“There is No Romance in Being a Canary”. Interview with Thilde Jensen on her widely nominated self-published photobook The Canaries

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Mirelle Thijsen (MT):

First of all, congratulations for all the nominations your book The Canaries has received.! I am listing them here as prelude to my first question. The Canaries project was selected as Slate’s Magazine best exhibition of the year, for 2012 I believe. More recently, it was listed in Photo-Eye Best Books for 2013; it was selected by Alec Soth for “my top 10 best photo books 2013” in The Telegraph, and picked as one of the best photo books of 2013 in TIME Lightbox. And last but not least it was short-listed books for the Photobook Awards 2013in Photobook Review nr. 5, published by Paris Photo and Aperture Foundation. The jury commented: “While the photographs themselves are somewhat traditional in their approach, the presentation is definitely original. The title-stamped aluminium foil outer wrapping, echoed by silver duct-taped spine, is impactful […].”

The Canaries comes hand wrapped in aluminium foil with a handwritten title. And I received it that way, and was struck because I’ve never received a book wrapped like that. It makes it such a striking and personal present. I do understand the metaphor of hand-wrapped aluminium foil, but maybe you can explain what the foil refers to?

 

Thilde Jensen (TJ):

Actually it is meant to make the book authentic. People that are sensitive often use aluminium foil; I have used it myself to wrap things that smell. Some people use foil on the walls to keep out toxics, but also to encase books. The inks and papers are toxic to some extent. So there are people living out of their cars and carrying along a few books, and they don’t want to smell the books and have them wrapped in aluminium foil. This is the way people in the world of Environmental Illness (E.I.) deal with books. So it needed to be the way that my book was presented, too. And the wrapping would give the outsider the experience of dealing with this whole world in the most tangible way, even though it is a lot of work for me!

MT:

Hand-wrapped by yourself, in your place? And with a handwritten title! How many are there?

TJ:

Yes…Yes. The print run was 1500 copies.

MT:

How many do you still have to wrap?

TJ:

A lot! It is a slow process, but it’s okay!

MT:

It is selling well, I’m sure.

TJ:

Yes it is…

MT:

You are distributing the book yourself?

TJ:

Yeah… unfortunately I would say, but I am.

MT:

Do people help you with the handwork?

TJ:

The handwork is limited to getting the book out there. People seem to find me, hopefully that will continue.

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MT:

Please explain to me the title, The Canaries. What does it refer to? I read in the acknowledgment your book is dedicated to “your fellow canaries”.

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TJ:

Well, in the old days people used to use canaries, the birds, in mines to check the air quality. So, that when the canary would die the miners knew they had to get out of the mines, because the air had gotten too toxic. The phrase ‘The Canaries’ has been used for this group of people who has gotten sick, the protagonists in the book. They are the warning birds for the rest of the world so to speak. The toxicity level of the world today has become too high. It is a name that has been given to this group of people suffering from Environmental Illness (E.I.).

MT:

In the back of the book you also mention the names of your fellow canaries.

TJ:

Right. I did a Kickstarter.com project, raising some money in order to make one of the trips for the book and I started to use the phrase “fellow canaries” for all the people, suffering from chemical and electrical sensitivities and who also were supporting the project financially. When you get sick like that the people involved become a “family” because you all go through some of the same experiences and nobody understands you. It almost feels like a lost tribe; you feel very connected.

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MT:

How did this project come about? How did it start, when and why?

TJ:

I got sick in 2003, when I lived in New York City. I had to leave NY and live out doors for a while. And about 2004 I started photographing again, although I was way too sick.

MT:

Why did you get sick?

TJ:

I did a lot of colour darkroom work. So I was exposed to a lot of photochemistry. I also lived in an apartment, next to a major highway. They renovated the building I lived in. Then 9/11 happened…a lot of things were falling on top of each other. Later on my family also developed sensitivities, in particular my mom. Not as severely as me, but still… And my brother also developed some degree of sensitivities, as did his kids.

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MT:

Being sensitive for what exactly?

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TJ:

Not liking perfumes, for example; not liking magazines with glossy pictures; the smell of the ink; not liking the smell of paint fumes, things like that. My mom cannot deal with any perfumes. She used to work in a restaurant together with my brother – they owned it – and they actually made a policy that nobody could come to work with perfume. So there is obviously a genetic factor that I did not know I was dealing with. And that is probably the case for a lot of us. Myself, I got sick very fast, within half a year. From being still functional to loosing weight and not “being there” anymore. I left New York City and started wearing a mask. And about a year afterwards I was getting to a point where I could start focussing on a project; it was then that I started photographing again.

