Since World War II the production and use of synthetic chemicals has exploded. During the course of an average day, people come into contact with a host of chemicals. Just walking into a supermarket one might be breathing as many as 20,000 different synthetic compounds. As a result of the prevalence of these synthetic chemicals, it is believed that more than 10 million Americans have developed a disabling condition called Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS).
MCS causes the immune and central nervous systems to suffer extreme reactions when exposed to small amounts of commonplace chemicals like those found in perfume, cleaning products, car exhaust, construction materials, pesticides, and even printed matter like magazines and books. In addition, some people react to electromagnetic fields as emitted by computers, phones, cell towers, cars, and fluorescent lights—making life a near impossibility.
Many people with MCS are forced to live in remote areas in tents, cars, or retro-fitted trailers, away from dangers of neighbors’ chemical use. Others are prisoners of their homes, with advanced air filter systems to keep outside air from contaminating their breathing space.
Thilde Jensen, born in Denmark, moved to New York City in 1997 to study photography after an early exploration into film making. Six years later her life and career as a documentary and editorial photographer were cut short by a sudden development of severe Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS). The urban life she had previously navigated with ease transformed into a toxic war zone. Her immune system crashed, forcing her into a survivalist journey, unraveling the comfort and construct of her previous life. The ensuing years were a lesson in basic survival—camping in the woods and wearing a respirator when entering supermarkets, doctors’ offices, and banks.
To her surprise an otherwise invisible subculture of people emerged who shared this isolated existence. Photographing became a medium for sanity and meaning in this hyper-sensitive dimension of reality. Her photographs are a personal account of life on the edge of modern civilization as one of the human canaries, the first casualties to a ubiquitous synthetic chemical culture.
Through a recent experimental neural retraining program, Jensen has for the first time since she first got sick in 2003 been able to function in the “real world” without a respirator. She is returning this spring to the desert of the Southwest to continue the Canaries project, where many chemically-sensitive people live as refugees from a chemical world they can no longer inhabit.
Before developing MCS, Jensen worked as an editorial photographer for numerous magazines, including Newsweek, Details, and Blender, among others. Her work has been exhibited internationally, and featured in articles in Doubletake/Points of Entry and I.D. Magazine. Jensen received a Light Work Grant in 2006. For more informations about the artist, see her interview with Syracuse University Goldring student Lily Betjeman.