04 December 2008


September 27, 2008

Houston and the Gulf Coast of Texas have possibly the largest concentration of petro-chemical facilities in the USA. Of the 150 refineries in the US, 26 of them are located in the greater Houston vicinity, and an additional 28 are located outside of Texas, but still on the Gulf Coast. With the approach of Hurricane Ike, America, knowingly or not, quaked at the thought of this uncontrollable threat to its petrol supply like a junkie watching his dealer be arrested. Ironically, our petrol use is what causes the very threat that can so easily disrupt our supply.

Having been to Houston to photograph the industry in 2006, I wanted to go back and see the result of Ike on the industries and surrounding communities. The Parras Family is involved with various environmental groups that focus on the environmental and health impact on minority groups, and they generously offered to put me up. Alas, I had no time to stay in Houston and visit, as I was off to Brazil the next day, so the only option was to fly down, do the shoot and come back in less than 24 hours. Of course, my flight was delayed, yet Brian Parras of Clean patiently met me for my late-night arrival at the airport.

We made it back to Brian’s house, albeit after midnight, where we met Brian’s father, Juan. Unfortunately, Juan, a relentless defender of the environmental rights of immigrant groups with whom I had communicated for years, could not stay up to chat with Brian and me, so after a beer and a bit of conversation, Brian, Leandra (his girlfriend) and I retired in anticipation of our 5 A.M. wake-up call. A few short hours later, Brian and I were barely awake and stumbling towards his car, off to meet our pilot, Eric Hake, who stepped in to fill the void after our first pilot backed out, literally as I was on the commercial flight from New York.

After the media buildup of the storm and its aftermath, I expected to find a devastated city surrounded by a petro-chemical industry overturned and in disarray. My experience is that the media tends to exaggerate any event to such an extreme that it is dubbed the "event of the century." What I found around Houston was a place that had been hit by a bad storm. My interest is environmentally harmful industry, and I did find tanks partially shredded (though mostly older ones, already rusted), and in particular, the demolished cooling fan unit of a power plant, but largely, industry was back in business. There were plants with flaming stacks pouring acrid smoke into the wind streams going straight to Houston, and bulldozers moving material back and forth into the holds of waiting ships, but all of that is expected. What was interesting were the locations where I remembered piles of dry material (like sulphur) that were no longer, and tanks of liquid waste once full were now empty.

One would expect that high winds would blow away any uncontained dry material or open bowls of liquid; the question then arises: where did it go? Once blown away, these materials quickly “disappear” into the surroundings, though dissipate is more descriptive, yet the effects linger for years. The environs and neighborhoods bordering Houston’s petro-chemical industry have long suffered the brunt of their discharge, and this instance was no different. Reports have come in of offshore rigs destroyed, massive spills from offshore sources, as well as tremendous leaks and spills within the industrial area. Here is an interesting article from the Houston Chronicle.

The bottom line is, with climate change predictions and increased storm activity and the fact that most of our refineries on which our society depends for its function are in coastal areas with high probability of this storm activity, there is a dual threat to our environment and security. This Houston trip produced some great images, but not the smoking gun I thought would be uncovered.

I loved this sunken ship; imagine the spill that occurred when it went down...

16 October 2008


September 20, 2008

The Adirondacks is the largest intact temperate forest in the world, a vital wild space in itself, and a link to the Green Mountains and the rest of the 80 million acre Northern Appalachians. Though established as a protected park in 1885, much of it is privately held with no protections. I became interested in this magical place as the result of a project with the Northeast Wilderness Trust, http://www.newildernesstrust.org/, which asked me to help in the effort to preserve a thousand-acre parcel of land. LightHawk, http://www.lighthawk.org/, a fantastic group that flies environmentalists, had volunteered to fly us in that endeavor. My idea was a project that would examine the negative environmental impacts on this place that is so essentially part of our American heritage, and LightHawk’s great pilot, Bob Keller, agreed to fly me on this mission, too.
The Adirondacks was once home to much industry that has, for the most part, left the area in recent years; lumber and paper were tremendous, and still are a large presence; numerous mines littered the landscape, with the mills and processing plants that accompany them. With the help of Sid Whelan and some others with local knowledge, I was able to identify and locate a number of these sites, and plot a mission. In addition, I was able to get great support from Peter Kelley and his team at Kelley Campaigns, http://kelleycampaigns.homestead.com/, who brought The Adirondack Explorer and Adirondack Daily Enterprise on board for the project; suddenly, we had a full plane. Bob was going to be doing some maintenance on his plane in Schenectady where the Amtrak from NYC stops at a station minutes from the local airport (love that train). Our plan was to work up the East side of the park, shooting the sites we had identified, then pick up the reporters at Saranac Lake and do the locations in the North and West.

