J Henry Fair: Artist, storyteller and flying troublemaker

Introducing Mr. Fair

J Henry Fair says that he would probably have been better off if he had invested the same amount of time in self-marketing rather than in the extensive research on environmental issues, coal mining, fracking or glyphosate in beer. Still, he perceives himself to be lucky. Henry enjoys an international reputation, has had major exhibits in various museums in hot spots like Paris, Berlin and New York. He has had great exposure in the media, too. And he has helped environmental activist groups to win against giant energy corporations that perpetrate environmental crimes in the pursuit for profit. Most notably, a battle between brown coal and ancient forest. 

It is the latter that really drives him – stimulate change for a better future. Contribute to the pursuit for justice. Create awareness that leads to profound and far-reaching behaviour change. It is his mission to make the world a better place. Thus, he has nothing better to do, he says, he loves what he does. Intrinsic motivation par excellence, I say. 

J Henry Fair – Flying troublemaker

I am a storyteller and I use different media to try to explain the science behind complex environmental issues.

J Henry Fair

Henry’s chosen medium to tell his stories are photographs. Photographs that are neither purely one thing nor the other but rather a fusion of art, abstraction and journalism. Large-scale photographs that are, at first sight, bright, aesthetic, beautiful and absolutely fascinating. Total eye-catchers. But if you have a closer look and find out what they are about and the story they tell, they turn to be disturbing and shocking. 

Henry’s photographs show evidence of the direct and blatant destruction of the natural world caused by humanity. They are eye-opening. We are destroying our own hotel room.

I purposefully make beautiful graphic work because if they are not beautiful people wouldn’t notice it. This is my problem with most pictures that want to be ‘environmental’, they are boring. And I want something that makes people stop and ask ‘what is that’?

J Henry Fair

Industrial Scars

Tracks In Bauxite Waste @ Gramercy, Louisiana USA:
Find out more

J Henry Fair carries the image of a ‘cartographer of the hidden misery and doom’ (see TTT documentary about his photographs exhibited in Berlin below), a ‘troublemaker that wishes to overwhelm us with his art’. His photographs are taken from above, from a bird’s eye view whilst flying over refineries, mining sites or energy production plants. Sites that show the destruction of the natural environment – by our own hands. Toxic waste and residues of industrial production processes such as phosphate, quicksilver, bauxite or sulphur, amongst others, that show themselves in the brightest colours. 

You see yourself in the mirror of the earth, an endless bleeding wound.

J Henry Fair

They are just some of the many left overs that replace what once used to be healthy forests and landscapes in a balanced ecosystem. Now, this toxic waste pollutes our air, contaminates groundwater, destroys habitats, leads to resource depletion and last but not least fuels the climate crisis that we are in. Environmental damage that cannot be reversed or compensated for. Damage that directly effects our health, immune and nervous system – a direct correlation. 

Industrial scars is how J Henry Fair calls this series of photographs … the hidden costs of human growth, expansion and wealth. The hidden costs of industrialisation, progress and consumption.

In the face of environmental damage: Brown coal in Germany

In the last decade, Germany has made a good progress concerning the expansion of sustainable energy supply resources. However, until today, 23% of its energy supply is still generated through mining of lignite, better known as brown coal. 

A typical 500-megawatt coal plant creates many hundred thousand tons of waste such as ash, sludge and mine water every year. This waste contains toxic substances such as arsenic, mercury, chromium and cadmium and is released in vast quantities into the environment. 

Burning lignite for energy production is the greatest environmental sin of our time.

J Henry Fair

The brown coal site ‘Schwarze Pumpe’ (black pump) in Spremberg, a town about 140km south-east of Berlin, mines lignite since 1966. Until 1989, it was the largest lignite refining plant in the world – and the dirtiest; a remainder of the GDR. Officially, the withdrawal from coal mining in Germany should be executed until the year 2030. Spremberg affiliates negotiated the closing of the coal mine until 2038. 

Another very controversial German lignite refining plant is located in Hambach, a site a few kilometres west of Cologne, also known as the ‘largest hole in Europe’. The mining required a vast area of ancient, almost 12.000 year’s old forest to be cleared. In 2018, thanks to the revolt of many thousands of environmental activists, citizens and organisations, a final halt of the clearing became effective. Today, there is only 10% left of the once 5.500 hectares large forest – the ‘Hambi’.

