Biography

Industry Insight with Laurence Butet-Roch

Laurence Butet-Roch is a freelance writer, photo editor, photographer, and educator based in Toronto. Her photographic projects explore the tangled relationships between geographies of belonging and cultural or political narratives, while her written works are committed to encouraging critical visual thinking.

Article by Kathryn Donovan Panchaud

Laurence Butet-Roch is an artist, a writer, and an educator. Her interest in documentary work began in journalism and has evolved into a successful career in photography.
In her practice Butet-Roch closely examines the ways in which place and memory influence concepts of identity and politics. She is constantly developing ways to challenge and rethink the rules that exist within the genre of documentary photography. Butet-Roch completed Ryerson’s Master of Digital Media program in 2016, which helped inform Our Grandfathers Were Chiefs, a collaborative project with the people of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation in Southern Ontario that combines Indigenous storytelling practices and experimental media.

The community is encircled by forty-six petrochemical plants, earning the area the moniker “Chemical Valley.” Its residents are forced to constantly protect their ancestral land from the industry’s harmful effects on their physical health, the environment, and the wildlife. Butet-Roch, who is not Indigenous, spent over half a decade developing a strong relationship with the people of Aamjiwnaang. Together, the members of the community and Butet-Roch have been working to raise awareness of the difficulties the people face, and ultimately to improve everyday life in the community. Butet-Roch understands how privileged she is to be working in a community that is not her own by birth and is very appreciative of her acceptance there: she is an admirable example of how conscientious collaboration can offer alternatives to the dilemma posed by the debate over “who has the right to photograph whom.” The photography industry has been wrestling over questions of privilege and access like these for the past several years.
Working collaboratively entails engaging with the community when it is convenient for them—not simply when the photographer finds it convenient. Sometimes, when new threats arise to the community and their land, Butet-Roch needs to interrupt her work unpredictably and wait before picking up where she left off later on. The trust she builds through her way of working and being in the community has yielded unexpected results. One example is Butet-Roch’s image of band members counting the number of Butler’s garter snakes, an endangered species, that live on their territory. In this way they hope to demonstrate that the land is an animal sanctuary and win for their land the environmental recognition that would help protect it.
In her important collaborative work, Butet-Roch is contributing to the many ways in which photographers are redeveloping their industry and the documentary genre. Her work with the Aamjiwnaang Indigenous community has helped raise awareness of the issues surrounding the petrochemical industry and the problems facing the people, and has contributed to uniting the community in its fight to reach its goals.

Questions & Answers

Q. With your past work in mind, how would you recommend beginning a project if you do not have any immediate connections with a community that you do not identify with?

A. This is such an important question that goes beyond the logistics of how to create connections, which is so often how it is understood. The very first step, in my opinion, is to engage in self-reflection and consider the following questions, amongst others: Why are you interested in doing work about this community particularly? What is it that attracts you to the community? What are your assumptions? What can you bring to the table that others haven’t or can’t? Is there someone from the community whose voice you can help elevate? And what is your relationship to the community? While you might not have an immediate connection, you are always involved in a deeper networks of relationships. For instance, when I do work with an Indigenous community such as Aamjiwnaang First Nation, I have to acknowledge my position of privilege and the tense history that binds us. As I thought about that, I eventually came to understand that my responsibility was not only to denounce the environmental injustice they face, but also to demonstrate how my community, my peers are tied to it. The petrochemical complex that surrounds Aamjiwnaang grew not only because of our consumption patterns, but because we continuously celebrated it and ignored the impacts it was having on health and environment. We hailed the Sarnia industrial complex as the paragon of success: it was on the 10-dollar bill in the 70s, tourism pamphlets suggested you come visit ‘Chemical Valley,’ and so on. Highlighting that was a way for me to move away from doing work ‘about’ another community, and to do work that considered our interconnection.

Q. With your past work in mind, how would you recommend beginning a project if you do not have any immediate connections with a community that you do not identify with?

