Based in Vancouver, each time I have travelled by boat or seaplane to document communities on the West Coast of BC, I have been amazed by its immensity and the presence of humans in places so remote that it seems unreal to live or work there. Yet before the land of what is currently the province of British Columbia was discovered and progressively occupied/exploited by settlers from Europe, First Nations had lived on its territory for more than 10,000 years.
Investing entrepreneurs saw a potential in the many BC resources, beginning with fur trade and gold rush and evolving to mining, forestry and fishing. Starting around the middle of the 19th century, investors built camps and company towns to accommodate the workers. Many of these newly-built BC communities died because of fire, flood or refusal of access to railway. The companies also closed these villages because of the decrease in the resources’ selling price or the arrival of technologies such as automation, allowing the grouping of these industries in bigger centres.
Ocean Falls, located on the Central Coast of BC, is a perfect example of the cycles of economic development of BC. It was built around 1910 to house the workers of a large pulp and paper mill fed by a dam. This company town became a vibrant community of nearly 5,000 people. The factory closing in 1973 resulted in an exodus of the majority of the population, leaving just 55 permanent residents.
– Florence Debeugny
Coming from Europe, “aging metropolis” in an industrial context has always fascinated me. The remains of past generations and discarded structures have their unique visual attraction. Damaged buildings appear to be waiting for the as yet invisible forces which will tear them down eventually.
While photographing some buildings still in use and the ones being reclaimed by nature, I met and talked to former residents revisiting this place of their memories. For this project I was not recording their narratives. Their stories, however, had a big impact on my work as I began assembling recorded interviews with photographs in future projects.
To revisit the memories of the almost silent community of Ocean Falls, I photographed with higher speed slide film, creating soft focused and low-saturation images. These views and close-ups of abandonment and dereliction within flourishing nature are a representation of what visitors travelling through the BC landscape would inevitably experience along the way.
To find traces of the past, Canadians usually travel overseas to look at ruins and monuments, in stone or wood, that have survived the centuries. British Columbia in Canada has its own ruins. Despite the fact that they are more recent and not intentionally preserved, the abandoned First Nations’ villages and the remains of forestry camps, mining towns and cannery villages inform visitors on the intrinsic regional identity of BC, past and present.
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