Life and Death in Waterton Lakes National Park

1874 Dawson photograph beside 2007 reenacted photograph from the same location

My visual research into contested territories of parks and protected areas in North America explores the affective force of photography. I work with scientists, tourists, artists and locals to explore and connect ecological and social complexity through photography. Since 2003 I’ve been working with photography and communities in Waterton Lakes National Park and asking, how are photographs lively, entangled and emergent events? I pose this question within communities that engage parks, for example, through the collaborative art projects Finding Aid and Portable Camera Obscura in Waterton Lakes National Park. Together we follow fleeting moments and shifting visualities to account for the fundamental impermanence of life.

For example, The Anthropology of Historical Photography in a Protected Area: Life and death in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta (2014) was published in the journal Anthropologica (56) 117-153. It is an academic paper and a 28×42″ photo-based digital composite, folded and presented in a 9×12″ archival box. In both text and images, colonial photographs of Waterton Lakes National Park are modified with field-based encounters, counter-narratives, what emerges in ethnographic research that attempts to return to the historical photograph’s spatial location.

28×43 digital composite print (digital rag paper) folded; a print of the academic paper; archival box. Edition of 25. Image framed above, in collection, University of Utah.

Anthropologica paper with butterfly photo

In my abstract from its publication in Anthropologica I write about the eventness of photography as a way to flesh out a fuller account of human relationships through more-than-human anthropology:

The Anthropology of Historical Photography in a Protected Area: Life and Death in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta

Abstract: This article offers an ethnographic and anthropological investigation of historical photography carried out in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta. I recount my attempts to precisely retake a photograph from its historical location. Once there, I scrutinize photography’s presences to better understand how a photograph emerges as an event. Photography can be used to understand human–wind encounters, the force of effort, the conventions that shape place, the impact of available water and how these come to bear on visibility and invisibility, life and death, in the present.

Keywords: photography, archives, national parks, posthumanism, International Boundary Commission,
G. M. Dawson, Canada

in Anthropologica 56 (2014) 117-133

In my theorization of photography, I ask, how are photographs not only fixed as images or objects, but lively, entangled and emergent events? Here’s an excerpt:

In writing about the picturesque aesthetic in the Sub-Arctic, Ian MacLaren makes an important contribution by carefully thinking through the consequences in forcing the shape of England, ‘‘by making a northern valley into an English gallery by means of an imported schema is the danger of not apprehending the terrain’s own unique qualities’’ (1985:91). The danger to the explorers was real. Buildings placed on hilltops to produce a more picturesque view, rather than in more forgiving valleys, meant that, for explorers in the Sub-Arctic, ‘‘aesthetics had precluded saving themselves’’ (1985:91). Their resistance to attuning themselves to the specificity of their surrounds cost them their lives. In Waterton the force of wind shifting the angle of the Prince of Wales Hotel is not the only consequence of the habit of photography. While Dawson and his men remained relatively safe in making Waterton Lake, the re-enactment of the picturesque convention affects flourishing in the present. …

Over two summers I conducted fieldwork in the area and found that generally people travel to the lake with family and friends and take distant views of the lake and the mountains (including many photographs containing people posing for the camera, framed by the lake and mountains). On July 17, 2007, I was riding my bike to Cameron Lake when the air became animated with the fleeting movements of migrating butterflies. The sky was transformed by their grey, yellow and blue hues. I stopped to witness and document butterfly movements and mass death as they crossed one of the two highways that intersect the park. Countless of these tiny travellers were hit and killed by windshields, caught in car grates and crushed under tires of recreational vehicles that were travelling up to the lake, filled with people on their way to take pictures of the lake and mountains. In this act of continuing on, human travellers overlooked the butterflies as something that counts as park experience. The butterflies, it seemed, were not a part of Waterton as a ‘‘sanctuary in which nature is allowed to evolve in its own way, as it has done since the dawn of time.’’ Nor, it seemed, was Waterton ‘‘a haven, not only for plants and animals, but also for the human spirit’’ (Parks Canada 2008:np). The challenge of unexpected butterfly migrations is that they do not show up in the photographic record.

The lively movements and fleeting nature of their migration render the butterflies outside of the visuality of Parks Canada’s ‘‘real Canada.’’ Non-recognition of the fleeting nature of butterflies descends directly from the transfer of the picturesque from England into Canada. A failure to recognize the specificity of the surrounds is an inheritance from colonial pasts and promotes not just our own human danger but also the danger for the rest of life. I followed the cars up to the Cameron Lake, where a few people pointed out the butterflies while walking across the parking lot area to the shoreline to make photographs of the lake and mountains.

A non-recognition of migration helps to re-enforce park borders and the movements that flow across them. In mid-summer 2002, I found an interpretive sign on the north side of the park that read, ‘‘National Parks are living museums of nature preserved for the benefit education and enjoyment of this and future generations.’’ Through the visuality of images like Waterton Lake, this lively place is materialized as a ‘‘living museum,’’ one unable to contain the temporal and spatial reality of butterfly migrations on the move. The butterfly migration was arresting. It raised questions about recognition of the real and about providing an ethics of care for a species on the move. It provided a shape for what counts, by showing what does not.

But the butterfly migration also caused a literal arrest. One of the Parks Canada employees I worked with relayed a story from the townsite: A visitor to the park, moved by the experience of the butterflies, stopped his car, stepped out and tried to stop other cars from killing the butterflies. His act of agitation and resistance was considered by some to be weird—we might say monstrous, even—as he acted outside of what was considered acceptable, normal human behaviour in a national park. Parks Canada employees squelched the disruption by escorting the man to the park gates and evicting him from the park. His act of defiance reveals the possibility of recognizing the world that goes beyond a hunger for the scripted experience of taking a picturesque view. In their visible invisibility, butterfly migrations reveal parks and photography as constructions that are exceeded by reality (Figure 5).

How does recognizing things like butterfly migrations—eventful outside of the photographic record—provide an opening to ongoing, unrecognized, more-than-human forms of relations or new forms of relations?

Parks Canada scientists record over 100,000 images each year in Waterton on their remote wildlife cameras (Parks Canada 2013:n.p.). In a recent online Parks Canada publication entitled ‘‘Wild in Waterton: Images from Waterton’s Remote Cameras,’’ an issue was devoted to ‘‘Rare Images.’’ The web page reported that some species like deer and elk are photographed thousands of times, while other species are less apt to trigger cameras (either because of habitat or a physical inability to trigger cameras like pileated woodpeckers or lowdensity populations like wolverines). Parks Canada is addressing the problem of the remote camera technology to overlook certain relationships and to pick up the trace of some lives and not others. Extending visibility of the more-than-human world is often the purpose of the cameras; yet, the question of photographic invisibility remains important. To return to Haraway’s idea that North America is in the midst of ‘‘reinvented pastoraltourist economies and ecologies’’ that raise basic questions about ‘‘who belongs where and what flourishing means for whom’’ (2008:41), we might ask what kind of flourishing is possible in protected areas? Given the visual history of parks, how might we encounter more than we might expect? And given the promise of new forms of record-making, like time-lapse cameras (e.g., as non-intrusive ways to record the more-than-human), how might photography connect to flourishing, life and death in the future?

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