The first target was the defunct Palmer Paper Mill in Corinth, site of one of the original International Paper locations. Though the mill is closed, the site remains, waste tanks full, a deep wound left behind on the town whose livelihood once depended on the mill’s successful operation. The river there was dammed to provide power for the mill, the dam an enduring relic of a different time, and an ecosystem alteration with permanent effects on the flora and fauna that depend on the river.

One of our next sites was a paper mill still operant in Ticonderoga, with an environmental record to make the bold weep. We think of paper as a benign product, made from natural sources, associating it with the Chinese and Egyptians that invented it. The reality is that paper production is an environmental disaster from start to finish. The process is so terrifying that I will not even take a paper napkin at a restaurant any more. We flew over Lake George, looking for the Asian Mille Feuille that has clogged this most bucolic Eastern resort location; but we were too late in the year, and only managed to get some good shots of storm-water runoff into the Lake from residential locations. Bob (the pilot) was so great. Aside from his expert piloting, local knowledge, and understanding of the issues, he was able to provide further insights into the terrain below.

Next on the agenda was the old Republic Steel Mill in Port Henry (great name). Republic Steel was once the third largest steel producer in the country, founded in Youngstown, Ohio in 1899. Republic Steel’s Port Henry operation opened its doors in the mid-to-late 1800s, and was headquartered in Mineville and Witherbee, neighboring towns that were built up specifically to serve as communities for the mine workers and their families. All that remains today (as far as one can see) is a mountain of waste, a beautiful old factory building, and some water bodies with mysteriously colored sludge on the surface and lining the edges.

The journalists were awaiting us in Saranac Lake, and from there we flew over the High Peaks to the old Tahawus lead and titanium mine at the head of the Hudson River. Apparently, this was once considered a vital “national security site,” titanium and lead being crucial for many things military. But, imagine a lead mine at the head of one or our most important rivers. The site is beautiful: a mountain of waste, ponds of various bright blues and greens, and strange arrangements of detritus that remind us of nothing so much as unexplainable phenomena often attributed to UFOs.

In the end, we missed the last train out of Schenectady, so Bob flew me down to the next stop on the line in Hudson NY, and a taxi met me at the small airport and raced me to the train station.

04 September 2008


August 15, 2008

So often in doing my aerial shoots, I have no previous specific knowledge of my subject matter. Research on the images typically follows each shoot. In this case, I had three experts with me who were able to tell me all of the particulars, for which I am always so hungry. Our pilot, Michael Hanke, specializes in flying humanitarian and environmental expeditions. He is a sure-handed pilot who does his job so well that one could almost think he looks careless; Karsten Smid is a Greenpeace energy expert on brown coal issues, particularly as it relates to these locations; finally, the writer from the Taz, Nick Rymer, worked in a factory directly in the region of the mines and power plants and has a personal inside knowledge of these places.

We headed south from Berlin to the Lausitz/Cottbus mining site. The extent of the devastation in this area is amazing. That we humans could so heedlessly destroy such vast areas is audacious. The impact is all-encompassing, from the displacement of local populations to the massive carbon emissions (some of the plants we saw were among the largest carbon emitters in Europe).

Let’s not forget the inefficiency of lignite; such a poor energy source that it’s only worth mining if it’s burned directly where it is mined. Hurrah for the Berliners who are taking a stance against the burning of lignite by specifying that they want to purchase power from “green” sources, a movement only in the nascent stage in the USA. Burning coal is completely crazy. The rant begins by noting that there are myriad options without the consequences that accompany lignite, which are too many to list, but a few include: largest single cause of global warming and acid rain, greatest cause of mercury in the environment (meaning the fish we eat), single main producer of radioactive material released into the air and water. This just begins the list of reasons why mining and burning lignite make absolutely no sense. The only reason why we continue this ridiculous practice is that a few people are making a lot of money, as they are burning our future in the process. End rant.

