Seattle-based Daniel Beltrá studied forestry engineering at the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid and biology at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. He makes environmental photography that is concerned with the collision of man and nature, nowhere more arrestingly than in his otherworldly visions from the Gulf of Mexico in the aftermath of North America’s largest-ever oil spill and chemical-dispersant cleanup. Winner of multiple prestigious awards like World Press Photo, Beltrá’s work has appeared in renowned international periodicals such as the New York Times, Le Monde, El País, The New Yorker, Time, and Newsweek. Typically shot from the air, his large-scale landscape photographs have been recognized worldwide for their highlighting of modern culture’s impact on our ecosystems.
The Southbound project includes ten images from the aftermath of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, one of which, Oil Spill #12, inspired poet Nikky Finney to write Miss Polly Is Akimbo Underneath the Mother Emanuel Collection Table for the Southbound project. The extraordinary beauty of Beltrá’s seascapes—flashing blue, green, and orange—belies the enormous environmental costs of the millions of barrels of petroleum fouling the Gulf region and the chemical dispersant used in mitigation efforts. With the cleanup ultimately costing as much as the currency-crisis bailouts of countries in Europe over the Great Recession, the impacts of the BP spill will be felt in the Gulf for decades to come.
In these photographs, flotillas of cleanup vessels cluster, a phalanx atop the waves, as ships power toward them and then away, seemingly full of purpose, as evidenced by the straight lines they draw across the sludge of petroleum, dispersant, and poisoned water. Seeing those ships floating on a sea of toxins that extended over some 70,000 square miles; intuiting the damage occurring deep in the water column in the eerie light seeming to well up from below; and seeing the very waves aflame, however, allows us to draw a line under the magnitude of what happened in the Gulf.
If the New South is associated with processes of demographic, social, and cultural change, economic restructuring has always been central to vaunted moments of transformation in the region since Atlanta Constitution editor Henry W. Grady coined the term New South in the decades after the Civil War. Beltrá’s images serve as a warning, in this light, about the future impact on the natural environment of ongoing processes of resource extraction and industrialization in the region. This becomes more pressing still as the current United States administration pushes to open the continental seabed to oil exploration and drilling in 2018, to include previously protected areas in the Atlantic and, certainly, ramping up prospecting in the Gulf of Mexico.
As is true of the work of fellow Southbound photographers Mitch Epstein, Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick, and Stacy Kranitz, Beltrá’s images are part of a longstanding photographic tradition associated with documenting our impact on the environment, from Carleton Watkin’s images of hydraulic mining in California in the second half of the nineteenth century to David Hanson’s photographs of Superfund sites (defined as any United States land considered by the Environmental Protection Agency to be so toxic as to be a health hazard) a hundred years later. Beltrá’s photographs, then, are a clarion call to conscience, to mindfulness, and to action in order to protect the very land (and sea) upon which we stand, and upon which, ultimately, everything depends.