A new exhibit at the Center for Documentary Studies (CDS) shows with gripping clarity what the aftermath of a disaster looks like, on the people and on the land, and how both attempt to heal.
Canadian documentary photographer Michel Huneault was awarded a solo show at CDS as part of the Lange-Taylor Prize, which he won in 2015 for “Post Mégantic,” his project on a small town in Quebec that was the site of Canada’s deadliest train disaster in 150 years.
21 hours after the derailment, July 6, 2013.
A meditation on loss and mourning, Post Mégantic incorporates photographs, videos, oral histories, and installations to tell the story of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, where on the night of July 6, 2013, a cargo train from North Dakota carrying nearly 8 million liters of shale oil derailed and exploded, killing 47 people and effectively destroying the town. From a population of 6,000, one out of every 128 citizens died. The explosion leveled most of the town center, creating a 400-meter-wide area that is still inaccessible.
Serge, above, and Lucie remained in Lac-Mégantic.
"After 14 visits and 70 days on the ground, up to mid-July 2014,” Huneault writes in his project statement, “I had completed a symbolic one year of mourning with the community. … Through the seasons and aftershocks, I became friends with many Méganticois, sharing in the ebb and flow of their emotions: pain, anger, hope for healing and peace of mind.
"Late in 2014, I was present to document another peculiar event: After more than a year of debates, the city decided to flatten half of the Red Zone, the still-contaminated downtown, that had not been destroyed in the explosion but had continued to soak up oil. As a farewell, the zone was opened for eight hours on a single day. For the first time in 18 months, the citizens had access to the heart of the town before it was erased.”
Above, a MMA (Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway) train going through Mégantic seven months after the tragedy, February 2013. Below, dandelion achenes, June 2014.
Huneault describes Post Mégantic as a “requiem to the victims,” a documentary narrative about life, death, the fragility of existence that he hopes will evoke for viewers of the work a “visceral sense of empathy, an appreciation based on introspection, imagination, and compassion.”
Above, Chaudière River at sunrise, February 2014. Below, A cross-country skier on the rehabilitated train tracks next to the still-closed Red Zone, Dec. 31 2013.
Huneault's collaboration with the people and town of Lac-Mégantic will continue, as he returns “hopefully to find more light and healing.”
The $10,000 Lange-Taylor Prize, awarded annually by CDS, supports documentary artists, working alone or in teams, whose extended fieldwork projects rely on the interplay of words and images.
The exhibit is showing in the Kreps and Lyndhurst Galleries through Feb. 18. The center is located at 1317 W. Pettigrew Street.