Zoe Strauss is a lesbian anarchist from Philadelphia.
Strauss is also a photographer who recently completed “Under I-95,” a 10-year-long project that culminated in an installation of photographs under Interstate 95 in South Philadelphia. Her first monograph, America, was published in 2008. An exhibition of Strauss’ work is on view at the Wexner Center for the Arts. She’s also working on a retrospective exhibition that will be presented at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where her work is in the permanent collection.
Last week Strauss and I talked about her first two small-donors-funded trips to the Gulf of Mexico, where she explored the BP-Deepstar Horizon disaster. She has chronicled her Gulf trips at her principal blog, at a project-specific blog called On the Beach and on her Flickr page. (All images in this post and in part two are used with permission. Each image will include a link to a larger version of each picture (and to other pictures Strauss may have posted with it). The larger version of the image above is here.)
MAN: Why did you want to go to the disaster and how did the idea to go develop?
Zoe Strauss: It came about because of the length of the spill, because of how long it was taking. It was about a month and a half in and I suddenly thought, ‘This is unprecedented. This is going to be something that’s important to talk about.’ It’s going to have a much greater impact than people thought it would when the spill first happened.
I became kind of obsessive compulsive about needing to go down there. It was like a snowball rolling into an avalanche. Part of it was that it had happened and it was horrible, but literally as time went on and nothing was happening and BP was still running everything, it seemed there was a media blackout [when it came to images of the impact]. It just became crazier and crazier, and it seemed important to go. [Larger image here. Nota bene on scale: The white dot at the upper right is a fishing boat and its wake.]
MAN: You paid for your Gulf trip through a ‘pledge drive’ that was set up through United States Artists. How did that come together?
ZS: I love those guys! They just started this kind of new thing, very much like Kickstarter, but it’s specific for people who have gotten USA grants. I’d been talking with [USA] about different projects I’ve been working on and this coincided with my needing enough money to go make this work. It just happened simultaneously. I don’t know if I’d have been able to go if I hadn’t been able to raise that money, because I’m broke. Also, it is important to make more than one trip. I’ve been twice and I want to go a third time.
MAN: So on the page that USA set up for you, it shows your goal as realized. But since you want to be able to keep going, people may still contribute even though the site says you’re over 100 percent of your initial goal, right?
ZS: Yes. My intent with the project is to amass a body of work that I can edit down and make something cohesive about this moment, about the course of the spill. It’s not journalism and it’s not really intended to be this production where it’s gallery-only, so it’s in this weird kind of amorphous place. I didn’t have enough individual funds to do it myself, but I felt strongly work should be done about the disaster. I also felt, even though I’m unbelievably anxious about this, I thought I might be successful about getting some of the work done so it’ll be lasting.
MAN: How did you prepare for the trip? Not just in terms of what you packed, but anything you might have looked at in terms of planning, what you knew you wanted to see, even art or artists you thought about before going?
ZS: I asked for a press pass so I could get on one of the flights that flies over the site. That’s the first time I’ve done that. I also had to make a plan of where-to-go because at that point BP and the U.S. Coast Guard weren’t allowing photographers or journalists in general into places that were most-oiled. [Larger image here.]
The spill is literally from Texas to Florida. It’s so expansive that it seemed important to figure out where to go and so on. I picked a flyover of the site where the actual spill was happening and also at Grand Isle, at the bottom of Louisiana that I knew was a mess. The Natural Resources Defense Council was starting an outreach center in Buras, La., which is also at the bottom of a different part of Louisiana. And then I planned one day that was a trip to a beach where people were swimming that I thought might be besieged with oil – but that might not be yet. And as it turned out, it was.
MAN: That must be the picture of the two kids.
ZS: Can you f*cking believe that? The oil was littered as far as you could see in either direction. It was oil in every form you can imagine. It was constantly washing up on the beach. It was so horrible. And kids and people were playing in it.
MAN: That photo seems like a post-apocalyptic, industrial-era updating of Cezanne. That’s such a significant art historical reference, was it on your mind when you took the picture or looked at it later as part of your ongoing editing process?
ZS: Yes, absolutely. How could you not? [Larger image here.]
But not just the bathers: I also thought about the post-apocalyptic element a lot. The title of my project, “On the Beach,” comes from a Nevil Shute book, a post-apocalyptic novel about people waiting for radiation to come to New Zealand and how they’re living their lives before the end of the world. Bizarrely, I read it earlier this year, just before the oil spill. It seemed frighteningly relevant that people are going to be waiting with great anxiety for years and years and years to know what the outcome of this spill is. Things might be fine forever – or they might be fine for a year or it might be fine for five years and then there could be such horrible ramifications of the spill or the dispersants or whatever.
As it became clear that the oil couldn’t be swept away, that was my first thought: the anxiety of waiting. I read a couple articles about people in Alabama where fishing was closed, where people were literally at their marinas and sitting and waiting, all with no idea what was happening. They’d go to their boats every day even though they wouldn’t take them out. They’d just go there and hang out and then go home. I was very saddened by that and moved by what people did in the moment where they didn’t know what they were going to do. That felt very connected to having read this book and the importance of avoiding this huge catastrophe. There’s no way to stop it. You’re powerless in what do you do in the interim.
ZS: Oh yes! Buddy Compton! I love him! Buddy Compton is f*cking awesome. He’s so great. [Larger image here.]
MAN: Who is he?
ZS: He’s a fisherman in Venice, La. He’s a guy who a friend of mine recommended that I call him, so I did, just out of the blue and we started talking. I met him at a dive bar at the bottom of Louisiana, and that was pretty much it. We had a tour of the area, drank and we came back.
Buddy’s been a fisherman down there since he was born, essentially. The tour he took me on was of where his boat was in the marina, which boats were working for BP and the kind of abundance of, I don’t know, nepotism maybe that allowed some people get called to work for BP on the booms instead of getting a half-pay check [from BP]. He also took me to another place where there were a whole slew of out-of-state plates, because that’s an indication of who’s being hired to work on the spill. Local folks weren’t being hired. They were on a wait-list. Buddy told me about the structure of the local fishing industry there. I could not definitively get a handle on it because it was so complex. Buddy told me the basics of how fucking pissed off they were and how there’s great complexity and intricacy in each part of the disaster: Here’s the disaster. Here’s the cleanup. Here’s the contractors. Here’s the subcontractors and who’s going to get hired to go out. It’s an endless web of bureaucracy. They’re unbelievably difficult things to navigate for these guys who shrimp and crab.
ZS: Right, they are. That’s certainly a part of the culture. But that’s also pretty much what’s happening. Just waiting. People are going out and working on the cleanup, but for the most part it’s waiting on what people are going to say in terms of when they can fish and work. A big part of what’s being told to the fishing community down there is, ‘Just wait and we’ll work it out.’ There’s no kind of concrete timeline or definitive thing one can say like, ‘Here’s when you can go back to work,’ or, ‘Here’s what will happen within the year.’ A lot of it is, ‘Have patience and wait this out.’ So that’s part of why I wanted to go to Buras. [Larger image here.]
MAN: Next trip you make down there, where will you go?
ZS: I had originally hoped to go to different places, but now I think I’ll go to some of the same places. I’ll probably go to Morgan City, to the Shrimp and Petroleum Festival.
MAN: The what?
ZS: The Shrimp and Petroleum Festival. I know. Whoa. Hello!
Continued here, in part two.
Related: A tale of two disasters, Mark Bradford & Zoe Strauss.