MT:

What were your living conditions then?

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I was living out of a tent at that time. One of the pictures in the book is from that period (p. 41). It’s s self-portrait lying in my tent. And the picture of me in the shower (p. 23) is a self-portrait from that time period, too. A lot of the work in the beginning was documenting my own life, and the few people I have met that were also suffering from sensitivities in that area.

MT:

How did you meet other people with Environmental Illness?

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TJ:

If you walk around with a big mask on…people obviously see that! I was at a market, getting vegetables and such, and this woman walks up to me and asks: “Why are you wearing a mask”? I explained I had chemical sensitivities. She answered: “I am so glad to hear that! I think I have that, too. I feel like I am dying…” And this woman was about to fall over; with every step she took, she almost fell on the ground. I helped her to figure out what in her house was making her sick, and where to get a mask – to do all the things in order for her to survive. She is now a good friend of mine.

MT:

How did the idea for the project come about?

TJ:

It started by realizing that I could document my own life. Here was a story that had not been told and I am a photographer. Before I got sick, I had no idea that something like E.I. existed. I was quite sure that that applied for the population in large. It was a story that needed to be told, but from the inside. I felt it had to be me. But it was very hard in the beginning; I was so limited by my own illness. So there were longer time periods in between. One time I had no resources; another time I could not travel. I did a little bit each time. I went to NYC in 2007 actually, of all places, to photograph a woman I met. I am talking about the woman in the bathtub (p. 44-45).

MT:

You also write that you could barely hold a camera to your face. From the book I understand that you had to use an out-gassed respirator for seven years.

TJ:

Right, I wore a respirator up untill Fall of 2010 at that time I was working on a show at Light Work in Upstate New York, which is a non-profit organisation for photography. They did a show of The Canaries in their gallery space. It was a slow process, because I had C-prints, darkroom prints. And now we had to digitalize my work. At the time I was so sensitive to a computer, I just couldn’t be in that environment. So, I basically was working with students, interns, who would do the computer work for me. And I would sit in the back of the room, with a respirator on and I would tell them what to do.

MT:

So what happened between 2004 and 2010?

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TJ:

In 2004 I was still living out of a tent. In the wintertime I would go down to Arizona and live out of a trailer that I had partly renovated (p. 72-73). I was photographing some. Then I came up to New York again for the summer to camp out in this community, where there is a lot of land, a lot of forest, a lot of fresh air. And I would go back to Arizona again for the winter. Then I decided this community in New York would be a good place to live. So that’s where I am living now, in a straw bail house that’s built without any kind of chemicals. It is far away from cell towers and all that stuff. It’s in the middle of the woods.

MT:

This community consists of people with E.I.?

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TJ:

Well, my neighbour Anna, she is also in the book with a few pictures of her Yes, she is very chemically sensitive; she still uses a mask. The other people like to live out in nature. Though, since we moved here, some of them realized they have sensitivities too.

MT:

How did they discover that?

TJ:

From meeting someone like me! Often people are not necessarily able to make the link between the chemical and their illness because we, as well as medical doctors, are not used to think like that. Unless it becomes obvious that you become sick every time you come around something; then you start to make the connection.

MT:

Tell me about the overture of The Canaries

TJ:

Oh, let me explain one thing, before we get to that. In 2010 when I was working on the show at Light Work I came across a woman, Annie Hopper, in Canada – online. She figured out how to heal herself from E.I based on some new scientific understanding of our brain. Basically the idea is that chemicals or electrical stimulation can cause injury to the brain. I did her workshop, that’s how I got a lot better. I was lucky because it really helped me.

MT:

You refer to the Dynamic Neuro Retraining program? What kind of training or therapy is that?

TJ:

It is a program you have to follow for six months, for an hour a day. I can’t really go into details because, for one thing, you’re not allowed to, but it is also hard to explain. One aspect is: Using ways to focus your brain so that certain parts of your brain stay busy and occupied. And the part of your brain that is injured doesn’t get too active.

MT:

Is that approach comparable to Mindfulness training?

TJ:

It is more then that. It is dealing with re-wiring: making new connections in your brain.