The purpose of doing these pictures is to make change. We have to change our behaviour. I take these pictures to get people to be concerned because I believe only if regular people are concerned and make noise then governments will act.

J Henry Fair

Make change with the help of art

With his photographs, Henry wants to bring justice into a world that is reigned by power, money and the domination of capitalism. It is his own growing concern about an issue that makes him take the pictures. First, to be able to visualise it himself, then to create the narratives for others who are to see his art. Art as a platform of distribution to get the message across. Art that needs to get in front a lot of people to be as effective as possible. J Henry Fair’s art as a contradiction to what we see on television or read in the newspapers all around the world.

We’re fighting for the hearts and minds of the people.

J Henry Fair

Art affects us. Henry is convinced that art can engage us on another, on an emotional level; something which dialogue cannot. Once a belief is set in a human mind, dialogue will not manage to change it unless we truly believe the opposing message and its messenger. But a piece of art stimulates an emotional response in the spectator which provokes questioning and self-reflection. This, at some point, can dissolve the old belief and ultimately dissolve old behaviour patterns. 

Change ≠ comfort!

A large-scale behaviour change is fundamentally important to accomplish. We need to wake up but the truth is very uncomfortable. So we really do not want to know the truth, says Henry. We are too comfortable and we love our comfort. Having everything we want whenever we want it. Iced Latte to go in a plastic cup. The newest sneakers.

The industry does not want us to know. Too much is at stake for them. Their forces are strong. They spend a lot of time and money in campaigns to make us believe that everything is under control and going to be okay, to make us believe in an illusion. Just keep on doing what you’ve always done – we got it

Waste Pit At (Glyphosate) Herbicide Manufacturing Plant @ Luling, New Orleans, Louisiana USA: Find out more

The only way change will happen is if everyone says ‘I’ve had enough, I’m not going to take it anymore’.

J Henry Fair

It is uncomfortable to be in Greta Thunberg’s shoes. We are living in a world full of opposites and contradictions. But if we do not all wake up and keep consuming resources at such an unsustainable rate we are going to crash, says Henry. 

People do not understand the magnitude of the change that is required from them; from all of us. 

So according to Henry, in order to resolve the environmental crisis, every person needs to a) understand that we are in a crisis and b) stand up and act like a citizen. It is imperative that we all act on it and opt for the sustainable alternatives and green political parties.

The big barrier is people’s awareness.

J Henry Fair

On the matter of sustainability

Sustainability has always played a major part in the life of J Henry Fair and has, according to himself, made him who he is. The more time he spent researching on what his photographs captured – the hidden costs of our contemporary lifestyle – the more it changed his work and life which are inseparable from one another.

As a result, he has developed a reverse obsession with plastic, chooses home-cooked meals over take away, refuses to eat from or own Teflon pans and kitchen tools, and wears all cotton clothes till they fall apart (just to name a few inspirations). For his exhibitions he designed picture frames that require no glass nor rubber bands which he uses wherever possible. He used to reuse the water from his photo lab, too. But there is one thing which is indispensable for getting to his object of desires, the toxic waste and major sources of environmental damage, and it is flying to those distant places in order to collect evidence for his stories.

Oil Tank – Refinery on the Gulf Coast @ Pascagoula, Mississippi, USA: Find out more

Art ≠ activism?!

We know already how lucky Henry is. His photographs are known and have been seen by many people worldwide. The exhibition ARTEFACTS which ran for almost one full year at the ‘Museum für Naturkunde Berlin’ (natural history museum of Berlin) received almost 1 million visitors. But it’s not all gold that shines. Henry’s mission and these numbers come at a cost. By exhibiting at a natural history museum or accepting commissioned work for GEO, Henry committed the ultimate sin and crossed an invisible line, he says. These choices made him become ‘less artist, more activist’ and thus excluded him from the art world – at least in Germany.  

If you have not been able to see the ARTEFACTS in person, make sure you check out the following coverage and documentation of TTT about it – a must see! (Sorry, only in German but watch it anyway.)

About J Henry Fair and the ARTEFACTS exhibition in Berlin – TTT

What defines art?

