CNN Photos

Deepwater Horizon spill: Oil on an ocean canvas

Capturing what he couldn’t contain or counteract, photographer Daniel Beltrá took his camera and his unwavering environmentalism to the skies, peering down at the paradoxical beauty of the Gulf Coast oil disaster.

Streaks of desert reds and iridescent blues crisscrossing the ocean resembled an oil painting more than an oil spill that is deemed one of the worst in U.S. history.

In April 2010, the BP-operated Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded off the coast of Louisiana. It released an estimated 210 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico before it was capped on July 15, 2010.

The spill directly affected about 68,000 square miles of ocean, almost the size of Oklahoma. It took an incalculable toll on the region’s wildlife and damaged miles of coastlines.

How can such a harrowing environmental disaster be so visually pleasing when viewed from above? Beltrà doesn’t have the answer to that.

“I wasn’t trying to make these (photos) beautiful,” he said. “It’s a horrible, tragic event that affected a large part of the coast and lots of animals. There’s nothing beautiful about that.”

Yet he feels more straightforward photographs would fail to do the story justice.

“If I can get images that are more abstract or interesting and beautiful, then I can generate more interest and keep the story alive longer. That’s what I want – people to care and try to do something about it.”

Three years later, Beltrà is releasing “Spill,” a book of his unique aerials shot originally for Greenpeace and taken during the early stages of the disaster, as a way to renew the dialogue about what happened and what people can do about it.

“When the spill happened, everyone was horrified, and we said we weren’t going to do any more deep-sea drilling. Three years later, we’re talking about drilling in the Arctic. We have a pretty bad short-term memory.”

Beltrà, a Madrid native with a biology degree, is known for his aerial photographs. During the BP oil spill, he took to the sky numerous times over a two-month period.

“It’s a different way to show what’s happening from a viewpoint people aren’t used to,” he said. “It allows you to take a little bit of distance from the problem and see, on a larger scale from the photos, man’s impact on the planet.”

In all of his work, he focuses on the fragility of Earth and the stresses a human-dominated society place upon it. From the Arctic to the Amazon, he flies high to find the camera angle that will best invoke a sense of consciousness about our planet.

“Sometimes I say I’m an activist, but what’s really the impact of your work?” Beltrà said. “That’s for others to say, but I use my work so people do not forget and we can try to avoid the next disaster.”

Documenting controversial environmental topics is no easy feat, even from 3,000 feet in the air. Beltrà says the authorities and BP were noncompliant with the media and placed a lot of regulations on what they could and couldn’t do.

There were plane altitude restrictions and off-limits areas, he said, so in the beginning it was difficult to gauge just how massive the spill was.

Once airborne, Beltrà realized how important his job is, not only as a photojournalist but as an activist.

Digging deeper, he discovered that the surreal colors in his photographs are a result of the chemical reaction between the crude oil and the dispersant used to help mitigate the problem.

More than 400 “controlled” burns were also set ablaze in further attempts to remove the oil, seen in some of his photographs as massive plumes of black smoke.

Beltrà described the mood in Louisiana at the time as a willingness to do something about it, complicated by a serious frustration “because really nobody knew how to clean this up.”

“There were a lot of boats that were trying to clean up the oil with booms. How effective is that?” he said.

“It’s like if you take an Olympic pool and fill it up with oil, and you sit on the edge with a box of Q-tips. You can spend your life doing that, and you’ll get nowhere.”

- Michelle Cohan, CNN