INTERVIEW: A Conversation with J. Henry Fair

(Author's note:  This interview is part of a series I am doing on environmental activist and photographer J. Henry Fair's residency at Swarthmore College that will be published in the college's newspaper.  A review of the show at the college can be found here.  The artist's website is located here. For some brief background, J. Henry Fair is known for his beautiful photographs of coal mining and hydrofracking and other environmentally harmful activities that he hopes to use to raise awareness about these issues.)


Trigger warning: this interview contains mentions of rape.

In person, J. Henry Fair, whose photographs grace the walls of the McCabe Library Atrium, is witty and self-effacing, yet rather mysterious. There is a sardonic edge to his words and a pensive air in his manner.  During my interview with the artist, he turned down my admittedly thoughtless offer of a paper napkin in case he spilled his coffee.  The man truly is conscious of even the most innocuous-seeming actions and the long chain of harmful effects they wreak on the environment.  In his library talk on Friday, January 25, he stressed repeatedly the importance of recognizing climate change, which he aims to address in his oeuvre, and which he feels is the most pressing issue for our planet today.  I spoke with the artist shortly before his talk.

I On the Arts:  So, for my first question, how did this partnership with the college come about?  [Because] you’re here for quite a while, aren’t you?

J. Henry Fair:  I’m here for only yesterday and today and then I come back in later February.  It started because people in… [Professor] Carol [Nackenoff]’s [pictured above with the artist] class were doing a story about fracking and they contacted my team wanting fracking pictures and that came about and then we said, “oh, well, how about some further collaboration?”…Mostly it’s due to Carol’s good work and it took her a while to come up with some funding… [from a grant for] artists in collaboration with other disciplines.

IOtA:  Okay, and this happened last year?

JHF:  Oh, two years ago… It’s been in the works for quite a while.

IOtA:  So, in general, can you talk about…. your artistic background and how you… began to approach art?

JHF:  Well, I have no skills in any kind of painting or design or anything like that, so photography was always a natural means of expression for me... and I picked up a camera when I was very young, and never put it down… I guess I’m by nature a photojournalistic type… I’m very interested in social issues, the environment in particular… so I naturally looked for a way to tell these stories with the camera, the environmental stories in particular.  And I’m also fascinated by machines as sort of a pinnacle of mans abilities in some ways... in some ways, machines are one of our highest expressions… some people would argue that tool-making is one of the distinguishing factors of the human.  It’s not really true, but some people would argue that.  And certainly the pinnacles of our tool-making abilities are beautiful in themselves.  I mean an offshore oilrig, as horrible as what it does is, is a beautiful thing.  So that tendency in photography, that direction, and my environmental consciousness, led to this effort to make pictures which told a story about the environment.

IOtA:  So do you come from more of an environmentalist background using photography to… advance your message, or is it more of… [first] photography, then you’re inspired particularly by the environmental issues?

JHF:  I’m an artist first, and then an activist.

IOtA:  So how did you get into environmental activism?

JHF:  Well, I’ve always been concerned about the directions our society is taking, the unsustainable directions. And things that seem very clear to me don’t seem so clear to other people and being a soapbox preacher by nature, and a loudmouth, I wanted to tell a story about “ok, what’s the cost of that paper napkin?” And it’s ironic that most of us in our world take comfort and pleasure in the representations of nature but yet in some sense almost everything we do sabotages nature.  Back to the paper napkin… we don’t think about the fact that if you grab a handful of paper napkins you’re basically supporting deforestation. And supporting deforestation means supporting climate change and it means supporting habitat destruction. You know, it’s quite ironic… nobody doesn’t love Animal Planet, right? And we all love to look at the cute little animal babies… and yet everything we do… [For example,] smart devices!  Are you okay with the fact that a gorilla died and a woman was brutally raped and murdered to get that device into your hands?  No, we don’t really want to think about that and so then in a little way I’m forcing that in people’s [faces] with my art.  But at the same time, I’m trying to make things that are beautiful, so there’s a cognitive dissonance.

