Sacred Headwaters Q&A with Paul Colangelo
“In a rugged knot of mountains in northern British Columbia lies a spectacular valley known to the First Nations as the Sacred Headwaters. There, three of Canada’s most important salmon rivers—the Stikine, the Skeena, and the Nass—are born in close proximity. Now, against the wishes of all First Nations, the British Columbia government has opened the Sacred Headwaters to industrial development. Imperial Metals proposes an open-pit copper and gold mine, called the Red Chris mine, and Royal Dutch Shell wants to extract coal bed methane gas across a tenure of close to a million acres.” – Wade Davis, explorer in residence at the National Geographic Society and iLCP Photographer
Q& A with Photographer Paul Colangelo
Q: How long have you been focused on this region and how have you been traveling ?
I first traveled to the Sacred Headwaters two years ago to photograph an amazing woman named Ali Howard who swam the Skeena River from source to ocean (355 miles!) over 28 days to raise awareness and unite the river communities. The moment I hiked into the valley of the Skeena Headwaters, I knew that this was a place with a story that should be told. One of the challenges of documenting the Sacred Headwaters is its size and inaccessibility. I did a lot of aerial photography from helicopters to convey just how vast, rugged and pristine a region this is. Helicopters were also used to be dropped off at otherwise inaccessible locations, such as the rim of the Grand Canyon of the Stikine to photograph mountain goats and Todagin Mountain to spend a week photographing Stone’s sheep. Canoeing, rafting and of course backpacking for miles were needed to access other locations, but the newest method for me was traveling by horseback. I stopped into a cabin to ask directions to a fishing camp, and the next thing I knew I was joining the cabin’s owner on an eight-day horseback trip to clear their hunting trails. First time on a horse, but hopefully not the last!
Q: What inspires you about the Sacred Headwaters, why have you dedicated so much time to photographing this landscape and people? What are the challenges to telling the story of a landscape at risk?
When I first traveled to the Sacred Headwaters, everything I knew about it I had learned from environmental organizations, namely the landscapes, rivers, wildlife and their need for protection. It wasn’t until I spent time with the Tahltan did I understand that it’s really a story of respect. There’s a David and Goliath situation where a Tahltan group led by Elders, the Klabona Keepers, are pitted against the world’s second largest corporation in a fight for the right to decide what happens on their land. I was amazed to hear what had been accomplished. Through a 254-day sit-in in government offices and road blocks that ended in their arrest, the Elders were able to put a temporary moratorium on Shell’s coalbed methane development in the Sacred Headwaters. The Tahltan Elders risked and achieved a great deal on an issue that I believe in, so I wanted to do anything I could to help.
The challenges of telling the story of a landscape at risk are working among the politics and attempting to tell the story as objectively as possible. There are many parties and conflicting interests, and as a photojournalist I want to capture the complete picture. Navigating this landscape of beliefs can be a delicate task.
The Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition
The Mission was to generate a portfolio of images to help derail plans to lift a 4-year moratorium and develop harmful mining projects in the region.
The Sacred Headwaters RAVE was launched with partner Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition (SWCC) to produce a portfolio of stunning images of the Sacred Headwaters of (the birthplace of 3 of British Columbia’s greatest salmon rivers – the Stikine, Skeena, and Nass) for a photo book with author and National Geographic explorer in residence, Wade Davis. The book will be used as a tool by iLCP, SWCC, other local conservation groups and Wade Davis to derail proposed mining projects that would destroy the Sacred Headwaters. The book will be published in October 2011 right before the moratorium on mining in the Sacred Headwaters is lifted.
In The Sacred Headwaters, a collection of photographs by Carr Clifton and members of the International League of Conservation Photographers— including Claudio Contreras, Paul Colangelo, Joe Riis and Wade Davis—portray the splendour of the region. These photographs are supplemented by images from other professionals who have worked here, including Sarah Leen of the National Geographic.
The compelling text by Wade Davis, which describes the region’s beauty, the threats to it, and the response of native groups and other inhabitants, is complemented by the voices of the Tahltan elders. The inescapable message is that no amount of methane gas can compensate for the sacrifice of a place that could be the Sacred Headwaters of all Canadians and indeed of all peoples of the world.