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Sunken villages project to make U.S. debut in Massena

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MASSENA — A community-wide project that started with thousands of photos taken by aerial photographer Louis Helbig of Ottawa, Ontario, will soon make its debut in the U.S.

The project started in 2009 as Mr. Helbig flew over Lake St. Lawrence and started taking pictures of the outline of the 10 villages that disappeared decades ago.

Mr. Helbig said that when people began to reach out to him and tell him stories of their families and neighbors who were forced to leave their homes during the St. Lawrence Seaway project in 1958, he decided to conduct more formal interviews with them.

After hearing the stories of about 27 people from Ontario, Mr. Helbig decided to use the audio recordings of the interviews in his exhibit last summer.

His photos were displayed at the Marianne van Silfhout Gallery at St. Lawrence College, 100 Portsmouth Ave., Kingston, and were accompanied by the voices of those he interviewed.

Mr. Helbig said the public had an intense and emotional reaction to the exhibit.

“When people speak in their own voice, from their heart, unfiltered by anyone else, about something like this, the emotions just carry,” he said. “It seems to hit a nerve for everyone.”

Since that exhibit, Mr. Helbig combined his photos and some of the audio clips of his interviewees into a 20-minute video that he’s presented eight times in different places and galleries in Ontario, including the National Art Gallery in Ottawa.

He said there’s even been more international interest in his photos.

He said some of his photos ranked 22 in Gizmodo.com’s top 100 most astonishing images of 2013.

“There have been a lot of audience members that have started to cry during the video,” Mr. Helbig said. “For me as an artist, it’s really awesome to see that intense of a reaction.”

Mr. Helbig hopes to see an intense reaction Feb. 20 when he presents his video at the Massena Public Library from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.

“I hope that when I do, there will be some more folks that come forward with stories,” he said. “What’s most important is the local history and for people in today’s age to appreciate it.”

Mr. Helbig said he doesn’t have any stories in his recorded collection from people on this side of the border who were affected by the Seaway project.

Library Director Elaine A. Dunne-Thayer said she reached out to Mr. Helbig to do the presentation after seeing a growing interest in related presentations.

She said Maggie Wheeler, an author from Ontario who’s written fiction books about life during the Seaway project, has presented her books multiple times at the library.

“People seem to have an interest and connection with the sunken villages,” Ms. Dunne-Thayer said.

She said the presentation will be held in the main reading room at the library, which can seat about 300 people.

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