And closing off the connections that are damaged. It is comparable with therapies used in case of people rehabilitating from a stroke. You become aware of the part of the brain that is damaged is the limbic system, the subconscious part of the brain. Not unlike the part of the brain that is damaged from post-traumatic stress, for example, happening to people that have been to war. And there are good reasons why the damage is located in that part of the brain because that is where your sense of smell is located. Way before you are aware of the fact you smell something, it is already registered in that part of the brain. All incoming senses go into that part of the brain. But it is not a cure… Still, I am able to be in the world again, I am able to go out without a mask, and I am able to use a computer again, with limitations. I got a lot of my life back, but not everything…

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MT:

Let’s move on to the book itself. I consider the opening of the book very sensitive…it has to do with the way of book making that is used. The flesh coloured fly leafs are followed by a first tab showing the contours of a sun (set)… On a second tab, prior to the French title, a colour photograph is printed showing a mirror on a yellow wall. In that same wall an electric cord is plugged in an American type outlet.

TJ:

DETAIL FROM_WoodsmokeLandscape_3 copyIt is interesting that you say that, knowing what they really are. That’s not a bad association.

MT:

Yes, because flesh is very present in your book, and as the skin the book seems so vulnerable…

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TJ:

Right, right!  How the design of the book came about was as following: I had this box of pictures and started to think about sequencing and storytelling, and the book design of course. But I wasn’t sure how it had to be. I just knew it had to be authentic regarding the experience of that world; it had to create a certain mood. It needed to feel like a document. It needed to feel slightly weathered, worn, and unpolished. At the same it needed to be elegant. There also needed to be a certain tactile sensitivity to the book.  I started to play around, almost by mistake I ended up printing out – I have this little outmoded cheap printer at home – little details from one of the pictures in the book.

I simply scanned the dummy. Roll 009_p1_8 001The cover of the book is a straight-forward scan of the dummy, printed on my little home printer. That explains the edges with seams. I didn’t have paper that was big enough, so I taped it all together. In the end I decided, maybe this is what the actual book needs. The “fabric” underneath the cover picture and the back cover are prepared in this way.

Printed on the second tab is the picture with the yellow wall (95) and the electrical cord hanging from the outlet. There is something about that… I just printed that detail on a regular sheet of paper, and it felt right. This little scene felt like the illness: It looks beautiful but there is something very disturbing about this detail. I started to play around. Maybe all the design elements had to come from within the book, from the actual pictures. It also felt like, when you get sick, you start to act like a detective in your own life: you have to analyse and figure out these links between the physical reactions and what it is you are reacting to. And you always have to stay ahead of everything that surrounds you, in order not to get sick. So that kind of mind set seemed to me should be reflected in the book, even if it was only understood by me.

So I kind of started with the idea of the movie Blow Up by Antonioni. Using that technique of blowing things up. And not so much in order to see a detail that was wrong or a crime, but it told me something about the ingredients of that piece of reality that is in a particular picture.

It seemed fitting in the book. That is how that picture, which is of Maria in the bathroom with the yellow wall, is the one detail blown up. And a blow up of the black window curtain in that picture actually became the cover. And the red, the flesh colour, is actually the sun!

MT:

As visible on the first tab in your book…

TJ:

Right. The inside of the front cover and the flyleaf are extreme blow-ups of the next picture of the sun. And that seemed right because the sun brings us back to the cosmic life that we’re in, and for a person like Maria that is the one thing she can’t tolerate. Also for other people in the book the sun is one of the things they have created sensitivities to. So this blow-up of the sun seemed right to use in the book. You kind of get the sense of it when you get to the following picture of the yellow wall. Maybe something isn’t quite working right… The yellow also echoes the colour of the canaries.

MT:

The Canaries opens with a statement, a poem in fact, by Nicole Meredith, entitled: Field Work. What struck me most is the phrase in italics: “Show me what it is to be wretched and utterly alone”. It really generates a gut feeling when you read those words and know a little more about this project. Would you please explain why this quote is there and what it means to you?

TJ:

Nicole Meredith, is also suffering from sensitivities for about 16 years. She has been quite ill, and bed ridden. I came across her because someone else mentioned her. And there was this little poem; with that one sentence I think she summed up the whole experience of what it is about this illness that is so sad and hard to deal with, which is that feeling of being alone and isolated and broken. I knew I had to be very careful about text in the book. Knowing how people look at a photobook, they want to see pictures; they don’t want to read. Whatever text would be used had to be short in order to work. It seemed also for that reason fitting.

