In conversation > Daniel Beltrá, an awardwinner

© Daniel Beltrá. Paradise Threatened


Born in Madrid and based in Seattle, Daniel Beltrá is a photographer who has dedicated himself over the last 28 years to photographing different natural disasters. This year he has been awarded for his work “Amazonas: Paradise Threatened” at the World Press Photo 2018 exhibition, in the Environment category.

By Paula Ericsson

Paula Ericsson (EP). The environmental movement began to take shape when the image of the Earth taken by the crew of Apollo 8 in 1968 spread. What role has photography played since then in the fight to protect the environment?

Daniel Beltrá (DB). Nature photography has evolved a lot, and we are moving further and further away from this beautiful nature that we all like. Such images perpetrate a chimera, because what is happening in the world is not what is normally shown.

Photography is witnessing. Photographers have the opportunity and responsibility to go to places where most people don’t have access and show what’s going on. When you read the amount of plastic in the oceans this is absolutely insane. We’re not war photographers, but we do have post-traumatic stress. Despite this, I am optimistic and think that my work shows problems and spreads the word about possible solutions.

PE. Although you studied biology, you started your career as a photographer in an ETA attack in the late 1980s. How have you evolved between your first photograph and your World Press Photo 2018 winning project, “Amazon: Paradise Threatened”? What is common in the motivation between the two?

DB. When I started photography it was a hobby for me, just like nature. At first I was interested in photojournalism and at no time did I think about bringing these two passions together. I was doing day-to-day work at the Efe News Agency, and I thought I’d go talk to Greenpeace in Madrid and offer to collaborate with them. When I started this working relationship I realized what I was passionate about, and over the past two decades I’ve been lucky to be able to do what I’m really interested in, which is documenting man’s impact on the planet. A project like the one I won the World Press Photo 2018 is an accumulation of interest and many years of going to the Amazon. In fact, all those photos are from last year, but I’ve been working in Brazil since 2001.

PE. Spill is the book -and also the catalogue- published in 2011 by Photographic Social Vision and Roca Barcelona Gallery in which you show 28 photographs of oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico. Do you think its dissemination and recognition are meeting your reporting objectives?

DB. When you look at what the current administration of Donald Trump in the United States is doing, you can’t be too happy. It is very difficult to see the impact your project has, but people are becoming more and more aware. At first with Spill there were people who criticized me. “Why are you showing something so horrible in such an artistic way?” they asked me. But I am very happy with the decision I made and, many years later, I still have exhibitions in museums about the oil spill. It’s a different kind of awareness raising, more long-term.

PE. Speaking of museums…. What role do they play together with festivals and art galleries in the dissemination of your work?

DB. A huge role as they are an important window with an impressive diffusion. And deep down, when you do a job like this, it’s what you want: the more people who see it, the better they become aware of it. The World Press Photo competition will generate more than 100 exhibitions and an estimated four million visitors. The impact will be incredible.

PE. Which governments are most reluctant to show human impact on the environment? Are you trying to suppress them in any way?

DB. Environmentalism in the governments of Brazil or the United States is not booming at all. I haven’t worked a lot in the United States, but what’s happening is a real disgrace. In Brazil, hydroelectric power plants play a major role and I work incognito. There most of the deforestation is caused because in the land where the trees were, they want to plant crops to plant soybeans. Once I was working with Greenpeace in St Helena on a campaign to denounce illegal logging and burning, and when they realized what we were doing, the vigilantes began to radio the people to come and lynch us.

PE. The photographer Denis Sinyakov was imprisoned in Russia for two months, along with the whole of the crew of the Greenpeace boat Arctic Sunrise, for documenting the protest against oil drilling in the Arctic. Have you ever been threatened for doing your job?

DB. Working with Greenpeace gets you into trouble sometimes. I have not been under arrest for two months, but I have had problems, although I prefer not to delve into it: I don’t like to look like a kind of  Indiana Jones. The problems I cover seem too important to me to be adorned with my anecdotes. In the Amazon many locals are dedicated to opposing any project of dams or electric dams, and the number of deaths and threats is terrible. We photographers are privileged people.

PE. The problem with not reporting is that an uninformed society is unable to make its own decisions and, for example, to stop consuming certain products that cause major natural disasters.

DB. Exactly. When I was lucky enough to win the Prince’s Rainforest Project award from the Charles Foundation in England, they were studying the dietary impact of 100 palm oil products in the UK. The result was that sixty of them contained that ingredient. We were talking about deforestation, and part of the campaign was the link to global warming. Especially in Indonesia, where palm oil production has destroyed the forests.

PE. How do people react to your images?

DB. In general they are very well received. I remember at an exhibition a woman was looking at the photograph of the oil-covered pelicans and started to cry. And I, a fool at times, came up to her and said, “Madam, that’s not such a bad picture. And she started laughing.

PE. Do you think that portraying ecological disasters with a more artistic photograph can make the viewer more sensitive?

DB. It’s not just that it’s more artistic, it’s more abstract. Sometimes the people who see my pictures they have no idea what they are looking at, and that creates a tension, and from that tension I hope they want to go further, to find out for themselves what they’re seeing and why it’s happening.

PE. In an interview you explained that your photographs “are not natural disasters, but human disasters”. Is it difficult for us to care about the environment because we feel that we are not part of it, that it is something alien to us?

DB. Kind of. We have the possibility to adapt to many things and more and more people are living in cities: as long as you turn on the tap and water comes out, when you turn on the lights there is electricity, the telephone works and there is food in the fridge there is not too much to worry about. Much of this is a matter of education. I was lucky enough as a child to see the series by journalist Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente and, although I was born and raised in Madrid, he showed me that other world through a window. I am convinced that education will be the solution to our environmental problems.

PE. How many helicopters or airplanes have you been on during your career as a photographer? How do you get access to that kind of transportation?

DB. Less helicopters than I would like, because I take most of the pictures from light airplanes, in which I have traveled a lot. For example, Greenpeace had a small plane in the Amazon, but unfortunately they had an accident last year. In Antarctica – where I have just returned from documenting the melting Arctic ice – they rented a helicopter. When I worked in Greenland and Iceland I rented airplanes, but it is very expensive: in Greenland one hour by plane cost me $1,600 and one helicopter $4,500. It takes a lot of budget to do this job. I have been fortunate enough to work closely with Greenpeace and to take advantage of its resources, but if I had to finance it myself I would be a lot of money. Although one of my aspirations is to be able to do it.

PE. Where would you like to go that you haven’t gone yet?

DB. The Himalayan area of Nepal.

PE. What image would you like to make to help us realize that we are part of the the world we’re destroying? What projects do you have in progress or in mind for the future?

DB. I’d like to know what image that impact would have! It is a very complicated question and I cannot answer it. As future projects I aim to continue researching on global warming, in particular on melting ice, and on tropical deforestation. These are two huge issues that I have worked on for many years and I don’t see myself leaving them any time soon. I also have an almost finished book on tropical forests, but I still need to find some editors.