Unearthed: Laurence Butet-Roch

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Editor’s note: This post is part of an occasional series entitled “Unearthed.” Launched by Heather Green in 2019 and currently edited by Heather Rogers, Unearthed features emerging environmental historians and environmental humanities scholars discussing what brought them to the field, why they value environmental research, and how it connects with life outside of academia. Find all the interviews from this series here.

Image of Laurence Butet-Roch in front of her camper van

Tell us a bit about yourself. What is your background (academic, life experience, hobbies, etc…)?

I grew up in Tiohtià:ke/Montreal in a French-speaking household that supported Independence. I remember an unopened bottle of champagne on the night of the 1995 referendum, the tv show Scoop, a 90s drama set in newsroom, and spending my weekends at Circus school. I learned English in high school, mostly thanks to my friends who spoke it much more fluently than I. Thanks to them, I felt comfortable enough to move across the country and pursue a B.A. in International Relations at UBC. At the time, inspired by the likes of Michaëlle Jean, Céline Galipeau, and Denise Bombardier who worked for Radio-Canada, I wanted to be a foreign correspondent in the Middle East.

After graduating, I spent six months in Beirut and neighbouring cities. I absolutely loved it, but felt that I needed more training. So, I enrolled at the School of Photographic Arts: Ottawa. I spent two years documenting the slow closure of the last asbestos mine in the country, after which I moved to Paris and found a job as a photo editor for Polka Magazine. It was rewarding work, but after four years I wanted to try my hand at freelancing and move back to Canada. Since then, I’ve called Tkaronto/Toronto home, earned a Master of Digital Media degree at Toronto Metropolitan University and have had the opportunity to contribute to a number of national and international publications.

In 2019, I started a PhD in Environmental Studies at York University because I felt compelled to reflect on my reporting practice. I wondered about the recurrent tropes used to speak about the places that face heavy industrial pollution and their impacts. I’m still figuring that out! And when I’m not, you can find me climbing, tending to my many house plants, or trying to squeeze in an exhibition while caring for my new puppy!

What brought you to the field of environmental humanities?

My initial inclination, when I was considering a PhD program, was to apply to a Communications Program since I wanted to study media. However, since my focus was on environmental reporting, a friend suggested I also look into a Geography and Environmental Studies program. It was a question of whether I wanted to focus on the container or the content, so to speak. And the latter won because it felt so much more expansive, versatile, and freeing. 

What is your favourite part of doing environment-focused research?

The community. It is such a caring and interdisciplinary one. Especially at York University. No two people in the program have the same focus, approach, or methodology. In my cohort, as an example, you’ll have one person studying bees through a scientific lens, while another looks at energy policies. There’s so much to learn from one another and finding overlap is exciting. It opens up new avenues for research.

What part of studying environmental humanities most excites you? What is most daunting?

What is most exciting is also what is most daunting, namely working within photographic archives. There’s the thrill of creating new connections between works, discourses, and events, but also contending with all the overt and covert violence that exists within these. As Ariella Aïsha Azoulay writes in Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism, “the regime of the archive shapes a world, not just distorts the way it is perceived.” There is a level of responsibility in engaging with these archival documents.

Where is your favourite place to be?

It would be a tie between being on the shore of the St. Lawrence River in Kamouraska, Quebec, a place that grounds me, and being on the road aboard my camper van named Charley encountering new landscapes.

Image of Kamouraska taken by Laurence Butet-Roch

Other than your current focus, what is another area of environmental humanities that interests you?

I’m fascinated by nuclear semiology, that is how we communicate the dangers associated with radioactive waste over time. The longevity of radiation —tens and hundreds of thousands of years— means that we cannot assume that future sentient beings will be humans. This is not an abstract query. Ontario is currently planning for a deep geological repository to deal with its nuclear waste.

Do you have a favourite book, podcast, film, or work of art related to the natural world that you would recommend others check out?

The Narwhal! What a necessity and a privilege to have a news publication dedicated to environmental reporting.

Why do you think environmental humanities is an important field of study?

How could it not given the compounding environmental emergencies we are now facing? Understanding the discourses that have led us here, how they’ve been sustained purposefully or inadvertently, what alternatives exists, and how to amplify those is a necessity if we are to dream of and build a different future.

Where can folks follow your work or connect with you?

My online presence is woefully outdated, but you can check my website lbrphoto.ca or connect via Instagram @lbutetroch. I don’t post much (my last one dates from the early pandemic days), but I use it as a messaging app. You can also reach me by email lbr@yorku.ca.

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Laurence Butet-Roch

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