MT:

It is about the essence, the heart of the matter.

TJ:

Exactly.

MT:

And we see that Craig, the first protagonist in your book, is both chemically and electrically sensitive. Could you explain in a few words what that mean? How does he get that label?  And how does he survive in the desert of Portal, Arizona, away from cell towers and chemicals?

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TJ:

A lot of people first become chemically sensitive and later on developed electrical sensitivities, like myself. It basically means you are so hyper-reactive to chemicals, even the small amounts of chemicals in our daily lives that nobody thinks about, like the smell of perfume, the smell of laundry detergent, cleaning products used in a house, the smell of a new carpet. Also, new building materials today are full of chemicals, the smoke of a cigarette, car exhaust, you name it. Even the smell from a new book, a printed coloured book, a newspaper, will make you very sick. It affects your immune system; that is one of the explanations.

MT:

And how does Craig deal with it, surviving in the desert of Portal, Arizona, away from cell towers and chemicals?

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TJ:

Craig was one of those people who really had to get away from everything; he was very sick. He was reactive to both chemicals and electrical sources. So he decided to buy this piece of property in the desert, very cheaply. Away from everything in order to start over. And at the time, the only place he could sleep was in his car. He got there and brought his wife with him, who was not suffering from similar sensitivities. She lived in a trailer at one end of the big lot and had an electrical hook up. Craig lived at the very opposite end in his car. Then they started to build a house out of stone. This was a very slow project. And by the time the house was done, unfortunately, he could not tolerate it. So he was still living out of his car by the time I got there. I was there at the very beginning of the project. There is a picture in the book (p. 88-89) showing the start of the foundation for the house. When I came back, on one of my two trips, visiting them in the morning, he was sitting in the red car on the phone. That was the only electrical device he was using. He would hold the phone away from his head so as to not get too much input from the electrical signal close to his head. And he was wearing gloves. I got that situation right there, in front of my camera.  It seemed surreal.

MT:

You are Danish and have been living for more then a decade in New York. Looking at the photo index for this project you have been to Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, New York and Nebraska. Why did you go there?

TJ:

Well, there is a huge clinic in Texas, where Dr. Rea has a practice for over 30 years, treating the illness. So people come from all over the world to see him because he is the leading expert. And outside of Dallas there has been a camp for more than three decades. People are living there out of metal structures and trailers. This is for people with a low income. I had heard about this place and needed to go there to photograph. The cover picture is from that camp. That’s where Maria lives, and a few other pictures in the book were taken there. So that was the only place in Texas I photographed: just outside of Dallas.

I basically went to places with a high density of people with E.I.: Arizona, New Mexico, being two of the states where most of these people end up living. Because of the climate and because you can still buy land way out in the desert in order to be able to live away from everything. And New York is where I live, where I am; that is my network.

And I went to Nebraska because I got contacted online by a person who was describing a group of people that got sick from a military ammunition plant that had contaminated the ground. A lot of blue collar, working class people were very sick. They did not know how to deal with the illness. Whether they had to wear masks, or get their houses free of chemicals. They were reacting to everything and were on medication.

MT:

Is that the story of three men that had been working at the plant, describing it as the “mom and pop shop”?

TJ:

Yes, exactly. I was determent to go there, because this shows a different part of the story. Especially the fact that these people did not know necessarily why they had gotten sick because most of them were not familiar with the sensitivities. It seemed to me that was a big part of the story that needed to be told. I have to admit it was a very scary and sad story: to see that these people were so sick, and feel there was nothing to do. I tried to take pictures of them as best as I could.

MT:

There are some notions and terms with which I am not familiar. Please explain what a “Wifi refugee” (p.136) is.

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TJ:

People used to be diagnosed as “chemical sensitive”. Now it is just as common that people are electrically sensitive, but not necessarily chemically sensitive. More and more of these people try to find a safe place to be. And that is hard: there are cell towers everywhere today; there is wifi and, in the US at least, there are smart meters. This kind of ultrasonic meter sends a diagnostic signal back to the electrical company, every five or seven seconds, and people get sick from that. There is electrical interference everywhere! It is very hard for someone who becomes sensitive to find a safe place to be.