Soon, the devastation at Janschwalde comes into view. I will admit that my head was nodding as I had only slept about 4 hours in the last 30, but the looming subject brought me back to life. These areas are vast, and we are inured to it because of our jaded media overload. Imagine if you were forced to move from your house so someone could burn the ground underneath it to make a lot of money and pollute the planet. The operations are owned and run by a Swedish company forbidden from coal operations at home, but happy to do it in these outback regions of old East Germany. Is it true that one of the chief executives of the company is the “climate advisor” to the reigning government? The operations are enormous, and efficient in the typical German way. Machines the size of which you can’t imagine move volumes of earth from one place to another to expose the layers of coal so different machines can scoop the coal onto a conveyor where it goes to be burned. All of this is powered by electricity, so in some sense this is just a machine devouring the earth to feed itself.

I will admit to a fascination with these machines, the largest built by humans, ironically contributing to our own destruction. They have a beauty of elemental function that makes them art in a certain way.


The machine that actually digs the coal is rather small compared to the rest, and sits at the bottom of this tremendous moving trench. Most of my images are of the machines that move the “overburden,” and of course, the abstractions of the devoured earth, which only I can seem to capture. The final waste products (in this case, ashes and smoke) are always things I seek, and as usual, they are illuminating. Interactions of industrial nightmares with groundwater or the water table are a story worth telling in all cases, and here especially. Of course I am a visual artist, so the story I look to tell is a visual one. I can research the facts behind the storyline, but the goal here is citizen participation. We must all drink the water and breathe the air.

We find a place where the ashes are pumped into a gulch, mixing with the surface water to produce a beautiful, nightmarish lake with patterns of flow and color variations. I have the pilot circle repeatedly, certain that the scientists and reporters are convinced of my insanity…

12 August 2008


July 28, 2008

When the ifa-Galerie asked me to participate in the upcoming exhibit, “Nature–Living at the Edge,” I knew it was perfect for Industrial Scars. So, I proposed that we include one of the Industrial Scars symposia as part of the program, which the gallery embraced enthusiastically.

The point of the project is to present people with enthralling images of industrial nightmares, “the consequences of our consumption,” that will serve to inspire reflections on the impact of the euros we spend and the effects our spending will have on our grandchildren. The symposium project has turned in to a vehicle to establish dialog between audience and artist, and, ideally includes a local component, in the form of an aerial photo shoot of nearby environmental damage that is affecting the lives of the residents. Of course, the mining of brown coal (lignite) is the first thing that comes to mind when brainstorming environmental issues around Berlin, so I proceeded to research and map the possibilities. Lignite is an environmental disaster; its mining devastates large areas - entire towns are moved by the powerful conglomerate of industry and government with little regard for the displaced populations. Lignite itself has so little energy value that it’s only worth digging up if it’s burned on the spot. Therefore, tremendous power plants are constructed in the middle of the mines. Aside from the other contaminants produced (only some of which can be filtered), the carbon output is huge.

Having photographed the mines near Koeln, I was interested to see the different techniques used in Cottbus (just south of Berlin).

These photo expeditions require tremendous research and preparation, so we began with preparations forthwith: producing and shipping the images for the exhibit, and organizing the logistics of an aerial shoot.

Too soon the departure date was upon us, and for once I arrived at JFK airport with plenty of time, only to discover I had forgotten my passport. There had been some thunderstorms that day, so there was some hope I could race back in to the city and get it. Sure enough, a call to Delta uncovered the fact that the flight was delayed, and I made it back to the airport in time to check-in, only to wait through a variety of Delta excuses for the continued delay of the flight. As the hours passed, the other passengers became increasingly angry; I, on the other hand, have decided that in this life there are too many things to bring stress, and it kills. Finally, 7 hours after scheduled departure, Delta cancelled the flight at 2 AM, leaving everyone stranded at the airport. I hailed a taxi and went back to the city for a few hours of sleep.

