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Book Review: The Canaries


Book Review The Canaries By Thilde Jensen Reviewed by Adam Bell Illness can loom heavy and large, arriving slowly, infiltrating our lives and penetrating our every step. Or it can arrive abrupt and cold - a quick flash and it's here, clutching us closely. Todd Haynes' film Safe (1995) arrived quietly but left a haunting impression. One of its concluding shots shows Julianne Moore cautiously walking across a desert landscape in a white protective suit. Strangely calming yet also terrifying, the movie follows Moore's character as her body slowly rebelled against the chemically laced world that surrounds us, interrupting her peaceful suburban life and driving her to the desert, far from her life and family.

The Canaries. By Thilde Jensen. LENA Publications, 2013.
 
The Canaries
Reviewed by Adam Bell

The Canaries
Photographs by Thilde Jensen.
LENA Publications, 2013. Hardbound. 156 pp., 71 color illustrations and 4 inserts.


Illness can loom heavy and large, arriving slowly, infiltrating our lives and penetrating our every step. Or it can arrive abrupt and cold - a quick flash and it's here, clutching us closely. Todd Haynes' film Safe (1995) arrived quietly but left a haunting impression. One of its concluding shots shows Julianne Moore cautiously walking across a desert landscape in a white protective suit. Strangely calming yet also terrifying, the movie follows Moore's character as her body slowly rebelled against the chemically laced world that surrounds us, interrupting her peaceful suburban life and driving her to the desert, far from her life and family. A literal and allegorical nightmare, the movie was hard to shake. Close to twenty-years later, Haynes' prescient movie is a startling warning about our chemical world. The pure products of American are not only crazy, but they've caused our bodies to riot. Most of us may be inured to the toxic web that surrounds us, but many are far from immune.



The Canaries, by Thilde Jensen. Published by LENA Publications, 2013.

Thilde Jensen's powerful and affecting book The Canaries looks at the lives of the proverbial canaries in our chemical world. Like most good projects, The Canaries begins with the personal, but expands outward and shines a light on a tragic and often misunderstood condition. In 2003, Jensen found herself crippled by Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCI) or Environmental Sickness (EI). Only after leaving New York City did she discover small enclaves of people struggling with the same condition. Forced to contend with the frailty of their sensitive and overburdened bodies, Jensen and the people in her book are overloaded and overwhelmed. Retreating to remote corners of the US, far from Wi-Fi signals and the toxic products of America's chemical life-style, they are forced to live in constant alert.

The Canaries, by Thilde Jensen. Published by LENA Publications, 2013.
The Canaries, by Thilde Jensen. Published by LENA Publications, 2013.

Dreading each potentially debilitating interaction with the world, they wrap their phones in foil and clutch respirators closely – never knowing what might trigger their next episode. Hiding in cars or tents in the desert, the clearly stricken and scared people are all the more unsettling because the threat is unseen. Towards the end of the book, a seemingly banal freeway full of cars becomes an ominous tide. Haynes' movie was appropriately labeled a nightmare of the soul. While the allegorical potential of Jensen's image is potent, the reality is much more frightening – even the viewer isn't safe.

The Canaries, by Thilde Jensen. Published by LENA Publications, 2013.

The book is beautifully designed and comes wrapped in aluminum foil. An odd design choice, until one learns that people with MCI or EI often wrap objects, or even wallpaper their homes, in aluminum foil as a protective barrier. The book is also interleafed with several inserts that contain individual testimonies from Jensen and others, including a heart-wrenching plea from a woman on an online forum searching for answers and struggling to stay alive. The book's afterword, by Jennifer Wood, who is also one of the book's subjects, is an equally moving account of MCI's devastating effects on a successful woman's life. Losing her family, career and almost everything she held dear, Wood was slowly crippled by the disease.

The Canaries, by Thilde Jensen. Published by LENA Publications, 2013.

Tightly edited and astutely focused, Jensen manages to do something unique with her book. Beginning with an already compelling subject, it would have been easy to document those afflicted with MCI and have a sympathetic portrait. Instead, the book is infused with a palpable sense of dread. The people in the book are clearly at risk, but so is the viewer. Like the unrevealed monster in a horror movie, danger waits around every corner. Forever out of reach and unseen. By the end of the book we are left, like those portrayed in the book, grasping for answers, anxiously looking over our shoulder, and staring at the suddenly frightening things and world that surround us.—ADAM BELL

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ADAM BELL is a photographer and writer based in Brooklyn, NY. He received his MFA from the School of Visual Arts, and his work has been exhibited and published internationally. He is the co-editor and co-author, with Charles H. Traub and Steve Heller, of The Education of a Photographer (Allworth Press, 2006). His writing has appeared in Foam Magazine, Afterimage, Lay Flat and Ahorn Magazine. He is currently on staff and faculty at the School of Visual Arts' MFA Photography, Video and Related Media Department. His website and blog are adambbell.com and adambellphoto.blogspot.com.

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