In 1987 Sharon Stewart went home from her darkroom with a terrible sore throat. The doctor diagnosed the illness as strep throat, but Stewart was convinced that the condition was escalated and perhaps even caused by the color chemistry and the fumes in her darkroom.
It was at this point that Sharon Stewart began researching the toxicity of photographic chemicals. She began teaching 'darkroom safety' classes, and in turn became much more sensitized to the issues of toxic poisoning and toxic waste. Although Stewart had been active for many years in various environmental movements, it was not until this experience that the activist met the photographer in Sharon Stewart.
In early December of 1988, Stewart and a colleague began a unique journey through their native state of Texas, A toxic Tour of Texas. They traveled to photograph and record on tape other Texan's struggles with toxic poisoning and hazardous wastes.
Stewart's images, combined with text, are an aesthetic construction similar to that found in newsprint. She uses headlines, documentary style photographs, and bi-lines. The bi-lines are the direct quotes of those whose health and livelihood have been affected by hazardous wastes. A Texas farmer tells of vomiting while planting his field. The odors came from a Class I Hazardous Waste Facility located adjacent to the farmer's land. Texas ecologists, and operator's of the site are quoted as saying there was no detectable odor. In this way, The Tour juxtaposes the voices of victims with the voices of safety and regulatory commissions and spokespersons for industry who deny that there are any short comings in the current policy. The Tour also documents the denial found amongst those people who, in order to live with the threat of exposure, believe that if the company and the government says its safe, then it must be safe.
Central, then, to Stewart's work, is the issue of health. The Toxic Tour questions the current health of the landscape and the health of its inhabitants. Stewart also addresses the health of our consumer based economy. Although the Tour focuses on the results of corporate pollution on the land and the individual, the viewer can not help but question their own involvement in the process. After all, it is our demand for power, oil, and those products which utilize various chemicals in their production which ultimately fuels the waste problem.
'Can the photograph help to bring about social change?' was a question Stewart asked of a class at Syracuse University while she was completing her Artist-In-Residency at Light Work. Stewart addresses the challenge of this question both in her work as an artist and in her personal life. The response to the Toxic Tour of Texas has proven that photography is often an integral part of the reform process. Recently, the Tour has been used by politicians, lobbyists, and environmental activists who are advocating for change in Texas waste policy, and it has been published in main stream magazines and publications. Stewart's work coalesces the issues of toxic waste through the implication of industry, government, and the consumer; each must take responsibility for their actions, for as the Toxic Tour of Texas shows us, toxic waste is not a buried issue.
Sharon Stewart is a photographer and activist residing in Houston, Texas.
Amy Hufnagel (c) 1991