The ‘Precarious Snow’ project invites us to take a look at an area in transition, to climb above the rain-snow line, which is rising a little higher every year, and to immerse ourselves in the environmental and social issues of climate change in mountain areas where practices and uses are being redefined.
The aim is to bring together two parallel realities. Firstly, as a precarious environment, the mountains are suffering from rising temperatures, which are increasing twice as fast at altitude as they are on the plains. Glaciers are retreating, white gold is becoming rarer, and landscapes are increasingly altered in order to gain a few years of activity. Faced with this accelerating change, the challenge of preserving natural areas comes up against that of the economy, safeguarding jobs and the conditions of access to and use of these areas, which are often reserved for a small fringe of the population.
The recent closure of mountain resorts as a result of the pandemic has reshuffled the deck and accelerated the process in some places. As a result, some municipalities are opting to abandon all-skiing and the financial windfall it represents in order to prepare for the world of tomorrow: another future less dependent on an increasingly uncertain snow cover. Others, on the other hand, sometimes play the artificial snow card to excess in order to preserve jobs for as long as possible, even if it means increasingly damaging the natural environment around them.
In the age of the Anthropocene, how are these ‘other spaces’, on which a collective imagination of wild nature and pure air is projected, changing? How is this economy, which operates in isolation like a gigantic amusement park in a natural environment, evolving? Who are the white gold ‘miners’ who work in increasingly insecure jobs as the resource dwindles? How can we respond to the urgent issues linked to climate change while at the same time allowing wider access to these natural areas?
This first part of the project was carried out during the summer of 2021, when I accompanied an association of volunteer guides who enable disadvantaged people who don’t usually have access to the high mountains to go there for a glacier hike. Alpha (26), Boubacar (21) and Touré (25), 3 young Guinean asylum seekers living in a camp in the Paris region, were given access to this territory so often reserved for the most privileged among us.
France, Hautes-Alpes, La Meije, Glacier de la Girose, July 2021
Xavier Schwebel is a freelance photographer based in Paris. Since the early 2000’s he focuses on unstable territories subject to complex social, environmental or political realities, and moreover on the links that unite these changing spaces with the men and women who inhabit them.
His work is part of a documentary approach that favours a sensitive look and a temporality that allows to go beyond the spectacular to better encounter and report.
He led a first project on the end of coal mining in France (‘Last Coal’, 2004) followed by an in-depth work on the consequences of the contamination linked to the Chernobyl disaster (‘Small Doses’, Belarus, 2005-2006), a series awarded at the Kodak Talent Grant in 2007.
From 2004 to 2019, through collaborations with various NGOs, he worked on areas in tension subject to major humanitarian crises (Darfur, 2004 / Tsunami in Tamil Nadu, India, 2005 / Earthquake in Kashmir, Pakistan, 2005 / Civil War in Congo-Brazzaville, 2006 / Post-election crisis in Ivory Coast, 2011 / Kachin conflict, Myanmar, 2015 / ‘Post-FARC peace process, Colombia, 2018 / Development and indigenous identity in the Amazon, Brazil, 2019).
In collaboration with writer Cécile Portier, he is interested in the social issues of relocations in France (“118, An Ordinary Closure”, Selles-sur-Cher, France, 2005-2010) by following the long-term consequences of the closure of a ceramics production unit in a de-industrializing territory.
In 2010, he began a new project on the ongoing urban mutations in the turkish megalopolis and the authoritarian drifts of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s urban planning policy. This project has been presented and exhibited in France and abroad : Architecture & Design Biennale – Saint-Etienne (France), 2012, Voyages Immobiles – Médiathèque de Mérignac (France), 2013, Porto Photo Fest – Porto (Portugal), 2018.
In line with this work, he is invited to join the collective project “Epicentres”, a cross-sectional look at the mutations taking place within different territories of the Greater Paris area. The project brings together a dozen photographers around Raphaële Bertho, researcher, lecturer in Arts and exhibition curator (“Paysages Français”, BNF, 2018).
His work has been published in Le Monde, The Sunday Times Magazine, The Australian, National Geographic France, D la Repubblica Magazine, La Vie, L’Obs, La Croix… He also works on commission for institutional and private clients.
He was part of the cooperative agency Picturetank until 2017.
© Text and pictures by Xavier Schwebel