A. This is such an important question that goes beyond the logistics of how to create connections, which is so often how it is understood. The very first step, in my opinion, is to engage in self-reflection and consider the following questions, amongst others: Why are you interested in doing work about this community particularly? What is it that attracts you to the community? What are your assumptions? What can you bring to the table that others haven’t or can’t? Is there someone from the community whose voice you can help elevate? And what is your relationship to the community? While you might not have an immediate connection, you are always involved in a deeper network of relationships. For instance, when I do work with an Indigenous community such as Aamjiwnaang First Nation, I have to acknowledge my position of privilege and the tense history that binds us. As I thought about that, I eventually came to understand that my responsibility was not only to denounce the environmental injustice they face, but also to demonstrate how my community, my peers, are tied to it. The petrochemical complex that surrounds Aamjiwnaang grew not only because of our consumption patterns, but because we continuously celebrated it and ignored the impacts it was having on health and environment. We hailed the Sarnia industrial complex as the paragon of success: it was on the ten-dollar bill in the seventies, tourism pamphlets suggested you come visit “Chemical Valley,” and so on. Highlighting that was a way for me to move away from doing work “about” another community, and to do work that considered our interconnection.

A lot can also be said about the importance of relationship-building, which cannot be rushed, despite school or work deadlines. You should be ready to abide by the community’s schedule, not yours. If you can’t do that, if you have an assignment due at the end of the month, then maybe this is not the moment to take on such a project. While it’s useful to have someone you know who can act as an intermediary, you can also look at who holds different positions of leadership within the community. It’s not just about who holds official power, but also youth clubs, elders, community associations, etc. Within these groups, you can find people with whom you share interests and start by engaging them. When I began my work on the last asbestos mine in Canada, which was located in Thetford Mines, Quebec, I didn’t know anyone who lived there. I went to the local history museum and chatted with the docent, who, no surprise, had familial ties to the mining operation and put me in touch with his parents. Had I gone through the official channels, I probably would have never stepped inside the operation. I can’t stress how important it is to remain honest throughout, patient, and to listen carefully. Here, it’s helpful to approach [the] community with an open mind rather than a definite idea of what it is you’ll be documenting.

Finally, I want to say a word about your responsibility to the community. Consider what your work is doing for them and if there’s a way for you to reciprocate the time, energy, stories they are sharing with you. While we all like to think that our photographs contribute to awareness raising, this often, unfortunately, doesn’t amount to much on the ground. Maybe you can contribute your skills to other local initiatives. A few years ago, Aamjiwnaang had to make a case for the importance of the waters around them to a governmental inquiry. They wanted to give every community member the chance to address the panel, but of course couldn’t bring everyone with them to the meeting. So they asked me to film people giving their testimonies, with the understanding that I would not use that footage in my project since that was not what it was intended for.

I’ve learned this along the way by taking the time, engaging in what can be uncomfortable discussions, reflecting, seeking advice from others, and looking at other fields. Indigenous research methodologies and principles are a constant source of lessons that can also be adapted to other communities, such as participatory art techniques. I’m still and constantly learning how to work with community meaningfully.

Q. How do you balance your career as a photographer while working with long-term projects and with other types of work? What is the underlying significance to this relationship between balance and time management?

A. A. I recently interviewed Matt Eich, a photographer that lives and work in Virginia, U.S. He shared how one of his early mentors told him that balance is an illusion. I agree with that. There’s always something that you dedicate less time to than you’d like. When I’m teaching in the fall semester at Ryerson (RTA New Media program), I have to put personal long-term projects on the back burner. When I’m on the road, I do less writing for the different publications I contribute to. And so on. Eventually, you learn to accept how it ebbs and flows. It’s so easy, with all the contests, awards, and articles that hail young talents to feel like you should always be extremely productive. Over the years I’ve tried so many methods to develop work discipline and good time management. At one point I had post-it notes of different colours, one for each of the aspect of my life: photography, writing, teaching, researching, personal, etc. I would write one to-do item per post-it. But rather than say “write interview with Matt Eich,” for instance, I would deconstruct it in[to] all the smallest parts: “schedule interview with Matt Eich,” “prepare questions for Matt Eich,” “transcribe interview,” and so on. I’d stick them to a big chalkboard in my apartment and move them from the “to-do” column to the “done” column. Sure, I was very organized and very productive. But I was also very stressed. I could never escape my to-do list. I’ve since scratched the whole system and sold the chalkboard. Instead, I try to have more or less normal work hours and establish one or two priorities for the week or the month.

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