Unseen Platform: Could you briefly introduce your new series, Power?
Henk Wildschut: Elegant, beautiful, and sometimes threatening, the clouds from my series Power don’t immediately reveal their origin. They can be admired and questioned without the hindrance of an explanation. However, the beauty that these photographs contain is in stark contrast to their troubling reality. In fact, these are clouds of CO2 – the greatest polluter of our environment – produced by coal-fired power stations. These power stations have given us energy for almost 115 years, along with unbelievable economic benefits. By photographing the clouds without judgement, the series can be seen as an homage to an energy source that has benefitted us greatly, despite now being widely condemned.
Your work is defined by your long term engagement with your subject. What has been your research process for this project?
In my work, I research large societal issues because I’m curious about how problems relate to each other. After my long-term involvement with the theme of immigration and refugees, it was time to research the causes of migration. I discovered that the main catalysts are climate change, large economic injustices, and lack of future prospects; energy is a factor in all of these.
For example, in some parts of Africa, only 12% of the population have access to electricity. As a result, youngsters can’t thrive and will seek opportunities elsewhere. Access to electricity gives power for development. Similarly, in the refugee camp in Calais (which I frequented for many years), I saw what the arrival of electricity did for the inhabitants of the camp. Immediately after lampposts were installed, little shops opened next to the light, because it was safer. With this self-generated electricity more ventures came into existence, such as restaurants, discos, and bathhouses. In fact, soon after the arrival of electricity, the camp’s formidable and long-used name, “The Jungle”, was changed to “Ville de Calais”, which instead evokes a small village.
Focussing on images of clouds, this series is more symbolic than your previous work. Can you expand on this choice?
The photos may seem symbolic but have a strong documentary character for me. In the near future, these clouds will no longer be a part of our landscape. They will be objects from the past. For my children, the power plant in Amsterdam is still the cloud factory. I use this 185-meter-high chimney to see which way the wind blows, and to orientate myself whilst cycling. The chimney belongs to the landscape, and is symbolic of activity.
In my work, I try to approach subjects in a different way than you might initially expect, with the intention of making the viewer think about their own preconceived ideas. While clouds from power plants are often used in the media in a very negative manner, I’ve photographed them because of their beauty. We can reject the clouds, but because of our own growing consumption of electricity, we’re dependent on them.
Politicians in the Netherlands have decided to close the Amsterdam power plant by the end of the year. A good decision, one might say, except the energy needs of Amsterdam will not be replaced by purely sustainable energy. After the closure, much of Amsterdam will use electricity bought from the brown coal power plants in Germany, or elsewhere.
How does Power reveal new perspectives on the topic of environmentalism? Is there a message you hope to convey with this project?
I’ve noticed that with many of the large issues the communication is always done in extremes. It seems as though everybody shouts louder about how terrible the state of the world is, in order to be heard. Sometimes it’s better to whisper, so that people become quiet in order to hear you. That’s also how I see this work. Power doesn’t immediately shed new light on the subject of energy transition, but it can create a kind of distance and make you aware of the history and your own position within it.
What are your future plans for Power? Will you continue to create work on this topic?
These photographs of clouds are just the starting point of a long-term project around energy and electricity. It’s my goal to seek out contradictions, and to challenge the idea that it’s a matter of course that some parts of the world lack electricity.
In my opinion, we can only really make changes during our shift to greener energy if we tackle energy poverty in developing nations, and distribute energy more equally. Even if this might mean that we have to take a step backwards, I think it’s incomprehensible that we talk about our own energy transition whilst large parts of the world continue to live in the dark, without a change in sight.
Text by Jenny Willcock, Unseen Platform