All the King’s Men

By Aly Gulamhusein

“Photography, I love, because there is a sense of adventure,” says Leya Russell.

Photography has always come natural to her. It is a way for her to experience the world– one shutter flicker at a time.

For the final project of her bachelor of fine arts degree at the University of Calgary, Leya Russell ventured up to Mildred Lake, a 21-kilometre long tailings pond north of Fort McMurray.

Russell knew that she wanted to use her artistic work to focus on a controversial issue, and the controversies raised by the province’s oil sands spoke to her. Her current aim is to look at Alberta and see what human impact heavy oil extraction and refinement has had on the environment.

“Photographs claim some sort of truth about the world,” says Russell, “at least in [a] time and place, and that is how people think about them. But photographs are constructed. We make them. We compose them. We set them up.”

However, photographs alone were not enough. Russell wanted to make a statement about the constructed nature of our world through her project as a whole. Using mixed media, Russell was able to emphasize the influence humans have on the earth.

Starting with over 1,000 photographs, Russell started culling through the material until she noticed how the scarecrows struck her. With a selection of choice photographs, she began a three month long project of trial and error, trying to convey her vision. After trying hundreds of different papers, inks and fixatives, Russell settled on a process that uses heavy watercolour paper, a large scale ink jet printer, paints and washes. Each image is unique and handmade, taking about two hours to complete.

Her images are not accurate representations of reality. Each piece is about the construction of reality, which is reflected in how each piece is created and the processes the pieces undergo.

“The work is actually about the construction of reality, and so, no it’s not what’s there,” she says. “The reason I changed these photos is because people think the world is concrete but it’s not. We shape it.”

Even still, Russell believes that art has to be able to stand alone, that each piece should engender a relationship with the audience. “Photography is able to bring people to places that they wouldn’t have otherwise gone to see,” she says.

“Art is the politics of the impossible.”

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