New Brunswick

Photo series shows Saint John's poorest suffer most from industrial pollution

Dark, ominous emissions set the background for industrial landscapes and portraits of skinny kids in dilapidated east-side homes.

Photographer explores tenacity, heart and soul of Saint John residents in award-winning series

Photographer Chris Donovan says people dealing with poverty are more affected by the adverse environmental effects of industry. (Submitted by Chris Donovan)

Dark, ominous emissions set the background for industrial landscapes and portraits of skinny kids in dilapidated east-side Saint John homes.

For photographer Chris Donovan, these black-and-white shots taken over the course of eight years, are a commentary on "environmental classism" in his city that he hopes inspires emotions in those who see them.

"You find such tenacity and such heart and soul in these kind of cities where people are adjusting and finding ways to live their life," he said.

The photos focus on people whose economic means makes them more vulnerable to the pollution from big industry.

Chris Donovan spent eight years building the photography series The Cloud Factory which won the Environmental Vision Award from Pictures of the Year International. (Submitted by Chris Donovan)

Donovan's series, The Cloud Factory, won the Environmental Vision Award from Pictures of the Year International this week.

Donovan said he wants these photos to get people talking about the power structures in Saint John, and how a city's dependency on one non-renewable energy industry can create a power imbalance.

"The communities with high levels of poverty ... see the most adverse effects of industry. You see it in the north and the lower west side [and] the east side near the refinery."

'They make money'

Donovan grew up in the Saint John area, and explained the name for the series comes from driving by the Irving pulp mill.

"One of my earliest memories is driving over the Harbour Bridge with my dad and asking him if it made all of the world's clouds. And he said, 'No they make money.'" 

Chris Donovan followed the story of families on the East Side affected by the Butane leak in 2018, but expanded out to other areas of the city as well. (Submitted by Chris Donovan)

That memory set the tone, and focused Donovan's efforts. But most importantly, he said, it made the series deeply personal.

"To me, the project is more about what it feels like to grow up in a heavily industrialized city."

Federal data show Irving Oil's Saint John refinery emitted three million tonnes of greenhouse gases in 2016, the highest level of any single facility in the province. But the refinery also accounts for more than half of the province's total annual exports. Those two facts, Donovan said, make the city's relationship with the company complicated.

A timeless city

He said some of his photos remind him of Ian MacEachern's photographs of Saint John from the '60s and '70s, because parts of the city, including its main industry, haven't changed.

"Sometimes I feel like Saint John is a timeless city."

Donovan's oldest photo in the series dates back to 2012, when he picked up a camera for the first time.

One of Chris Donovan's favourite photographs in The Cloud Factory series is this image of a step-father teaching his step-son how to shoot. (Submitted by Chris Donovan)

But the series truly started taking shape when Donovan began photographing a group of people affected by the butane leak on Saint John's east side.

Irving Oil bought out the homes of people most affected by the leak, but Donovan said the people who didn't have an buyout offer still had to deal with the aftermath.

"Those people feel like they've been affected environmentally and with health issues … from their refinery and from the butane leak," he said. "That was when the the idea of this series kind of started crystallizing."

The Cloud Factory series uses imagery of clouds, vapor and emissions to depict the industry influence of the Irving refinery and pulp mills on the city of Saint John. (Submitted by Chris Donovan)

After getting close to a few families, and photographing an intimate moment between a step father teaching his stepson how to shoot, he widened his perspective and started photographing the entire city.

Donovan said this 33-photograph series was eight years in the making, but he doesn't believe it's the end.

The Cloud Factory photo series depicts Saint John's industrial landscapes. (Submitted by Chris Donovan)

"It's hard to know when it's finished because it's my home and it's something that's really important to me," he said.

"As you grow as a person, your work grows as well … and so as my connection with Saint John is strengthened, I think the work has also strengthened."


Hadeel Ibrahim is a CBC reporter based in Saint John. She can be reached at


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