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The empty houses of Beachwood Estates are no longer homes, serving only as reminders of the devastating floods that forced their former inhabitants to uproot their lives.

“Hauntingly beautiful” photos of abandoned Alberta homes

Hailey Montgomery
Digital Reporter

Saturday, May 20, 2017, 5:53 PM - The empty houses of Beachwood Estates are no longer homes, serving only as reminders of the devastating floods that forced their former inhabitants to uproot their lives.

Once an affluent subdivision of High River, Alta., the neighbourhood was evacuated during the catastrophic flooding in the province in 2013, which killed five people and caused 100,000 to flee their homes.

American photographer Seph Lawless decided to capture Beachwood Estates after having been approached by Alberta residents at the 2017 Water Technologies Symposium in Banff.

Lawless says that while the neighbourhood is “hauntingly beautiful”, the emptiness of the family homes made the structures seem fake, or like “props in a play.”

“I almost felt like some was going to come and say ‘hey, what are you doing in my backyard’,” he said.

The acclaimed photographer is known for taking disturbing photos of abandoned places. The photos often tell stories of greed, climate change, or the intersection of the two.

He was commissioned by the Guardian newspaper to take photos in New Orleans for the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Meeting the victims of the devastating event provided a level of connection that Beachwood Estates did not.

“I’ve been in flood disaster situations; I’ve seen the pain on people’s faces. [Beachwood Estates] was void of all of that, he said. “Because of that there was this disconnect.”

The photographer stands by his comments that the empty homes are “creepy”, but regrets to have offended the former Beachwood residents he has had the opportunity to meet.

“People were sharing a lot of trauma from that time with me,” he said. “They thought that maybe my project was trying to make light of that, and it’s just the opposite. I’m trying to raise awareness.”

Lawless is no stranger to backlash in his line of work. His photo series often challenge American government entities, often going after an organization’s disregard for the environment.  

“If my work is offending someone, then I’m doing what I’m supposed to do,” he said. “Sometimes we need that to induce some sort of social change.”

Similarly, he believes that this trend of prioritizing corporate financial gain can be observed in Canada.

 He has been open in criticizing the government of Alberta, saying that the province was driven by greed when they proceeded to built homes on land that was determined in 1992 to be a flood plain.

“It always come down to dollars and cents,” he said. “It was a catastrophic failure, and it’s something that shouldn’t happen again.”

Lawless believes that all things considered, the government of Alberta has been “fair and swift” in their handling of the situation post-evacuation. 

Residents were compensated for evacuating, and the remaining homes have begun to be auctioned off in a no-minimum bidding process. Residents have 160 days to relocate the houses. The province plans to revert the area back to its natural flood state.

For those of us who have not had the chance to visit Beachwood estates in person, Lawless’ photos offer a glimpse at the consequences of what he calls a systemic problem in North America.

He was driven to photography for the very reason that images are shareable and effective when it comes to activism, especially when trying to appeal to a younger generation.

He hopes his work, along with inevitable extreme weather events will spark some sort of change in the world, hopefully before more tragedy is at hand.

“People have to be moved, somehow, physically sometimes, and sometimes die unfortunately for people to start taking these things seriously.” 

Lawless says he has plans for more projects in Canada, citing interest in the pine beetle epidemic in British Columbia, which has affected more than 18 million hectares of trees and is worsened by global warming. 

See below for more photos from Beachwood Estates. You can find more examples of Lawless' work on his website, along with links to his social channels, including Instagram and Facebook.

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