Among Giants: An Interview with Jakub Markiewicz
with an introduction by Pedro Bazán
Canada is the fifth largest exporter of crude oil, shipping 3 million barrels around the world daily. As a main driving force of the Canadian economy, the state does everything in its power to protect the burgeoning petroleum industry, laying waste to the wilderness and displacing Indigenous peoples from unceded lands. Despite attempts to keep the oil flowing smoothly, encampments have popped up all over Canada to block the further expansion of the industry.
In August of last year, hundreds of people took to the Burnaby Mountain Conservation Area in defiance of Houston-based energy company Kinder Morgan and their proposal to twin the pre-existing Trans Mountain pipeline, which transports tar sands oil from Edmonton to the Westridge Marine terminal in Burnaby. Although the encampment has since been dismantled, the struggle against Kinder Morgan continues to unite Indigenous peoples, students, environmental activists and anarchists from all over Canada.
Jakub Markiewicz, a photographer who spent months documenting the resistance on the Mountain, has faced constant state repression due to his involvement in anti-pipelines resistance. Most recently, he was arrested on trumped-up charges at the annual Anti-Capitalist May Day celebrations in Vancouver. After having spent three weeks at the North Fraser Pretrial Centre, Markiewicz was released on bail, though his conditions bar him from attending political meetings and participating in political activities.
Breach: Your photographic practice has been less informed by formal training as it has been by your political activity and the encounters with law enforcement that have resulted from these activities. You were first arrested when you were sixteen years old, at Metrotown, after photographing someone else being arrested. How did that experience alter the way that you engaged with photography, after witnessing how the act of photographing a situation in public space—a situation that likely seemed relatively unexceptional—could land you in prison?
Jakub Markiewciz: Before my first arrest at Metrotown, I was already aware that photographing can be dangerous and controversial. My father was only a few years older than me when he was documenting the Solidarność movement in Poland in the 80s, and his photographs are now in books, galleries, magazines, and online. If he was ever caught taking those photographs, he would most likely have been killed, due to the political situation at that time. Growing up here in Canada as a first generation kid, it wasn’t until that incident at Metrotown, along with May Day in 2014, that I learned that some rent-a-cops and grown men with guns are willing to manhandle teens who didn’t even break any laws.
From what I’ve learned, the truth comes with a price, and documenting even the small details is vital to understanding what is wrong with society, since mainstream media never picks up stories on the small stuff, stories about issues that do not impact upper- or even middle-class citizens.
B: Why and when did you begin photographing the events on Burnaby Mountain? Do you think that involving your photography changed your subsequent behaviour or your level of involvement with what was going on around you?
JM: Burnaby Mountain was a culmination of a few months of attending rallies and marches that didn’t end up having an actual effect on the projects being protested. Marches and rallies are great, but there’s a time and place for everything. I went to the rally held on Burnaby Mountain in the first few days of September because I saw an email from NSNOPE, and I decided to attend because it was only up the hill from me. It also seemed like it had the potential to be a changing point in the way people act, and I was partially right. I went there with the intention of witnessing and capturing the movement in the form of photography, since that was my speciality at the time. Sometime in mid- to late-September, after a few weeks of keeping watch in the clearing, talking to lots of people, learning about the project and the land, I had the realisation that I should start recording as much as possible, to start making a documentary. This was heavily influenced by documentaries that I’ve seen over the years, but the most influential one was “Among Giants”, a short film about tree sitters in Eugene, Oregon. I wanted to show what the people living here are and are not capable of doing. How far can we push ourselves to do what’s right? That’s when I began to realise the potential of my skills; instead of just doing scripted short films and photography, I could be making a full-length documentary. I think of it as a form of reporting.
In terms of the relationship between photography and my behaviour, it’s directly linked. I’d been documenting a few social movements already before this, though I was more involved with Burnaby Mountain because of how it affected me—I live on Burnaby Mountain, within two blocks of the current KM pipeline. So I tried to protect the land and the people by exposing who worked for the companies, what they were doing, and locking their actions in history through the act of documenting them.
B: Would you say that the final presentation of your work is not as important as the actions and events that surround the making of it? Photographing the events on Burnaby Mountain required that you physically put your body there, in that space. By doing so, you were able to test the boundaries of what you are and are not permitted to do when you're holding a camera—it changes the way people interact with you. Is this what you're primarily interested in, this element of social experimentation, or are you equally concerned with the final product, the photographs that you make in these situations? Do you consider one to be more effective than the other, in terms of the results you hope to see?
JM: When it comes to photography, there are no rules. How you take the picture, where you stand, who and what you allow into the frame, what you focus on—it’s all up to the photographer. When taking a photograph, I imagine dozens of possibilities within a fraction of a second. I can do the action however I want, but those options are not hindered by emotion. I don’t consider how I look taking the photograph, or whether or not a cop will beat me for getting close, or even if it’s sensitive content. If the situation is one which affects humanity and the way of life, it should be known.
In terms of effecting change, people always act differently when a camera is pointed at them; they either hide their true selves and wait until you stop paying attention to them, or they show who they really are, with no regard for the consequences of their actions. If cameras are present as much as possible, then perhaps the workers who do not have the permits from the city and permission from First Nations will be delayed.
B: You recently exhibited some of your photographs from Burnaby Mountain at 38 Blood Alley, a space which runs counter to the supposed neutrality of white cube galleries in the sense that it is so overtly politically charged. Was the choice to exhibit your work in an unconventional venue based on convenience, or a conscious desire to have the work seen and discussed outside of Vancouver's galleries and artist-run centres? Were there conversations generated at the opening that you don’t think would have been possible at a conventional gallery?
JM: I find art galleries to be generally fucked up. A majority of the time, they exhibit work that is meaningless or pretentious. Even the act of going to an opening is messed up. You don’t go for the art; you go there to get drunk, eat the food, meet new people, talk about yourself, and complain about how shitty life is. There are very few galleries in the city that are halfway decent. I chose to exhibit the work at 38 Blood Alley because I wanted to be my own curator and avoid censorship.
At a conventional gallery, usually people look at the photographs and talk about what's nice about it, what intrigues them about its aesthetics. At the opening, people were talking about the situations that the photographs were taken in, the political effects, the historical significance.
B: What are your future plans for the work? Is it proving difficult to move forward, considering the restrictions on your movements and actions imposed by your bail conditions?
JM: I am planning a few art interventions, such as projecting photographs of the Burnaby Mountain resistance around the city, as well as at Burnaby Mountain itself. This is where my bail conditions affect the process, due to the fact that I am banned from what is known as Burnaby mountain, and cannot be within 100 metres of any Kinder Morgan facility.
My legal situation is just another form of intimidation and harassment. I am not interested in it nor am I fazed by it.
Jakub Markiewicz is a 19-year-old Polish-Canadian photographer, documentary filmmaker, and artist.