Behind the scenes, Environment, Photojournalism

Empty Chairs

The differences is clear: a community with a history of fighting for survival and one where apathy, so far, reigns.

A strategy meeting organized by the Villages community and attended by the local MP

A Heathrow Airports Limited organized meeting to engage with the public in Windsor

The two meetings I’ve attended in the last few months have been vastly different in terms of engagement with the local communities. The first – part of the traveling itinerary of the airport’s community relations department – was poorly attended, while the most recent had a real sense of spirit and fight.

Central to the theme of the night at the latter was the need to spread the word to those not present, and strategies which might be deployed to that end. A particularly creative one mentioned was a set of speakers mounted on a van which roamed around the leafier districts of southwest London blasting out the recorded sound of an aircraft landing on a potential, future runway.

I’ve always thought of this project as being connected in a larger context to man-made global warming. To that end, I’ve been on the look out for artists looking at the subject from many different points of view and perspectives. In other words, strategies for engaging with those empty chairs.

A colleague recently introduced me to the work of the artist Chris Jordan who uses statistics as a starting point to create highly detailed images of objects collected and photographed to form enormous canvasses. A number of the pieces retain their enigmatic impact through abstraction, others reveal their message on a macro level. Each image deals with excess, and of particular interest to this author, excesses within culture which go unnoticed but have an exponentially large impact on the wider world.

Much of the science behind global warming suggests fossil fuels need to remain in the ground if we are to avoid catastrophic changes to the climate. A rise from 480,000 to 740,000 flights a year with the proposed expansion does not seem to tally with this heightened awareness of our collective global impact.

Inspiration, Photography and current affaires, Photojournalism

Airport politics and a shimmer of possibility

Capitalism is always in crisis, which it solves through expansion – Frederic Jameson, Globalization and Totality, talk UC, Davis, March 3 2008.

The North West option - one of three proposals put before the commission. The new runway is shown above the existing two.

The North West option – one of three proposals put before the commission. The new runway is shown above the existing two.

Over the past summer I, somewhat idiosyncratically, tramped and traipsed around Heathrow photographing the areas earmarked for airport expansion. I was taken with the idea that communities have been living under the threat of demolition, and in particular a map I spotted online showing an area marked in red overlaying an otherwise ubiquitous section of an old map.

Cassini Historical Heathrow Maps show the development of London Heathrow airport’s footprint, from Heath Row to LHR.

The fact that that these proposals are constantly in the news does not in itself mean that the project is particularly timely. Locals have been fighting off proposal after proposal for around 60 years, and have become adept at the jousting game between advocates of the plan (business) and its many and varied opponents. This time, though, an independent Commissioner, Sir Howard Davies, is deciding, once and for all, whether Heathrow should expand and if so, where. You can download the full 52 page PDF here.

The reason I chose the subject was – as Tom Hunter suggested in the British Journal of Photography (Nov,2010) – to ‘think global while acting local’. It seems to me that, along this frequently ugly, bruised and blemished tract of land lies a hidden narrative affecting far flung corners of the globe. Heathrow Airport Limited, the owners of Heathrow airport are keen to emphasize the benefits of two miles of extra concrete – unlike for example 70 miles of new High Speed rail – allowing a truely global solution to the countries economic needs. Equally powerful though is the idea that expansion and unrestrained growth are socially and ethically contemptible economic models.

Below are a couple of pictures from the project which featured in a self published newspaper.


© djnorwood 2013

I recently found the quote at the head of this post in a monograph of the work of Paul Graham, whose work I consistently find insightful and inspiring. The pictures above weren’t originally paired together, but revisiting the work I thought there were similarities of intent. More than any other photographer, it seems, he has used his work to address political and social issues while leaving space for more nuanced narratives to blend and merge with larger themes. There is something quite reassuring and life affirming about being shown such intimate moments playing out in the public domain – fleeting moments which the camera immortalizes, that deliver their message quietly, without the need for drama.

© Paul Graham

© Paul Graham

The Heathrow Villages may not be the disenfranchised margins of modern America, as depicted in Graham’s images, but they are nevertheless maligned hinterlands, which are slowly being swallowed by the vortex created by the airport nearby.