MELISSA RENWICK (Tofino BC, Canada)
Melissa Renwick is a documentary photographer currently based in Tofino, on Vancouver Island’s west coast, in Canada. She has covered stories on human rights, social justice and gender issues. Her work regularly appears in Canada’s leading newspapers like The Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star. She has been named Photo Boite’s 30 Under 30 Women Photographers, an Emerging Photographer by The Magenta Foundation and Canada’s 2015 and 2016 Photojournalist of the Year by the News Photographers Association of Canada. She previously worked as a staff photographer at the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest daily newspaper.
“Paradise Lost” is an exploration of what happens when one of Canada’s most acclaimed wilderness areas transforms from a quiet fishing village into a tourist town.
Located on the western fringe of Vancouver Island, Tofino was unknown to rest of the world before 1959. A logging road was carved through the mountains that year, connecting the tiny coastal town to other side of Vancouver Island. With it, the floodgates opened. Surfers, hippies and draft dodgers headed to the end of the road in droves, to squat in the surrounding forests and beaches until they were evicted for the new national park in 1970.
Decades later, that stress-free, laid-back mindset still permeates the town, and Tofino continues to be a haven for those questioning the underpinnings of North American society. But, as it grows in popularity and more people look for a life free from the nine-to-five, new social and environmental issues have emerged.
Through portraits of locals and transients, loggers and fishermen, surfers and hippies, the Indigenous and the settlers, this work aims to create a personal perspective of a community being swallowed up by tourism and the impact it has on this land and the community. I hope to raise questions about what happens when paradise is lost and tourism takes over.
With a population of only 1,932, it’s estimated that the town receives 800,000 visitors each year. A new group of transients flock to “Tuff City” every spring like clockwork, looking to cash in on the tourism economy and connect with nature. A housing crisis has emerged with the growing number of visitors, forcing many to sleep in their tents or campers if they want to stay. With limited space, transients and travellers are pushed out of town to set up camp down old logging roads. They come preaching about their love for Mother Earth, and yet, at the end of summer, those logging roads are spotted with deserted campsites. Tents and coolers filled with spoiled food and plastic wrappers left strewn about, as piles of defecation collect a growing number of flies – all left behind for the locals to clean up.
Paired with archival images and first-person narratives, this project aims to tell the story of the town’s history and of the attitudes of the people who live here. It is a larger story about the moment we’re in, here in Canada, and how there is a growing thirst to run away from the urban rush, in search of a slower life that’s connected to community, rather than things.
Practice Statement: How does photographing on film (or using your material photographic process of predilection) inform your artistic practice?
I have decided to work with traditional black and white film for this project to hark back to the era of when the logging road first connected Tofino to the rest of Vancouver Island. Film also best reflects the aesthetics and attitudes of the people I’m photographing, drawing on themes of how technology separates us from nature. It is a slow, meditative process that speaks to the lifestyles of the people who live at the end of the road.
Photographing on film has also allowed me to develop a deeper relationship with the photographic practice, forcing me to connect with my surroundings and people more intently. It is a rejection of digital enslavement and the cultures of Instagram and smartphones.