A "visual sociologist" photographs dozens of small towns and their struggle to stay relevant in the 21st century.
What is the Canadian West? Perhaps even Canadians don't know.
Kyler Zeleny, a visual sociologist with a background in political science and photography, is from one of the country's many sparsely populated western towns. And he's concerned those towns are not only losing population but also their heritage—or the chance to even create one.
His new book, Out West, documents places across western Canada with 1,000 or fewer residents through stunning photography and essays. Zeleny, who now lives in Toronto, thinks that his country's rural municipalities are becoming redundant in appearance and forgotten as communities. It's a concern expressed poignantly with each photo caption in the book—which don't identify the town, only its population.
The project has been under way since 2012, with Zeleny driving 10,500 miles across Canada to documenting 160 rural communities with a twin lens reflex camera. In many cases, these scenes appear quite similar to the western towns south of Canada's border.
Cities and their suburbs receive much of Canada's political and economic attention, just as they do in the United States. As rural-born young adults move away to make a living, these small, shrinking towns face an increasingly hard fight to remain relevant. Zeleny spoke to CityLab about Out West and his own observations about Canada's forgotten towns.
What's your own history with the Canadian West?
I am a self-confessed ruralite. I was raised on a farm in the Canadian West, but I later moved onto city living, as many do. Having been privy to both worlds, I feel I have borne witness to the ever-growing rift that many rural communities are facing between their proud past and their uncertain future.
Besides being from there, what makes the Canadian West interesting to you?
Western Canada was really the last quadrant of North America to be settled. As a result of being "young," it lacks a strong sense of history. Some rural communities are only now celebrating their centennials. Communities in the Canadian West often go to the lengths of mythologizing a recent event, or simply conjure up a false history because they have no cemented history. They have a limited legacy, and that legacy itself has been evolving for the last hundred years.
What are the biggest issues facing these towns today?
Youth retention. Ever since their inception, these communities have had to deal with the "rural drain/urban gain" of their youth. The out-migration levels these communities face can have detrimental consequences.
Also branding. Branding is perhaps less of an issue and more of an opportunity if it could be effectively realized. These rural communities offer many alternatives to urban living if only people could be sold on the concept. Rural spaces offer community, affordable housing, reduced levels of pollution (air, light and noise), and—with the growth of Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) like the Internet and cellphones—job opportunities that did not exist 15 years ago.
You mention on your site how these places have an "urban-rural time lag." Can you explain that more?
This occurs generally when places are "remote" or distanced from urban centers. As in other regions, the rural parts of the Canadian West generally have to deal with services and goods reaching them only after they have reached urban centers. This is historically true of power, water, and road services and arguably true today for ICTs. It was only recently that reliable high-speed Internet reached the majority of rural communities.
As you traveled through these towns, did you discover anything unexpected?
One person who looked at the photos said, “The images all look the same to me.” I wasn’t happy with that response; no one wants to be told their images all alike. But the more I thought about it, the more I began to realize that a lot of the images were connected. I think this is because these places share a similar history.
I, too, have issues identifying what images are from which town because they could all be from the same part of the Canadian West. That was the main reason we decided not to name the towns in the book. Instead, we placed the town’s population next to each image. In doing so, we placed emphasis on how each community was connected, yet small and remote.
The U.S. has its own romantic notions of "The West," and it plays a big role in the way the country sees itself. How does Canada tend to look at its own western, rural lands?
I think ever since the birth of photography, American visual culture has influenced or created common perceptions of the American West. And because American culture is so strong, it permeates across the border going north into Canada. Because of this, perceptions of the Canadian West have been framed by popular perceptions of America's West and Midwest.
There are indicators that Canadians view their rural spaces in similar ways to their southern neighbors, and there's even a possible conflation of Canadian visual culture with that of American visual culture. It's an idea I will be exploring for the next few years.
This interview has been edited and condensed.