Early in the winter of 2013 photojournalist Carlan Tapp began a 1,200-mile motorcycle trip from Wyoming to Washington along the route of coal trains carrying the black gold from its point of extraction to its proposed port of departure for the Far East.
The exhibition "China Express," 40 images from that journey, is part of this year's Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival at the Trust Arts Education Center, 805 Liberty Ave., Downtown. Mr. Tapp will attend a public reception there from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday and will speak about his work at 1 p.m. Saturday.
Mr. Tapp had a successful career as a commercial photographer in Seattle for two and a half decades. Then 9/11 happened. He'd previously scheduled appointments with some art directors in New York City for the week after and called to cancel, but they encouraged him to come. "Being there shook my world like nothing else," he said.
It made him want to find a way to give back using his photographic skills and life experience.
In 2002 Mr. Tapp closed his studio and moved to Santa Fe, N.M. A year later he visited the massive coal-burning Four Corners Power Plant in that state and learned about its effect on the environment and on residents of the Navajo Indian Reservation it is built upon.
Mr. Tapp is a descendant of the Wicomico Tribe, originally located in Virginia, and his "grandfather seven times back," its last chief, was present when the Jamestown colonists arrived. The family name, Taptico, was Anglicized to Tapp. He was born in 1946 in Long Beach, Calif.
He was 6 when his father gave him his first camera, and he worked his way through college as a wedding photographer. After graduation he became a ranger at Mt. Rainier National Park, assigned to document environmental changes in the backcountry.
For three years in the late 1970s Mr. Tapp was assistant to famed American photographer and environmentalist Ansel Adams, which he deems "a flat- out incredible experience." His biggest take away was a story Mr. Adams told about tucking a stack of photographic prints under his arm and traveling to Washington to lobby for the formation of Kings Canyon National Park. "The people in D.C. told him they didn't have a clue [such a beautiful canyon] was even there." The California park was established in 1940.
In 2005 Mr. Tapp founded the non-profit Question of Power with the mission of creating visual voices for individuals, families and communities affected by the mining, transportation and consumption of coal across America (www.questionofpower.org). In 2011 he rode his Harley the length of fabled Route 66 to raise awareness for the organization's work.
"There are stories written related to how we mine, extract, transport and burn waste materials from coal. The problems addressed include climate change and pollution. We seem to leave out of the equation the human element. It's an untold story of the effect on lower-income people and native American reservation lands," he said.
Mr. Tapp has photographed, among others, a cancer-ravaged Oklahoma town near a coal combustion waste disposal site, one of 400 in the U.S., and the effluent of a coal ash spill in Tennessee that was removed with regulatory care and later dumped openly near a poor black community in Alabama.
Question of Power also creates educational curriculum materials for kindergarten through university classes and has created a mentorship program for young photographers of impacted communities. Mr. Tapp's photographs are being used as supporting evidence in four U.S. federal court litigations.
He began the "China Express" project with research. "Research is one thing. Being on the ground is another, where you realize what a huge game changer this is for all of us."
"China Express" images depict open pit coal mines in Wyoming that are 60 miles long and 10 miles wide, powdered coal that falls off train cars by hundreds of pounds a year and collects four to six-inches deep on vineyards and reservation land, and a pristine shore that has been a Lummi Nation burial site for 3,500 years and is a proposed terminal location for deep water freighters.
Lummi Nation master carver Jewell James created a totem pole that was driven along the train route in September to raise awareness and strengthen opposition to the coal terminal. After Sept. 11, Mr. James carved and delivered totem poles to each of the attack sites, including Shanksville, to help the American Nation heal its wounds.
Mr. Tapp said he is not an activist or an environmentalist, but rather a documentary photographer working in the tradition of the likes of Dorothea Lange and Eugene Smith. He doesn't dismiss the possibility of using coal in a cleaner way, he said. "I don't look for the negative element. I strive to document the human condition.
"What it boils down to is what do I see several generations from now. I'm from a school that says somehow that's not right. I want people to ask 'Why is this happening? Why don't I know about it?' I'm just here to say this is what's going on."
"China Express" is open from noon to 8 p.m. through June 15. Admission is free.