Paul Anderson, Master Photographer
by Kathryn Fentress
Kathryn Fentress and her husband moved to Bellingham 20 years ago for the water, trees, fresh air and mountains. She is a psychologist in private practice and believes that spirit is everything. Living in harmony with nature reflects a reverence for life. She delights in finding and meeting those people whose stories so inspire all of us.
Paul Anderson is an environmental activist and photographer. Now 62, he was raised in Iowa and moved to the Northwest 36 years ago and to Bellingham, 15 years ago. He and his wife have two children in college, and he works for Boeing as a design engineer.
His photos have been published in The New York Times, National Geographic, The Economist, Sierra Magazine, The Nation, USA Today, Bloomberg Business Week, Grist, and others, and he has donated his work to many environmental groups including Greenpeace, The National Wildlife Federation, Waterkeepers Alliance, Re-Sources, Climate Solutions, the Chuckanut Conservancy and our own Whatcom Watch. Please check out his work at www.paulkanderson.com.
Kathryn Fentress: How did you get your start in this work?
Paul Anderson: Back in Iowa when we were kids, we played in a muddy creek that ran through our neighborhood. Normally it was fouled with agricultural runoff, but when we had a big rain, there was an overflow from the sewage treatment plant that would go into the water. One day I scooped out some water and saw toilet paper floating in it. I got my Dad’s camera and took a picture of it that made it into the local paper. Eventually the city officials were forced to clean up the mess. This process taught me the power of the image and the photographer and was actually my first effort to protect the environment.
My kids were and are my reason for my recent involvement with the coal train issue. I want a future for my children. When the SSA announced their plan for the coal terminal at Cherry Point, I decided to do some investigating. I requested access at the West Shore terminal near the Twassen ferry in Canada and was granted a three-and-a-half-hour tour. I invited a resource scientist from ReSources to accompany me. I took a lot of pictures. We were both stunned that it looked so horrible.
Then I became involved with First Nations communities and have been donating images to them. I was invited to go on the Totem Pole Journey last year that went to southeastern Montana on the border of Wyoming to the Otter Creek. The trip was spiritual for me. When we stopped at different places along the way, the tribal people would bless us in their language. They really understand how everything is connected and have respect for the land and its inhabitants.
Late one night we were caravanning and a coyote got hit by a semi-truck in front of us. We stopped immediately. All the Indians ran out of the cars to the side of the road where the coyote was dying and said prayers over it. For them all creatures are sacred and they practice this knowledge. Tribal folks came out and spoke to us on our stops In Spokane, Idaho and Montana. The same message was shared at every stop and at every tribal gathering: we must act for the future of the next seven generations.
What are you focusing on now?
I have gotten involved with photographing demonstrations. Many of us who were in the streets in the 60’s and 70’s are out there again. Lots of elderly are marching. I attended the big march in New York in September. Over 400,000 people were in the streets, all ages, all races and religions. The march formed in front of CNN and Columbus circle. It was crazy wonderful how many people were there: Native peoples from South and Central America as well as from the US and Canada, South Pacific islanders, a large contingent of the poor from the Bronx, a tremendous number of SCIU (service industry union), and union teachers. The IUEW men formed a protective line in front of the march to shield the Indigenous children who came behind them. There were celebrities but the emphasis was on regular people. I was on top of one of the press buses early on to take pictures. You couldn’t even see the end of the crowd once the march got lined up. It was certainly one of the largest marches ever. It could be the most significant march because of the all the international leaders who came out for it. Shortly after the march we now have a coalition developing between China and the US to reduce carbon emissions.
So you think we can really change things?
Besides the turnout in New York, I am optimistic because I have seen so many people in churches when I do slide presentations. I have talked with businesses and there is a big business community that is opposed to coal but are not public. I believe that 80 percent of Americans are opposed to pollution. Locally we have the Whatcom Docs who have come out against the coal trains because of health issues. Power Past Coal, Sierra Sustainable Communities, ReSources, Climate Solutions and about a 100 other organizations are working together.
Besides blocking coal, what do you think needs to happen next?
Create jobs by rebuilding America: the roads, the water systems and the bridges. The water systems in most communities are so bad we waste a lot of water. People think another coal port will create lots of jobs, but most of the jobs will go to paper pushers. Only a few jobs will go to local blue collar workers. We need to create jobs that support our communities in nonpolluting ways. Let’s have both: more jobs and less pollution.
How do you stay strong?
Being with my family outdoors, skiing, hiking, and camping. After a big project I often need to take a month or so break. Because of chronicling so much of this I would like to publish something about this whole question and the economic, social, and spiritual issues involved. I think I will be working for the environment for the rest of my life.
What would you recommend to folks who want to get involved?
Participate in any way that you can. Vote, write letters, find a political person you wish to support and make phone calls for them. Some stand at the corner downtown or come out for gathering and marches. All of these small things help the overall movement. Talk to other people about your concerns, dialogue with your neighbors, co-workers. Lots of folks feel it is too big and that we can’t be effective. I feel good that I am taking action for my children and my community. My message comes down to this: people are waking up and those awake are waiting for the opportunities to take action. Polarization is not useful. We need to move past party lines and come together with our shared concern for our children and grandchildren. Pollution could be the basic issue that will bring us into the awareness of being global citizens.
Thank you, Paul, for your stories and your wonderful photography. Your inspiring images show us what is being destroyed and what is worth saving.
If you know if an Unsung Hero you would like interviewed, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.