with education."

"Ilja's work on his master's thesis and the use of images is spectacular in my view. They are absolutely stunning images that convey so much," says Prof. Deborah Zornes, director of research services and instructor of the Organizational Communication class Herb visited. "The fact that he will be using this method again for this project is amazing and I think the images and what they will tell us will be world class. That, paired with Arno's writings, may provide stories that would otherwise never be gathered and shared."

Zornes adds that having Morris in her class, which recently concluded, was inspiring.

"Shawn's participation in the course I taught is one of the reasons why I love teaching," she says. "Thoughtful, intelligent, personal, knowledgeable, honest and experienced are all words I would use to describe Shawn's contributions to the class."

On June 19, an event will be held at Royal Roads to raise awareness and funds for the trip, estimated to cost $24,500. The event will be held in the Castle Drawing Room and will run from 7 to 9 p.m. There will be guest speakers and a silent auction.

Visit their websites to learn more about the work of writer Arno Kopecky and photographers Ilja Herb and Shawn Morris.