IOtA:  There’s a bit of an interesting dichotomy because the things you are photographing are extremely horrible and terrible for the environment but you make them look so beautiful.  So how do you grapple [with that]?

JHF:  They wouldn’t be effective if that wasn’t the case.  If they were just boring pictures of cut- down trees on a hillside, which is the usual environmental picture that you see in your typical environmental magazine, you’d yawn and move on.  Whereas since they are beautiful, since they are graphically and colorfully beautiful, we stop and we say, “what is that?” And by stopping and being curious, then suddenly hopefully the viewer will think about “so that’s the waste from making paper towels? My god, who would have thought?”

IOtA:  What kind of camera do you use?

JHF:  I’m not really such a tech person.  I use whatever seems to do the job the best.  I use a high-end digital camera with a long lens and I fly on an airplane and I take pictures, which is quite a pain to try to get a steady picture.  I don’t really love the equipment that I use… basically, we come from a world where there were many camera manufacturers and now there’re really only a few… basically Canon and Nikon and it seems to be almost interchangeable, the choice between the two, it’s a little bit of a shame.

IOtA:  In your work, have you ever encountered… a struggle from the people whose oilrigs you’re photographing?  Have there ever been any obstacles against showing your work?

JHF:  Usually because I zoom in on a plane and photograph and zoom out, usually I’m gone before anyone… I’ve had the FBI question me a couple of times like this.  But what I’m doing is very straightforward, and I’m pretty well known… and what I’m creating is art…most of the stuff as you’ve seen is abstract, or there’s only one small reference to physical shape and size… I want people to think about our whole direction as a society and our responsibilities as individuals, so I don’t really name names… I know what company it is I’m photographing, I know what they make I keep databases of the emissions of that particular facility… I know very well if I’m looking at a waste pond, I know very well what company it is and what they’re making, I know what they’re emitting and all of that.  But its not really for me to say, “ok, that’s a certain brand of facial tissue and this is the emissions….” a. that’s boring and that would detract from the artwork and b. I’m more interested in people thinking about the issues of “ok, if I use facial tissues instead of a handkerchief, I’m supporting deforestations, I’m supporting water pollution, I’m supporting climate change, I’m supporting habitat destruction… I’d rather make those connections for people than [tell] people “oh, this brand of facial tissue is bad”… I think it’s counterproductive for me to say “that’s Kleenex”.

IOtA:  So…what you’re hoping when people see this, just college students and teachers seeing this exhibit here, is that they’ll look at the destruction and start to make smaller changes, for example, not using the paper napkins or using the tissue, you want tem to start making smaller changes that you hope can lead to gradual, larger…

JHF:  Well, I want people to make larger changes!  …By looking at my photographs, I would like people to ask questions about the directions that our society is taking… and more specifically about their responsibility as citizens: are we citizens, or are we consumers? Everything has a consequence, and in our world those consequences are often hidden from us. You don’t know about the women who were brutally raped and murdered to get that device into your hand unless you’re really an avid researcher on these things, but they’re real… these are very real chains of cause and effect, but they’re hidden from us.  And so I’m trying to… illustrate those chains of cause and effect and get people to say “ok, wow, I contributed to that… by buying this product, I am complicit in that chain of causation, and am I willing to be complicit?” And obviously that’s a very complex message, which not everyone will get by looking at the pictures… a lot of people will just get the aesthetics and walk away. And, I mean, as an artist, that’s your fate. You don’t know what someone will take away from your art.

IOtA:  But that’s sort of what you’re hoping to present.

JHF:  Yeah. The true cost of goods sold, to use an economic phrase.

IOtA:  Obviously, you fly a lot.  I’m assuming that you pay some kind of carbon offset?

