Virginia Hanusik’s ‘A Receding Coast’ Tackles the Tough Topic of Climate Change

All photos by Virginia Hanusik. Used with permission.

“I have a problem with photographers who use disaster voyeurism as a means of gaining attention for their work,” says Virginia Hanusik, a photographer whose work concentrating on the relationship between culture and the built environment has given her the task of tackling climate change. “In some cases, photographs of flooding and wildfires are certainly necessary and should be shown, but when you’re exploiting someone’s loss for your own benefit then there is an issue.”

Climate change is a polarizing topic for society, but one that continues to come up. Whilst some brush it off as no concern, there are others unprepared to allow the conversation to go away – including photographers. Further, humanitarian photography is no easy task, especially when you’re documenting the negative contribution society is having on the environment. For example, taking nothing away from portrait, event, or editorial, humanitarian photography requires a certain strength to be able to plunge yourself into the sometimes depressing narratives society endures. In her series A Receding Coast, Virginia closely looks at how our architectural practices have led to coastal erosion in South Louisiana.

“I try to keep things encouraging rather than discouraging,” she explains, opting for a more positive perspective on her subject matter. In a series that remarkably still finds beauty in sadness, we spoke in depth with Virginia to learn more about her mission and the work she has done.

Phoblographer: Your involvement with climate change goes further than your projects. Please tell us how you became passionate about the topic and the work you do as an architectural researcher and member of the Climate Working Group at New York University.

VH: I moved to Louisiana in 2014 to work at an organization that was focused on economic development in the Greater New Orleans region. One of their pillars of focus was on environmental issues, so I became exposed to the wide range of projects that were underway in New Orleans and along the state’s coastline. As a native of New York, the swamp and bayou landscapes were completely new to me and I sought out new places to visit by myself as a means of orienting myself with my new home.

In college, I studied architecture and urban studies, so I naturally focus on the built environment in my work – with both academic and personal interest. My primary projects are about climate adaptation and I’ve been able to leverage insight around current climate policy and design standards through the various positions I’ve held in New Orleans and New York.

Phoblographer: It’s natural you would combine your passions. Why the focus on the coast of South Louisiana?

VH: If you’ve ever been, you know why. It possesses a poignant beauty that struck me the first time I visited and has never left me. The region is also a microcosm for what is happening with climate adaptation around the world, but at an accelerated pace because of the rate of coastal erosion. As a photographer, I’m telling one piece of a larger story about climate change and my motivation for this work comes from the people I’ve met in the region, long-time residents of the coast, that are determined to preserve this place so important to our national identity.

“…I can draw so much of my identity from what I’m producing”

Phoblographer: Sensitive subject matters can have an emotional impact on a photographer. How are you mentality coping with this project? I imagine it highlights some rather worrying statistics?

VH: I stay focused because I know the work has to get done and I’m a Capricorn so by default I tend to exert most of my energy on…work. The downside to that is I can draw so much of my identity from what I’m producing, and then I know I have to back up a bit and get some perspective. I want to be positive, which I think has historically been more popular in the media regarding climate change. People don’t necessarily know where to plug in to make changes in their daily lifestyle and then end up feeling crippled.

“I have a problem with photographers who use disaster voyeurism as a means of gaining attention for their work”.

On a positive note, I think a lot about how lucky I am to be able to work on this project and engage with people working in the climate space. I’ve worked really hard the past several years and am so grateful for the opportunity to exchange ideas and continue to learn and grow from individuals and groups I’ve met along the way.

Phoblographer: Allow us to set the scene. A person walks in and says, “Oh, I don’t care about climate change. It doesn’t impact my life.” Someone promptly shows them your project – what impact do you hope it has on them?

VH: One of my goals with my work is to make the conversation around climate change more prevalent in the everyday. No one is removed from this issue, so the idea of someone “not caring” indicates that there has been enough distance in their life from the immediate effects i.e. they haven’t experienced a disaster, they are most likely financially secure enough to not be dealing with the value depreciation in their coastal property, etc.