According to Henry, art is using some material to express a vision or interpretation of the artist. But it does live by the attribution of value of an external source; someone or a gallery or an institution to define what is expected by art and what makes it art. It is the distribution of art and the vehicle that determine its success.

Art is fashion.

J Henry Fair

Henry strongly criticises the fashionista and halo trend that the art market glorifies and the dependency that it creates. Too untouchable on the one hand, too vulnerable to world trends on the other. Henry says that artists need a vehicle to exhibit their work and that this vehicle is bound to what is currently fashionable, what the world talks about, i.e. black lives matter, ex-president of the United States Donald Trump or Covid-19. Lastly, it is too incompatible with statements of a larger scope, statements that serve a higher purpose; a criticism that was expressed by artist and designer Dunja Karabaic in our recent conversation, too.

Artist and activist – you cannot be both.

J Henry Fair

If Henry didn´t have to choose one over the other, he clearly wouldn’t. But as the current dominating forces still seem to be on, he chose activism, GEO and the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin. All that in order to serve his mission and get the message across to as many ordinary people as possible. And he would do it again. 1 million people at the natural history museum vs. a small fraction at an art gallery. He would once more choose the cause over the fame and recognition of the artist.

1:0 for humanity’s wakeup call.  

Molten Sulphur From Tar Sands Refinery Pumped Onto Sulphur Stack – Toxic waste from the extraction of tar sand @ Fort McMurray, Canada: Find out more

But I do wonder: Why having to choose? Why does this separation exist? Who is it for? What is there to protect? (Let me know if you have an answer please.)  

Art must have a meaning and move people – literally!

J Henry Fair

Art = medium!

According to Henry, the art sector has only slightly responded to the environmental crisis. Certainly, more and more art about the environment has evolved as the world population grew more concerned about it. But the art market has remained the same – with the tendency to jet set around the world, use unsustainable material and the like. 

The problem is not with the artists. There are enough artists that make environmental art; it would be boring if everyone did the same. The challenge is to get people to look at environmental art and think about the whole issue, says Henry. Hence, it is the medium that is the problem.

It’s the medium that is the message.

J Henry Fair

The medium that the masses consume, that reaches most of the world population.

Is it television and the news? Social Media? Late night shows? What is most present on these platforms? How much is there about the destruction of our natural environment, climate change and possible steps to counteract it? 

This conversation made me think. Where do we put our attention on and why? Who calls for our attention? And how much are we able to take on? The ‘Overton Window’ is a concept that describes the range of ideas and topics the public is willing to consider, accept…and take. We can only absorb and handle a certain (small) amount of information, news and concerns. We get easily overwhelmed with the messages that we receive, and forget about the rest.

Closing the circle: About interest, distribution and education

Henry’s photographs have stimulated life changes in people and places. His art touches you, the receiver, on an emotional level so that you ask yourself questions, starting with ‘What is that?’. Next, providing the ‘right’ answer to that question is almost as important as stimulating the question. It has to be interesting, says Henry. Provide interesting information that is digestible for the spectator. Break down the complexity to make it understandable and tangible. Deliver answers to the unease that the question creates; always with the possibility to access more detailed and science based background information. 

Henry aims to be more effective and persuasive with his art. Therefore, he tries out different techniques of distribution – one important ingredient to a successful sender-receiver equation. The other, he says, is education. His currently best way to do so is by using his self-created encyclopaedia. It is accessed with a QR code underneath each photograph to direct the viewer to further in-depth information.

In this article, the QR codes are replaced by a direct link (‘Find out more‘) underneath each photograph. If you haven’t done so yet, then do it now and get to know more about J Henry Fair’s objects of desire.

Education would also be Henry’s chosen super power with which he would feed everyone – in the right way and with the right distribution channel, of course – J Henry Fair style.


J Henry Fair: official website

J Henry Fair: Facebook

J Henry Fair: Instagram

ARTEFACTS – exhibition at Museum für Naturkunde Berlin

Industrial scarsimages

New Book release

BOOKS by J Henry Fair: online bookstore

NEW: Human Nature

Industrial scars. The Hidden Costs of Consumption

The Day After Tomorrow

On The Edge: From Combahee to Winyah

If not indicated differently, all pictures by J Henry Fair

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