MT:

The person depicted on page 137: a woman with long grey hair blowing in her face, wearing a purple T-shirt… Is she considered a “refugee”?

TJ:

She is someone who is electrically sensitive and has been lucky to find a place in one of these units in Arizona. Those are built such that the electrical current is very low. And no chemicals are used in the building materials.

MT:

Are these the “safe housing” conditions needed for chemically and electrically sensitive people? But I understood that there aren’t too many of such places.  I read in a caption in your book that Arizona is offering a handful of low-income rental units, , but those are fully booked.

TJ:

Yes, it is very hard to find a place, partly because today the building materials used are full of chemicals. Another reason is that people that become sensitive are quite different in their sensitivities. What works for me, might not work for someone else. There are people that tried to build safe housing for this group of people. But it has not been very successful. The fact that Arizona built these four units, and it actually worked and is a great success story.

MT:

Four units, you say?

TJ:

Yes, only four units.

MT:

It doesn’t sound like a lot…

TJ:

It is only a beginning: a drop in the water. The fact that the state was able to realize the project and that the people living there are doing well; that part is the success story. This means Arizona will potentially build more, or other states in the US will pick it up.

MT:

So it is a unique project in Arizona? No equal anywhere else in the US?

TJ:

Yes. Unfortunately, nowhere else. It has to do with the fact there is a big community around in Snowflake, Arizona, in the desert, in the middle of nowhere where nobody else wants to live. And it’s windy all the time. A lot of people settled there because it was very cheap. It has become a community with a lot of resources. They are intelligent people that have been able to get a lot done for this group of people with sensitivities.

MT:

As you explained, in general people suffering from E.I. live in exile and isolation: in trailers, tents or metal structures. Family, friends and partners abandon them; and they have lost their careers and their savings because of medical bills. You mention a statistic in your book: “The percentage of the population effected by E.I. ranges from 3 to 10 percent and appears to be increasing  [in the US]”. How did you come to this estimation?

TJ:

That particular number came from Dr. Rea in Dallas. On all the surveys that have been done on how large a percentage of the population has E.I. or sensitivities, it depends on what it is you are asking and the number varies accordingly. The three percent is definitely very solid. That is probably the amount of people that is not able to work or live their life in a normal way anymore. The ten percent relates to the part of the population that has sensitivities, but still is able to be in the world, like have a job, because they can control their environment to some degree – people like my mother.

MT:

So the figures refer not only to the US, but also worldwide?

TJ:

The three percent is very close to what you would find in Europe, too. We don’t really know outside of the Western world what the percentage is. I assume in some areas it might be much higher. Depending how you measure, other surveys show that 20 to 30 percent of the population are chemically sensitive to one or two chemicals, like to the extent they might get a headache from the smell of perfume.

MT:

You also talked about some of the causes. In your book several causes for E.I. are mentioned. I tried to cluster them. They include: (A) reaction to an antibiotic Ciprofloxin (as Jennifer Wood experienced, the author of the book’s afterword); (B) toxins in modern building materials, like formaldehyde insulation); (C) increasing amount of electromagnetic radiation and wireless buildings; (D) pesticides and exposure to chemicals in the Gulf War; and (E) exposure to fluorescent light or Mercury vapour. Which of these types did you encounter most?

TJ:

Pesticides are definitely a very big one. As are building materials, be it in renovated or new apartment complexes; even old mouldy buildings are often the causes of E.I. And different kinds of pharmaceuticals are in a large number of cases causing the illness. And that includes in part, what is called, the Gulf War Syndrome. About a quarter of the US soldiers that came back from the Gulf War ended up with that syndrome. Which was caused by some very specific exposure to chemical sensitivities, such as diesel exhausts and fumes. They used diesel to spray down the desert, but also they gave soldiers a vaccine against the serious disease Anthrax. In those days that was an unapproved medical experiment that made a lot of people quite sick.

MT:

In The Canaries  which of the cases is depicted most?

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TJ:

I think pesticides and probably new housing are the main part of it. Like Anna, my neighbour, she is in the book and got sick growing up on a cotton farm. The canary in the beginning of the book that is very light sensitive got sick from pesticides, being a veterinarian. There is Randy in the car driving: he got partly sick from diesel that was leaking back into the busses that he used to drive. The busses were also sprayed with pesticides.

