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Documenting the struggle of rural Canadian communities: photos and essays by Kyler Zeleny

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Ever heard about the Canadian West?

It is composed of sparsely populated western towns that, according to visual sociologist Kyler Zeleny, may be losing both population and the chance to create their own heritage.

These small towns are struggling to remain relevant, as rural-born young adults move to big cities for economic and political opportunities. Through his photographs and essays featured in his book Out West, Zeleny expresses the situation through photos of architecture and landscapes and hardly any people. Each photo is accompanied by a caption specifying the town’s population, but not its identity.

To create the project, Zeleny, who is now based in Toronto, drove 10,500 miles across Canada to photograph 160 rural communities with a twin lens reflex camera.

In an interview with CityLab, Zeleny shares his insights into Canada’s “forgotten towns.” Having been raised on a farm in the Canadian West, he shares his observations about living in both the small town and the big city, and how rural communities are grappling with their uncertain futures.

Zeleny says Western Canada “lacks a strong sense of history,” and bears only a limited legacy that is still evolving for the last hundred years.

With more and more young people moving to the bigger cities, small towns are dealing with the “rural drain/urban gain” phenomenon. But Zeleny says rural communities offer promising benefits if they are only branded effectively; these small towns, after all, offer affordable housing and better living because of reduced levels of pollution. Job opportunities could also be realized with the advent of digital technology as well.

Explaining his choice not to name the towns in the book, he says it was a conscious decision to emphasize how the communities were connected despite being small and remote.

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 are 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.

 

Through the project, Zeleny aims to investigate “how rural communities in the Canadian West struggle to hold onto their heritage despite the diminishing vitality of these towns.”

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