JHF:  I’m gonna hide under the table now.  No, I don’t offset my travel.  I’ve been thinking about it.  My feeling about offsets is that they’re a little like buying indulgences from the church.  You pay a little money and your sins are forgiven, but it don’t work that way.  In the real world, your sins are your sins and they stay with you and sure, if you pay a little money and the priest waves his hand over your head and you feel better, but you still committed the sin.  And my feeling is that yes, I fly a lot and yes, that’s a tremendous carbon footprint, and yes, that is a sin… I tell myself that I’m doing good and I believe that I am.  Does it justify it? I don’t know.  I probably will start buying offsets.  Does it do any good?  The whole world of offsets- I find it very suspect.  But I probably will do it anyway, just like a catholic who buys redemption.  I don’t think I’ll be redeemed, but… [Laughs]

IOtA:  I think that’s what the art is for. 

JHF:  … You know, I fly a lot.  Hardly a week goes by where I don’t get in an airplane.  What am I flying to do?  I’m flying to make art about environmental destruction? And then I read about the people in business who are flying more than I am just basically to sell… derivatives which are basically destroying our world, and then I feel less bad.

IOtA:  What else do you like to portray with your photography?

JHF:  I do a lot of portraits.  For my commercial works, it’s mostly portraits and some still life, though less of that now… I also have a couple of other projects of more art/journalism: one, looking at the south, which is where I’m from… another one I’m working on right now is looking at branding… as I look around and see all those apple logos in the room.  But branding is something that’s very interesting to me, how we identify ourselves.

IOtA:  Back to the environmentalism:  Was there… a moment when you… realized your “calling”?  …“I need to use my art to tell people about this…” Did you read a story in the newspaper that really opened your eyes?  Was there one single moment or was it just a gradual consciousness?

JHF:  No, I’ve always been focused on the environment and trying to make change either through photography… I also co-founded a wolf center, which is all abort using wolves to give an environmental message.  So no, I’ve always been environmentally minded.

IOtA:  Did you grow up in… an environmentally conscious family?

JHF:  I was a freak.  [Pause]  They’re a bunch of right-wingers in the South.  “Drill, baby, drill…” is their motto.  Environmentalists are freaks of nature who are out on the fringe with no contact to reality…

IOtA:  …tying themselves to trees…

JHF:  Yes.

IOtA:  That sort of stereotype.

JHF:  Yes, yes, that’s the opinion of my family. 

IOtA:  Oh.  So I guess your work has kind of been a divide, then… Is there anyone you might have known when you were younger who has looked at your work and begun to rethink how they live their everyday lives?

JHF:  Oh, sure.   Well… has my work changed any of my family?  I don’t think so.  They’re very conservative and they don’t understand what my pictures are about.  They sort of see the acknowledgement that I’ve gotten from recognized authorities and that indicate to them that there must be something to what I’m doing.  But they certainly don’t get it.

IOtA:  [Do] you have a general closing statement that you hope that people reading this interview will take away from it?

JHF:  I hope that people will think about the consequences… are we citizens or are we consumers? Are we mindless purchasers of whatever is put in front of us?  Where will that take us?  Or are we citizens who are cognizant of the impact?  For me, being an adult is being responsible for the consequences of your behavior.  If you step on someone’s toe… you look them in the eye and apologize for it.  If we buy a roll of toilet paper that is made from old-growth forests, and most of them are… for me, being an adult means I’m responsible for the consequences of what I do and what I buy and if I eat a fast food hamburger, chances are that fast food hamburger means deforestation of the amazon.  Because of course, those companies are sourcing their beef from ranchers who are cutting down the amazon to raise those cattle. So therefore, I’m complicit.  And that’s the big picture of what I would like people to take away from my work.


  1. Great interview! The whole discussion of how these beautiful photographs represent "ugly" things is fascinating. This artist offers an interesting take on our realities. I guess those "old fashioned" guys who still use handkerchiefs are simply environmentalists at heart! Looking forward to seeing more from this series.


Post a Comment