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I felt pesticides were the reason why my brother, my mom and I got sensitivities: a family genetic disease. My mother grew up on a farm in Denmark, right when they started to use pesticides, such as DDT. A toxic pesticide that is difficult to break down in the environment and is not used anymore. In the middle of the yard she was bathing in the same place where they would wash down pesticides from trucks coming in from the fields. And that is where I used to play as a kid, too. My theory is that the pesticides damaged my mom, me and my brother early on. That’s why that side of the family seems to have developed sensitivities.

MT:

Is your mother in the book?

TJ:

She is not! But she has been on a lot of the traveling with me during the photographing.

MT:

Now, looking at the photographs in The Canaries, you documented a life stripped bare of these people. I have not encountered your work earlier, but I see connotations with the documentary mode of American photographers William Eggleston, Stephen Shore and Alec Soth. Related to the quote from Photobook Review what is your approach to making documentaries?

TJ:

I think it is interesting that you mention those photographers, especially William Eggleston. I’m definitely influenced by all three of them. Alec Soth’s work, though, I did not encounter till later because I just couldn’t be online. I wasn’t able to keep up to date with what was happening in the world of photography.

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I did carry William Eggleston’s book The Guide with me the whole time of the project. I used to look at it at night sometimes and had to wear my respirator to do this. And it really gave me inspiration and hope; it was liberating for me because it allowed me to escape into his world of images.

And my work might seem traditional today, but I think my approach is not a traditional documentary approach, but more along the lines of someone like William Eggleston who photographed life from the place of how he feels. When I see his pictures I see emotion, I see mood, I see an experience of that moment, and not necessarily the actuality of it. For me that is, at least regarding The Canaries project, what I was trying to do: to capture the experience of being in that situation. The actual situations are very surreal so I needed to bring in some of that experiential aspect for it to be as real as it could be.

One of the things I learned along the way, from brain science about how we perceive reality, is that we are feeling beings that think, not the other way around. We experience things first through emotions. That is very important for me, that the experience is the focus of my images.

MT:

This suggests that the afterthought is the thinking about the experience…

TJ:

Exactly. I photograph, maybe also because I am a woman, more from a place of empathy more than a man would do. Like working from a place of instinct more then from a place of intellect or concept.

MT:

Yeah, and also because of being aware yourself: you have experienced this illness. You know what these people are going through.

TJ:

Yes, exactly!

MT:

Connected to this matter is my next query. What Jennifer Wood experienced and wrote down in the afterword in the book seems surreal.

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People like Jennifer Wood hide in their car all day, parked in a safe place that does not allow cell phone reception. She spent Christmas Day on a parking lot in front of her family’s apartment building. It is so sad…and in a final paragraph she explains, and I was really struck by that “inner beauty” that is emerging in persons like you/her: “a truth that others cannot see”. What does she mean by that?

TJ:

What happens when you become so sensitive and so sick is, and this might happen to everyone who gets seriously ill, you become more tuned into LIFE? You become aware of what life is. A sunset is such a gift…you become aware of the beauty of the life that we have been given and that is so precious. And you become aware of the natural order of things.

When we haven’t been sick, and act in our daily lives, we take it all for granted. What also happens when you get to become so sensitive, like we are, is that you feel everything. There is this truth about everything… Also the brutality of some of the things mankind is doing on this planet.

Before I got sick I didn’t think about the fact that I was breathing air every 10 seconds. And most of us don’t think about that at all! Even though if you cut the oxygen off for a few minutes, we would die. It is this connectedness with the world, this web of life that you get to see and feel, in a painful way too, which is so much bigger than any of us.

MT:

Aren’t you also more aware of your energetic body, and less aware of the cognitive body?

When I read the words of Jennifer Wood, it reminded me of spiritual growth, of enlightenment. In a way that is the search for Truth…Which is at the same time a transformation in the brain, related to transformations through illness or trauma’s in life.

TJ:

It is good that the book suggests such relations with other worlds. If I had approached the subject matter in a very traditional way, it could easily have been a book about this group of people only that wouldn’t relate to anyone else.

MT:

I was also struck by the personal reflections written by some of the people, the canaries. They are printed on a different kind of paper, as loose leafs inserted in the book. Like private recordings, for example, sent on the phone by Maria who suffers from chemical injuries and is blind. The expression in her words of frustration, the anger in her of being altered, misshapen by E.I., is tangible. How did you feel you had to portray her (p. 70, 94)?

