In 2014 photographer Virginia Hanusik moved to Louisiana to work for an organisation that was involved in the coastal restoration efforts happening around the state. Louisiana has long felt the effects of its industrial history on the coastline – the oil and gas industry in particular, with the human engineering of the Mississippi River contributing to the vast destruction of integral wetlands along the coast. 2005’s Hurricane Katrina brought the vulnerability of NOLAs (New Orleans Louisiana’s) flood defences into sharp focus, and as sea levels rise due to climate change, the state and its inhabitants are increasingly at risk.
With a background in architecture and environmental studies, Virginia started the project, A Receding Coast: The Architecture and Infrastructure of South Louisiana, as a way of capturing the small changes in the built environment and landscape caused by global warming. “I was also just really tired of the visuals that were being used to describe climate change,” she tells It’s Nice That. “I’ve said this before and I will say it a million more times: there is no single image that can demonstrate the climate crisis, so don’t spend your time trying to do so. Aerial photography is important, but it allows people to dissociate from the scene if they don’t find something familiar or reflective of their own lives in it.”
Funded by the Graham Foundation and on show at New Orleans gallery The Front from 14 December, A Receding Coast features precarious old churches, flooded oil refineries and houses that have been isolated and abandoned due to their untenable location amid the rising waters. Many of the shots show houses built on higher and higher stilts, an attempt to out-build the rising waters. “When I’m pursuing projects, I’m looking into the history of development of a particular region – who has benefitted from this development and who has not,” says Virginia. “In the case of South Louisiana, this project started as a means of visually understanding the abstract concepts of climate change and adaptation. What are the symbols in the built environment and landscape that allude to larger changes?”
Whereas in the past, Virginia would drive around endlessly trying to find visually interesting sites (inspired in part by the iconic cross-country photographers of the past.) But now, an increasing consciousness of her own carbon footprint means that she now chooses sites through reading and research. Here she looks into zoning laws, the demographics of certain areas and the statistics on who carries flood insurance as starting points, to find locations that have something larger to say about human behaviour.
As well as challenging the visual narrative around climate change, Virginia hopes that her work will also inspire others to ask similar questions about who is impacted by environmental changes. “The most important thing for me as an artist is to not just be an entry point for people to learn about the topics of my projects, but to also provide resources for further engagement,” she says. For example, for the upcoming show, Virginia has worked with colleagues in the climate policy world to develop a small booklet that visitors can take which includes information on additional reading related to the environmental history of South Louisiana as well as organisations working to progress climate policy in the region.
In terms of composition and lighting, it was important for Virginia to capture Louisiana as is – a truthful depiction of what she could see in front of her. “If you’ve ever seen a sunset in South Louisiana you’ll understand me saying that I really don’t have to work that hard for the light and colour,” he says. “That being said, the harsh mid-day light is something that I’ve tried to incorporate into projects in a way that balances out the softness of the morning and golden hour.”
Matter of fact but also hinting at the wider implications, A Receding Coast is part study, part visual record. What will be interesting, as Virginia continues her work, is to see how the landscape alters further and how humans intervene in the increasing vulnerability of Louisiana, striving to adapt to this new norm.