Having another day of work is always a good thing, in this case especially, as the Berlin newspaper, The Taz, was interested in a feature story and needed a large selection of images. I was able to send those along, and decided I would take the low-carbon transport to the airport this time. As I condemn Delta, I praise the NYC transit system with its new train to JFK, which takes about the same time as a taxi, at a fraction of the financial and environmental cost.

As the direct flight to Berlin was booked, I was put on a connection through Paris, which arrived in Berlin just in time for me to race to the small airport in Strausberg, from which we would do our aerial flight. Interesting the legacies of the past that affect our lives: this was an old Cold War landing strip in East Germany… so many resources squandered on our militaristic posturing in the superpower arms race.

More to follow…

07 August 2008


May 1, 2008

Some final thoughts on a fantastic project and experience…

Unfortunately, because my projects are booked so tightly, I rarely have time to enjoy the local charms. This was especially tragic in this case, as Jerez is one of the nicest towns I have seen in a while. It is the home of sherry (the liqueur), and one of the most charming, under-run towns in Europe. Hotel options from Hotel Nova Centro (37 Euros a night, happy staff to help you chase down the meter man and correct the error in the ticket), to the more upscale Barcelo (with a restaurant in a renovated church, where you can have an amazing arroz negro). I regret even more that I did not have time to go to Cadiz, a legend in itself. To walk the same streets as Goya in his illness would make me feel a connection to him and old Spain that I would cherish. To all of you travelers out there, please do not make the same mistake as I!

During the trip, I had the very cool opportunity to be interviewed by El Mundo in Huelva, which I gave in my ever-improving Spanish. It’s always very difficult to give an interview about these complex topics in a language you don’t speak at all well, but my approach was to say things in different ways until my interviewer nods in understanding.

In spite of the fact that it’s a bit difficult to get a vegetarian meal, I quite enjoyed the trip to Spain; the Spaniards are polite and possess immense charm and grace.

24 July 2008


April 22, 2008 - EARTH DAY!!!

The next stop on my journey through Spain was Rio Tinto, home to one of the world’s oldest environmental injuries…

I arrived with the TVE crew, who had been with me as I visited several sites in succession… at every stop, they were always good at herding me back to the van, so we could make a quick getaway. We ended the day at the FerroCarril Mine, and its amazing mine train (to which I would return). In the USA, we only see these things through a fence. Here was a rusting old mining train, abandoned in its tracks, right there in the open for people to explore… locomotives of all ages, boxcars, hoists, chains, gears galore, rusty nails, and hydraulic switches of all description. Of course, the later the hour, the more romantic the light, “hora de bruja,” as the Spanish call it.

Having decided to use the TVE crew’s pilot meant a long trek back to Jerez (more later on that town), and a very early rising to make it back to the small airfield from which we flew. But, first a quick meal of Japanese food in Sevilla (what a world). The crew had to fly out early for the next gig in Barcelona, so we had to do a short flight with Curro in order to get the footage they needed (I can stay up all day when shooting these projects). And, off on another mission… first stop, a vision of the future: two of the world’s newest and largest solar facilities (one built on an abandoned mine). One is photo voltaic, the other photo thermal.

A tremendous garbage dump looms next, where the garbage from Sevilla, Portugal, and Huelva come to poison the children of the future. Suddenly before us are the mines; first in view is Aznalcollar, from which a leak in 1998 sent 7 million cubic meters of toxic waste into the Guadalquivir River. The Guadalquivir feeds into Donana National Park - one of Europe's largest nature preserves, home to 5 threatened species, and winter home to over 500,000 migratory birds.

Rio Tinto is even more fascinating from the air, and as always, there are so many things never seen on the ground. The colors, machinery, and depth are breathtaking. We fly around and around. At one point, my polarizing filter falls off into the swirling waste below. I contemplate this addition to this tabloid of the history of industry….

15 July 2008

SPAIN - Part I

April 15, 2008

Through a Spanish friend (a disaster relief specialist), I learned about a tremendously toxic site in the South of Spain called “Las Balsas.” A little investigation showed indications similar to sites in the USA of current interest, specifically phosphate fertilizer processing.