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TJ:

Maria is the person on the cover of the book. I met her for the first time outside of Dallas in a camp, some years back. She is probably one of the most sensitive persons I have met. She is both chemically and electrically sensitive, ultrasensitive to sound, and sensitive to sunlight, even to light itself. The list goes on… It is very hard for her to just BE in this world.

I started photographing her;  she is a very intelligent woman and we became friends. We would talk together on the phone, but she cannot be on the phone for a long time.  So usually she would make recordings. Then her helper would send them over the phone. That is the way we communicated.

1386328776_Cover no foil

There are a lot of pictures of her in the book, so I thought it was important that she would have a voice; that her experience was somehow represented. I persuaded her that I could edit some of her recordings that she was sending to me over the phone. I thought that was actually much more real to her situation.

At first I was trying to take out some of that anger and frustration because it seemed just too much for the viewer/reader to hear. In the end we both decided to leave it in there: it is part of the experience. A lot of people get sick and become very bitter and angry, because they feel they are in a world that doesn’t want to recognise them. That attitude is in large part executed by the chemical industry, the pharmaceutics. They put millions of dollars in creating an image of these people being crazy because there is so much money at stake for them, if these chemicals are actually not safe…

So the anger expressed relates to the world around you that is limiting your life, so much that you have to live blindfolded – a horrible way of living needed a place in the book. And I think that her written pieces are in fact very beautiful at the same time. But, it is the text that has the most bite to it.

MT:

How did you go into this subject matter with her with your camera?

TJ:

That was hard. We worked in small segments. She could only deal with about 20 minutes of photographing. I was dealing with her needs.

MT:

To conclude our conversation, I would appreciate your comments on a few of the pictures in The Canaries, beginning with the spread on page 38-39.

Picture 011

TJ:

That is of Craig, at his place. This is the way he would be looking at books: outside. This book that is on the table right now is out-gassing in the sun. And he would use gloves in order not to touch the pages and get ink on his skin. And he uses a few rocks to hold the pages down. Craig is very much into birds. It fitted to take a picture of the ornithology book.

MT:

Now I understand the phrase “out-gassing”! Continuing to page 68, for me it is difficult to distinguish what is what…Where are we?

TJ:

That is part of what the image is about. This photograph is taken from Jen’s place. She called me up and said you have to come and photograph this wall of mirrors that I have been looking at for 6 months. She has been in that bed you see in the corner. And she pretty much was not able to get out of bed. She watched this aluminium foil wall, to not get fumes in, from the outside. There was a lot of wood smoke around her place from neighbours. And she used foil in order to keep her warmer during the winter.

MT:

Is this a trailer, a tent, a house?

TJ:

No, it is inside a house. A certain part of the house is taped off. It is also a way to reflect some heat back to the room where she was living.

MT:

Then there is the image on page 118, also involving aluminium foil, which shows a pick-up.

TJ:

Well, a lot of people end up living out or cars. And some people, like in this picture, have used aluminium to wrap the inside, to insulate, to isolate things. People like these just sleep in the woods, or off a dirt road. It is potentially dangerous. These places might be some of the places where you have drug traffickers coming through, or illegal immigrants from Mexico walking across the border.  Sometimes they can be violent, too. So this guy happens to have a gun in his car, sleeping in the back of his pick-up. I thought that was interesting…

MT:

One last picture, on page 132: what are we actually looking at?

Rita bed 3 001

TJ:

This is a picture of Rita. She is resting. Rita is in the book in a few other pictures. She is someone who got sick from a new house. From the picture you can tell she is very, very sick. But there is something calming about her. I photographed her twice, in Tucson on two different occasions. She had this routine: I could only be in there for about 20 minutes. Very few people were allowed into her room. It is an interesting picture, making you wonder whether she is dead. It works well with the following picture, which is showing the hectic noisy traffic in El Paso; compared to Rita in this kind of serene prayer, that image has an otherworldly feeling to it.

MT:

This noisy highway in contrast to the serenity surrounding her. Her skin looks like porcelain!

TJ:

Yes. She is very religious….

MT:

I want to thank you Thilde, for this conversation about The Canaries. I was immediately struck by the book and by its theme, and by your strength to make this project happen. My compliments to you for such an achievement.

*See also The New York Times slideshow on The Canaries:

http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2011/09/18/opinion/20110918_OPINION_ALLERGY.html

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