“The decay of human civilisation”: Robin Hinsch lenses the places being destroyed by fossil fuel extraction
Taking its name from the Yoruba word for problem or stress, Wahala is a project demonstrating how contemporary methods of raw material extraction are “only a continuation of colonial suppression”.
- Olivia Hingley
- 31 January 2023
In decades past, it’s become largely understood how damaging the burning of fossil fuels is to the environment. What’s lesser known (or perhaps lesser paid attention to), is how equally catastrophic the extraction of fossil fuels is. This fact is the focus of Robin Hinsch's upcoming photobook, Wahala. For the series, Robin travelled to a number of places across the world experiencing environmental collapse due to unfettered fossil fuel extraction; where whole homes, communities and livelihoods are being destroyed by the day.
A photographer primarily interested in ecological, social and political issues, the project began after Robin spent a period of time researching global logistics and economical growth, which then led him to fossil fuels. Through the series, alongside showing the catastrophe of environmental collapse, Robin raises questions as to how power structures that fuel and perpetuate such exploitation are allowed to maintain and exist. “Fossil fuels are powering the global capitalist structures which are the largest emitter of CO2,” he details. “The photographs expose the contradictions of the promise of perpetual growth and reveal how much the system of fossil capitalism groans under its own weight.”
One of the most important factors of the project for Robin was its transnational perspective. He specifically chose to focus on places like India and Nigeria, not only for the environmental ruin occurring there, but also for their colonial histories. Because, he details, he wanted to highlight how “contemporary extraction mechanisms are only a continuation of colonial suppression”.
Drawing attention to one specific image in the series, Robin highlights a scene from a village in Dhanbad, India, which will soon be submerged into the edge of a coal spoil tip. After spending time in the area, Robin came to learn that no compensation is offered to the people whose houses are lost to coal mining, as dictated by organisations largely located in the global west. Moreover, due to the economic domination of such (often illegal) enterprises, locals are given little choice but to find work with them, continuing to live nearby, and forcing them to continually create short-term habitats.
Visually, the image is an instantly arresting one; the flames framing the photo, the sheer vastness of the man-made verge and the structure that perilously sits next to the edge come to together to create a scene that looks more like a still from an apocalypse film – something far flung from reality. Robin himself identifies its similarity to Romantic and Baroque ruin paintings, like those of Claude Lorrain, Nicolas Poussin and William Turner. And while he sees his images as representing the same sensations of “transience” as the prior artists, they conversely “formulate a critique of imperialist systems of domination: as image and inversion of the neoliberal ideal – the freedom of boundless economic growth – these tokens of finitude manifest the decay of human civilisation”.
Reflecting on the series, Robin is under no illusion that he has captured the full picture, or extent of damage leading from such environmental degradation and raw material extraction. In fact, Robin purposefully highlights how his is a “fragmentary gaze”, and photography is, at its core “incomplete”. However, instead of letting that ruin his mission, he endeavours “to use the inherent gaps of photography – with all its visual uncertainties – to no longer define medium’s drawbacks, but offer it as an opportunity for activating one’s own thoughts and subsequent actions”. Undoubtedly, Wahala is a visually alarming call to action that demands the attention of all who encounter it.
Wahala is published by Gost Books and is now available online.
GalleryRobin Hinsch: Wahala (Copyright @ Robin Hinsch, 2022)
Robin Hinsch: Wahala (Copyright @ Robin Hinsch, 2022)
About the Author
Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.