The word “fertilizer” evokes a pastoral image of grazing cattle transforming a sun-drenched field of grass into nutrients for crops, beckoning us back to simpler times. However, the super-productive modern agricultural system is fed by mineral phosphate, the principal American source being Florida, where its strip-mined extraction devastates vast areas of undeveloped wildlands, and ends with a dead zone in the ocean, where it finally comes to rest after wreaking havoc on the soil, watersheds and ecosystems in its path.

The Balsas Fosforos is residue from the processing of phosphate rock mined in Morocco, Togo, and Senegal. This rock is washed and processed with acid to make the final fertilizer. The process produces 5 parts of waste for every 1 part usable fertilizer, releases large amounts of fluorine gas (highly toxic), and produces much waste uranium and radium, byproducts found with the phosphate. The large volumes of highly acidic, radioactive waste are stored in giant unlined “impoundments” covering 1200 hectares. The mixture is so acidic, it can eat a hole in the earth and cause “sinkholes,” in which the mixture pours down to the aquifer beneath it. In 1998, a break in the embankment caused between 40,000 and 400,000 cubic meters of this highly toxic liquid to spill into the waterway, less than 1km from the town of Huelva.

So, of course I had to go shoot it.

Then my friend (thank you Alejandro) mentioned that the original Rio Tinto mine was right there in the same vicinity. The Mine (from which the mining company draws its name) is one of the largest holes in the ground and produced a large part of the world’s copper, silver and iron ore. According to myth, this is the legendary mine of King Solomon, and the reputation of great mineral wealth drew invaders from around the world that have shaped the history of Spain. The river and estuary systems there make up one of the largest heavy metal-contaminated waterways in the world, and the water can run blood red (Rio Tinto).

The rates of cancer in the Huelva-Sevilla area are significantly higher than the national average in Spain as documented by Joan Benach, a researcher specializing in occupational health at Barcelona's Pompeu Fabra University.

This region of Spain had been on my “must shoot” list for quite some time. Of course, then it was just a matter of finding a reason to go to that part of the world. Nicolai from Köln came into the picture, made a few phone calls, and suddenly TVE Television became interested in the project and said they would do a documentary. And there is always the Prado, with its special Goya exhibit: In The Times Of War. Suddenly, the trip made perfect sense; it was just a matter of when.

The Southwest of Spain stands as one of the world’s premier vacation areas; Goya is known to have recuperated from illness and distress in Cadiz. Sevilla stands as the quiet Spanish pendulum opposite Barcelona. And of course, the food is fantastic, not to mention the unique Spanish aspect of “old world charm.” The Moorish influence on Spain is ever-present, hidden in architectural flourishes and culinary tendencies.

I flew to Madrid and spent a few days, saw the Goya exhibit, and, even better, saw his “Black Paintings.” Amazing. These are visions of a future based on his impressions of man, Goya knew him to be. He painted them on the plaster walls of his house, which were essentially removed to the Prado.

Then it was off to Jerez de la Frontera, southwest of Sevilla, near the mine sites and the home of the pilot we had found. Arriving late at night, in need of rental car and hotel room, makes getting up at the crack of dawn less than ideal. Jerez is a long way from the Rio Tinto mine, where I was scheduled to meet the TVE team; I arrived just in time for an early lunch of delicious pig (try not to remember the hog story), then off to the mines, which proved to be better than imaginable.

We filmed and did interviews in several locations, and set up a nice rapport. “El Escarabajo Verde” is the TVE environmental program. The most hopeful sign of all for me is the universal interest in environmental issues. People are hungry for answers.

We were set to fly out of Jerez the next day, but suddenly the crew mentioned that they had worked with a pilot based much closer to the mines. Using this pilot would save them a lot of time the next day, but it was a bit like changing horses in the middle of the race to book a different pilot for dawn, only a few hours away. Enter Curro, a very able, but laid back pilot.

We plotted our course, and Curro added a few sites of interest (local knowledge is such a help). There are architectural remnants that reach back to some unknown era of imperial exploitation by British technology, deep mining pits, trails to walk, sheep happily munching the grass, a complete mining train abandoned in its tracks.

More to come...