“With my series it’s more about comparing and contrasting landscapes to see the differences and similarities across geographies”.

I see the role media has played in perpetuating the dissociation that many people have when it comes to climate change. We most often see disaster and aerial photography that really allows people to passively observe rather than engage with the issue. I have a problem with photographers who use disaster voyeurism as a means of gaining attention for their work. In some cases, photographs of flooding and wildfires are certainly necessary and should be shown, but when you’re exploiting someone’s loss for your own benefit then there is an issue.

With my images I focus on everyday scenes that symbolize larger changes in how we interact with the landscape during this unique moment in history.

Phoblographer: Your project looks at building practices. What can society learn as we move forward with architectural development?

VH: For a really, really long time, architecture and planning have been isolated disciplines that celebrated a solitary vision – usually of a single white man. This can open up a much larger conversation, but I’ll keep it concise: the top down approach to design has not worked in the majority of peoples’ favour and we are explicitly seeing the impacts of such planning today. In the design world, a lot of projects require an element of “community engagement” but enforcement is not strict, and the effort firms need to do to get the right people at the table is minimal. This is a problem!

I think there is such a unique opportunity to create a system of building that is more equitable and sustainable by reimaging how we engage with communities inhabiting in these spaces already. For example, the economic impacts of climate change are already being seen in Miami with “climate gentrification” that enables wealthier communities previously located on the beach to move farther inland. This movement protects the assets of the affluent, but displaces communities with less wealth and power.

Phoblographer: Aside from this project, are there other areas of climate change you would like to tackle from a photographic standpoint?

VH: My project on Louisiana is part of a larger national project about how we are (and in many cases how we are not) adapting to living on the water. I’ve been building a project called Liminal Frontier for the past two years which is a compilation of photographs from of my travels around the country documenting the infrastructure and architecture that exists along the coast.

With sea level rise, the landscape in 50 years will not be the landscape that we see today and I’m interested in capturing how certain communities are responding to these changes. Your socio-economic status greatly impacts your ability to structurally adapt, and I’m planning to visit several sites along the coast of the United States including the Chesapeake Bay and South Florida to capture the range of adaptation measures underway.

As you can imagine, capturing large changes in a single frame is challenging. With my series it’s more about comparing and contrasting landscapes to see the differences and similarities across geographies.

“I’m pretty terrible at taking portraits – it’s painful for everyone involved – so while I don’t think I would have gone the corporate headshot route in another life, I do think about what my practice would have grown into if I weren’t able to immerse myself in these environmental issues through other positions I’ve held.”

Phoblographer: We’re sure photographing pressing matters takes a lot of physical and mental energy. How do you keep motivated? Do you have moments where you think, “I should have just done corporate headshots instead?”

VH: I’m pretty terrible at taking portraits – it’s painful for everyone involved – so while I don’t think I would have gone the corporate headshot route in another life, I do think about what my practice would have grown into if I weren’t able to immerse myself in these environmental issues through other positions I’ve held.

As a professional in the design community, I’ve been able to see first hand what firms and organizations are doing to address climate change. Sometimes it’s very encouraging, sometimes it’s…not. I’ve gotten so used to pursuing my photographic practice as the creative appendage to the work I’m immersed in during the week that I can’t imagine doing freelance full-time, but I certainly have thought about it! I do a lot of commissioned work for universities and other agencies which has been a great way for me to collaborate with more people involved in the climate space.

Phoblographer: The coastal line has been impacted pretty drastically. Is there hope? Where do you feel South Louisiana goes from here?

VH: The rate of environmental change is incredibly concerning, but there is so much hope in the organizations and institutions doing the hard work of re-thinking the planning and engineering processes that brought the crisis to what it is. My goal is to get more people thinking and talking about the issues going on in South Louisiana to help grow the already present momentum that other individuals have started.

This is some important work from Virginia. And it’s clear her mission is far from over. To keep up to date with her projects and contribution to tackling climate change, be sure to visit her website, Instagram and Twitter.