Every political movement needs a frame, an iconic image, a visual depiction of what threats exist and what is to be saved. Paul Anderson’s photographs are exactly those images — visual reminders of what is at stake for our environment, and why he seeks to protect it. Paul also photographs the Native Americans who are caught in the battle between economic development and the preservation of tribal lands. One of his favorite subjects is Lummi carver Jewell Praying Wolf James, who has taken his totem poles to places in need of healing. In the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, James journeyed across the U.S. to install poles in Pennsylvania, at the Pentagon, and at the World Trade Center. Since 2011, James has taken totem poles to areas threatened by pipeline and oil development. Anderson teamed up with James, and has been photographing his good friend on totem journeys all across the U.S. and Canada. Anderson’s portraits of Native Americans reflect his affection and respect for Native American culture. “What we don’t get is how spiritual their culture is. Everything has spiritual significance.”
If you’ve seen photos of our coal trains in the New York Times, Crosscut, The Seattle Times, you’ve likely encountered Anderson’s work. One of his largest publications is a billboard in Oregon of a windsurfer drifting in front of a barge. The windsurfer’s carefree pose is the perfect juxtaposition with the industrial barge, setting off a contrast that is both visually arresting and loaded with conversation. The Sierra Club loved the image so much, they rented billboards and created the message. Ultimately, the Sierra Club was successful in their efforts, proving that images — and Anderson’s in particular — are powerful statements.
His work embodies something essential and true about our area — that it is both beautiful, and yet in grave danger of losing its beauty. As with most stories of activists, the motivation comes of wanting to keep the earth a livable, beautiful place for his children. Anderson has photographed coal ports, Bakken oil trains, mining operations, and refineries. What sets Anderson apart is that he imbues even the ugliest sites with the eye and sensibility of an artist. His work is unquestionably a critique, but he allows so much beauty into his critique, that the overall effect is one of strength and clarity. Even as he is disagreeing with powerful coal and oil interests, he imbues their work with a kind of respect through evocative images that capture their significant space in our culture. This kind of balance rescues Anderson’s work from becoming too propagandistic, and elevates him to the level of sophistication reserved for the ranks of Dorothea Lange and Yousuf Karsh.
Anderson grew up in St. Petersburg, Florida. He was drawn to the mountains and waters of the Pacific Northwest after living in Colorado. “We used to drive from Colorado to Detroit past these burning slag heaps — some of which burn for decades. It really woke me up to what is going on with our planet.” He relishes life here in the Pacific Northwest, and enjoys the water, the mountains, the deep woods, and the bright parks. “We have it great here. The important thing is to keep it great.” Anderson will keep going, working with his sharp lens and clear focus to ensure our planet is a safe and healthy one.