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Powerful photos visualize slow creep of climate change in Louisiana

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Virginia Hanusik’s everyday images tell the story of a changing coastline

Houseboat near Ruddock Canal, Ruddock, LA
Houseboat near Ruddock Canal in Ruddock, LA
All images by Virginia Hanusik

Climate change presents photographers with a unique challenge; how to instantly capture the massive impact of an incremental, slow-moving phenomenon. In Louisiana, one camerawoman believes she can help tell that story through detailed, real-time images of the state’s slowly sinking coast.

Virginia Hanusik’s photo project, Backwater, came from her desire to capture the impact of climate change on urban and coastal Louisiana without resorting to cliches. By snapping pictures of homes and landscapes in the Delta region, an increasingly vulnerable area that’s always had a close relationship with its shifting waterways, Hanusik wants to show the impact of sea level rise and shifting sediment, and how residents and communities are dealing with the challenge (some have even begun relocation efforts).

“I’m really focusing on buildings and infrastructure as symbols of larger issues,” she says. “It’s not about photographing after a major flood or a storm. Those are powerful images, don’t get me wrong. But I’m more focused on daily life.”

Home Overlooking Lake Martin near Breaux Bridge, LA
Home Overlooking Lake Martin near Breaux Bridge, LA
Beginning of the Bonnet Carre Spillway, Norco, LA
Beginning of the Bonnet Carre Spillway, Norco, LA

Hanusik, who grew up in New York’s Hudson Valley, became intrigued with the subject after her work in coastal reclamation and water management for a New Orleans-based startup accelerator exposed her to the state’s unique relationship with rivers and the Gulf. The channeling of the Mississippi River and decades of government projects meant to tame and shape waterways and coastal land—as well as the slow impact of climate change—have sped up erosion, making the Louisiana coast both a unique place to study, as well as a representative sample of what other areas are experiencing in a slowly warming world.

“It became a personal endeavor for me to understand and visualize these complex issues of coastal restoration and sea level rise, which are difficult to understand day-to-day,” she says.

St. Charles Catholic Church, Pointe Aux Chenes Road, Montegut, LA
St. Charles Catholic Church, Pointe Aux Chenes Road, Montegut, LA
Entrance to Grand Isle, LA
Entrance to Grand Isle, LA

Hanusik’s photo project, which she started a little more than two years ago, seeks to visualize change through architecture and the built environment. She may expand the project by looking at other ways locals interact with waterways throughout the natural environment, perhaps heading to Baton Rouge to capture the rebuilding process after the tragic floods that inundated the city earlier this year. By capturing homes impacted by rising water levels, or raised dwellings built in response to a disappearing coast, she hopes to document the small, subtle moments that make up a larger story of adaptation and change.

Dead Cypress Tree, Lake Maurepas, LA
Dead Cypress Tree, Lake Maurepas, LA
Yscloskey Water Tower, Saint Bernard Parish, LA
Yscloskey Water Tower, Saint Bernard Parish, LA