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

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

As Mr. Helbig flew over Lake St. Lawrence in 2009 he noticed the outline of villages beneath the water and started taking pictures of them. These were the remains of 10 villages flooded during construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1958.

People hearing of Mr. Helbig’s photo project began to reach out to him and tell him stories of their families and neighbors who had been forced to leave these communities before the flooding and 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.

Mr. Helbig will present a video he produced from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday at the Massena Public Library,.

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 the 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 been even more international interest in his photos.

He said some of his photos ranked 22nd 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.”

“I hope that when I do (the Massena presentation), 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 several 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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