From deforestation to rising sea levels to pollution, today's environment is undoubtedly at risk from numerous issues as a result of human activity. We will look at how photography has been used to help raise awareness of these issues, and in particular, we will be focusing on the photographer Daniel Beltrá, a world-famous photographer that has been recognized in multiple World Press Photo Awards and has worked on many renowned projects. Beltrá started his career by documenting the bombings by the Basque separatist organization Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) while attending the Complutense University of Madrid. He then became a member of staff at Agencia EFE before deciding to become a freelancer for Greenpeace and the Gamma photo agency, combining his knowledge of photography with his passions in nature. By exploring his range of work, we will look at the scale of these impacts on the environment and how Daniel Beltrá's photography has had a significant impact on the world of conservation and helped raise awareness.
The issues that Beltrá covers are some of the most pressing environmental issues of our time. It is estimated that at our current rate of deforestation - with one and a half acres of forest being cut down every second - there will be no rainforests left within the next 100 years. As well as being beautiful, rainforests are vital for the health of our planet by providing oxygen and acting as a carbon sink, with the Amazon absorbing around 2 billion tonnes of carbon per year, to name an example.
One of the many impressive projects Beltrá has worked on was the 2018 project Amazon: Paradise threatened. It was recognized by the World Press Photo Awards with the 3rd prize in the Environment category. The project documents the sharp increase in the rate of deforestation in the Amazon since 2016. The series of images were taken in Brazil, which has seen a further increase in deforestation in recent years under the new populist leader Jair Bolsonaro. In August 2019, the deforestation rate of the Amazon was 222% above the 2018 value, highlighting the urgency of the issue. When asked about this, Beltrá said he was a very "positive person" and tries to "stay optimistic." However, after seeing destruction "left and right for 20 years, it does have an impact on you at some point." Beltrá also raised the importance of voting "for people who care" and the need for "education on these issues so that people can be more aware" and better equipped to make the right decisions. While his photography sometimes portrays the beauty of nature, Beltrá mentioned "it also comes with an important message of conservation because this beauty has become increasingly threatened", emphasizing the importance of action if we want to preserve this unique and important ecosystem.
"Scarlet ibis birds fill the sky above flooded lowlands, near the mouth of the Amazon River.” Photograph: Daniel Beltrá, part of Amazon: Paradise Threatened
“A small section of Amazon rainforest remains in an agricultural field with slash piles littering a more recently cleared plot of land in the background near Santarém, Brazil.” Photograph: Daniel Beltrá part of Amazon: Paradise Threatened
Another of his influential involvements regarding deforestation was the Prince's Rainforest Project. In 2009 he was granted a commission by Prince Charles of Wales to document the state of the world's great tropical rainforests.
"The Prince's Rainforest Project was incredible due to its outcome, with a book being made and given to world leaders before the 2009 climate change summit in Copenhagen. The idea was to help show the world leaders the destruction of the rainforests and also highlight the link that exists between tropical deforestation and emissions. A small booklet was also created and given all over the commonwealth for free, which helped raise awareness of the issue."
We also discussed the overall impact of his work and whether or not he feels that it has helped resolve the issues that he attempts to convey. "Yes and No. I am not fixing anything directly but just trying to point people in the right direction and raise awareness of these issues. All the work I do stacks on top of each other in terms of the awareness it raises, from lectures to books to interviews. It all helps raise awareness of these issues."
“A fallen castanheira tree lies in a soy field cleared from Amazon rainforest outside of Santarem, Brazil, September, 2013. Castaña trees are protected from harvesting by Brazilian law.” Photograph: Daniel Beltrá
In a similar vein, melting ice caps are one of the world's most pressing environmental issues. In the last 100 years, the world's temperature has increased by ½ a degree Celsius. This, in turn, has meant that the ice caps are melting at a staggering rate, with Greenland (as one of the many examples) losing 280 Gigatons of landmass per year, causing the sea level to rise by 6-8 inches in the past 100 years. This poses severe threats to nations such as the Pacific Island of Tuvalu, which scientists predict could become uninhabitable within the next 50 years. Unfortunately, Tuvalu is just one of the many examples of countries being extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change. As well as having negative consequences on humans, the impacts on wildlife are just as profound. Loss of ice and melting permafrost poses threats to many species and has resulted in a large number of them becoming endangered or even extinct. Beltrá has photographed ice sheets in Greenland and the changing glaciers at the poles, powerfully conveying the impacts of global warming. Photography helps raise more awareness of this issue as Beltrá explains that it can be used as a tool "to help people properly understand what is happening."
“Pinnacle iceberg in the Southern Ocean,” February, 2007. Photograph: Daniel Beltrá
“Placid waters in the Ross Sea reveal the size of an iceberg beneath the surface of the water of the Southern Ocean,” February, 2007. Photograph: Daniel Beltrá
“Meltwater from the Jokulgilskvisl stream is pulled by gravity towards the Atlantic Ocean,” July, 2014. Photograph: Daniel Beltrá
Another issue that Beltrá has tackled in his work is oil spills. He documented the aftermath of the 2010 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig and won the Veolia Environment Wildlife Photographer of the year as well as the "Deeper Perspective of the Year" award from the International Photography Awards. The disaster caused 210 million gallons of oil to spill into the Gulf of Mexico, causing a black tide that covered 68,000 square miles of ocean. The subsequent impact on wildlife was profound, with the area of the spill containing 8,332 species and killing 6,100 birds. Beltrá documented the oil spill using aerial shots, which provided a unique perspective on the issue as well as conveying the magnitude of the consequences.
"I never tried to create those abstract aerial images; instead, about halfway through my career, I began to take more and more images in that style. After a while, I grew tired of seeing all the destruction and disaster within the images, and I began to edit them differently. I am not trying to make disasters beautiful because, at the end of the day, that's not my goal. I am still trying to convey the destructiveness, and the impacts of these issues and that significant change is needed. On the one hand, the photos are more beautiful, but it is still portraying a disaster, and that message for me is very important. However, these images give longer life to the project and help keep the important messages out there for longer."
“Brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) covered in crude oil from BP's Deepwater Horizon wellhead spill wait to be cleaned at the International Bird Rescue Research Center in Fort Jackson, Louisiana,” June, 2010.
Photograph: Daniel Beltra for Greenpeace/Spill
“A ship drifts amidst a heavy band of oil spilled in the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead”, May, 2010. Photograph: Daniel Beltrá for Greenpeace/Spill
The environment is something extremely important to Beltrá, and he has dedicated his life photographing the natural world to educate, preserve and inspire others to do the same whilst also conveying the sense of urgency and the need for change. By using photography as a medium, Beltrá has been able to portray natural beauty whilst also conveying the importance of environmental preservation in ways that cannot be simply done through facts alone. What humans are doing to the environment is not something to be taken lightly; it cannot be ignored and left to future generations to resolve. Fortunately, inspiring individuals like Daniel Beltrá realize this and are helping raise awareness of these pressing global issues through the lens of photography.
Co-authored by Matias and Finley, who contributed equally to this work.
All Images are Copyrighted by Daniel Beltrá, with their reproduction needing authorization from him.