Wilma Subra, in her office in New Iberia, Louisiana

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February 28, 2020 - 10:45am

Critical Commentary

VtP IMAGE 2:

This is a photograph of "community chemist" Wilma Subra, taken by Rick Mullin. Mullins visited Subra in her office in Southern Louisiana and conducted an interview with her. The image appeared as part of a published article on the website Chemical & Engineering News (Janurary 2020).

In the interview, Subra recounts her training as a microbiologist and chemist, who eventually became a leading consultant for the EPA, but also NGOs and other community organizations. Though she has worked on cases of industrial pollution across the U.S., she is particularly well-known in Louisiana's "cancer alley". Currently, she is involved with the pushback against the opening of new Formosa petrochemical plants.

Both the visual and article focuses on the printed "emission data and regulatory filings" that line Subra's kitchen table, which also serves as her office. The photograph creates a feeling of awe for the masses of paper, with Subra positioned at the vanishing point. The author highlights how Subra's company, starting with a small set of employees, eventually became a "one-woman shop."

I chose the image for my essay because of this effective contrast, certainly heroic contrast – the masses of paper that a single engaged scientist is challenged to wade through. It also visualizes my own research concern with "archiving for the Anthropocene" – what will ways of storing, accessing and analyzing toxic environmental data need and look like in the future?

Further, in terms of literal place, where will the data be stored? Interestingly, the article does not raise the question of where all of these files could be kept. Subra recounts instances where she and her apartment have been violently attacked by potential goons of the petrochemical industry. Keeping records in your own home raises concerns of safety and vulnerability, of data and its scientists.

Cite as

Rick Mullin/C&EN, "Wilma Subra, in her office in New Iberia, Louisiana", contributed by Tim Schütz, Center for Ethnography, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 29 February 2020, accessed 18 January 2022.