We first discovered this work after it was submitted to the Visual Storytelling Awards 2014. Although it was not chosen as a finalist by the jury, the editors of LensCulture were intrigued by its moody atmosphere and effective storytelling. In honor of this year’s Visual Storytelling Awards—and to inspire other visual storytellers—we have decided to publish this feature article.
It was dusk on a warm summer night in Lac-Mégantic (Quebec) when Pierre stopped me in the streets. I asked if he was okay. Visibly shaken, he replied: “No. My town just got wiped out by a train.”
It was July 10th and I had arrived in Mégantic just four days earlier. I had come only a few hours after an unattended cargo train filled with almost 8 million liters of shale oil from North Dakota derailed and exploded. The resulting blast—some one kilometer in radius—had its heart in the center of a quaint, 6,000-person town. The downtown was almost entirely demolished. 47 people were killed.
This is a devastating ratio for a town so small—one out of every 128 residents dead in a single night. For scale, imagine 2.3 million Americans disappearing in a flash. The incident went down as Canada’s deadliest train disaster in almost 150 years.
Over a period of 12 months I visited Mégantic 13 more times, spending the bulk of my nights documenting the calm eeriness of a community for whom everything changed one night at 1:15 AM. During the days, I spent my time taking the pulse of the locals and getting close to the community.
I quickly realized that in a small, close-knit community like Mégantic, a person is at once—somebody’s sibling, the coach of a school sports team, the client you do accounting for, and the former lover of several good friends. When multiplied as such, the 47 victims of the accident form a thick constellation of mournings, rapidly overshadowing the entire area.
Moreover, Mégantic lost its small downtown in the event. The area was so badly burned and contaminated that it is still inaccessible today. Not only does it add further depth to the injury, but continues to deny the town its core of social fabric, so essential when dealing with trauma. Thus, each Méganticois has had to face this crisis largely on their own.
This work’s main objective (and challenge): to represent and comprehend a profound and complex impact on a small population. The question is how to take the full measure of this event’s importance? After 14 visits and 70 days on the ground, I have spent a (symbolic) year in accompaniment of those who remain. My work, for now, is complete.