Documenting the Globe with Photographer Daniel Beltrá

June 7, 2013

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we leave the city of Chicago and we’re now headed over to the state of Seattle, Washington, here, and we’ve got Daniel Beltrá, who’s a well-known, world-known environmental photographer. Welcome to Green is Good. DANIEL BELTRÁ: Well, thank you very much for having me. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Daniel, your work is just known across the world and, of course, it’s also exhibited in our friend Jolene Hanson’s G2 Gallery, and we’ve talked about it before. It’s incredible art. But before we get into the exactitude of what’s going on and the beautiful work that you do, I want you to share with our listeners a little bit about your journey because everyone wants to hear more about the people that are on our show and how they get to where they are, sometimes more than just exactly what they’re doing today. DANIEL BELTRÁ: Well, I’m not that young anymore, so it’s a bit of a long story. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s OK, we’ve got time. We’re thrilled to have you. DANIEL BELTRÁ: I’m 48 years old. I’m originally from Madrid, Spain. I started in photography really pretty early on as a hobby, and studying biology also at the same time in Madrid in the university. Those were my two passions, but I never thought I was going to become a professional photographer. My career in photography really started in photojournalism, covering all kinds of news. It went more into documentary photography, and very early on I started photographing the subjects which mattered to me, which was really nature and the environment, and I’ve been documenting the impact we’re having on the planet. One thing led to another. I did a lot of work with the environmental group Greenpeace, and we’ll talk I’m sure about that later. I traveled a lot with them, and in 2001 I moved to the States. I met my wife, Shoshanna, in Anchorage in ’97, and she moved to Spain with me. Later, we moved to the States, and this is where I’m based now. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s wonderful, but I mean, when you grew up in Madrid, were your parents environmentalists? What you got you, as a young person, so interested? DANIEL BELTRÁ: In Spain, we had a man called Felix Rodriguez de la Fuente. He was a naturalist, very well known that had his own TV program, and he really influenced a full generation of kids in Spain. He was always showcasing nature, first around the American country, but then also around the world. So, I remember very well programs that were on about the struggle of very few wolves that we had in Spain and what was happening to them. It wasn’t everything black or white. The wolves were not the best, but they were not terrible either. We didn’t need to eliminate them. There was a way to find coexistence between the species. So, that really influenced me a lot. I remember him also traveling to the Amazon, for example, and working. He was a figure really revered in my country, and a lot of people liked what he was doing, and unfortunately he passed away in a plane accident covering the Iditarod race in Alaska. But that was really probably the main thing that did that to me because I was a kid born in Madrid, in a big city, I wasn’t so exposed to nature. Definitely my parents, they were concerned, but that was not really at all in my family or even the journalism side wasn’t there either. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Right, right. Well, that’s so important, and that’s why we do this show, to highlight great people like you. The young people around the United States and the world that get to hear this show, they’re going to be inspired by you, and they might want to become the next Daniel Beltrá. So, I’m so thankful for you coming on today. Let’s get right into it. You’ve done so much great work, and we’re on your site right now. For our listeners out there to follow along, please go on Daniel’s wonderful site, danielbeltra.com. It is just spectacular. The photos are breathtaking. So talk a little bit about how you choose to do your work. Is it what the media’s banging the drum about, or is it something that spurred you on internally to chase a certain subject matter? DANIEL BELTRÁ: I really kind of take the whole credit myself. I work on issues that are very big in scope normally, worldwide, that really require very big budgets to photograph. When I work around forests, I don’t do forests locally. I am going to the Amazon or to Congo, to Indonesia. When I work about climate change, global warming, it’s then taking me to the Arctic or Antarctica, so really the budgets are pretty big. So, I’m always partnering with somebody, and for many, many years, the main one has been Greenpeace for me. Greenpeace has been an incredible platform. I’ve had the opportunity to go work and do what I wanted, where I wanted, and that has been phenomenal. I’ve also worked with other projects. With forests, for example, I won an award with Prince Charles Foundation, and that also gave me funding to produce a big body of work on the state of the tropical forests around the world. So, it’s always a bit of a combination. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Before we talk about the art side of it and what you want people to come away with when they view your work, let’s talk more about some of your other projects. So, although you work with Greenpeace and some of these organizations around the world, you did some wonderful work covering the spill, and you have a line of photographs that are called The Spill. That was such a tragic accident, and it was such a hard time to live through. Every day I remember turning on the television and seeing the pumps still pumping the oil into the ocean, and you just were expecting it soon to slow down, and it never did for such a long time. How does the gravity of the situations that you cover around the world weigh on you personally, in terms of getting in the way you work, or in terms of inspiring you to really get it down and get it out there? DANIEL BELTRÁ: I am definitely an optimist, and some people get surprised when I say that because of the subjects I cover or what I see. But I definitely feel that there’s not really another option. I mean, what can we do? I make a funny comparison. I say sometimes I feel like I’ve been dropped in the middle of a lake. So what do I do? I’ll sit there and drown, or I’ll swim the best I can to the shore. I’m a swimmer. I really want to go and do the best I can with my work and hopefully inspire others. Definitely on the day-to-day, there are harsh moments because I see things that are not pleasant, but I get that internal motivation because I also feel the power of photography. It’s something that really transcends me and there are many photographers like me doing good work, and we feel that people get inspired by that. That’s really the fuel for us. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. And so when people go to galleries and they look at your beautiful work, or they come online and just look at it, what do you want them to come away with? What are you trying to achieve? DANIEL BELTRÁ: Well, first of all, I don’t want them to be depressed. I want them to go out with maybe asking questions. I want them to feel a bit motivated, like I was saying, but also just questioning themselves, I think. What are we doing? How are we doing this? What is the implication? We all tend to consider all these big issues that are too big for us to have any say on it. But at the end of the day, it’s always the drop in the ocean. All of us have a lot to do. It depends so much on our consumption, fuels or diesel. Being careful on how we put our dollars has a huge influence on how the world is and who we vote. What do we care about? So, that’s what I’m trying to do. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I see. And when I introduced you earlier, I called you an environmental photographer, but there is a difference. Art and photography come together. How do you view yourself, and how do you introduce yourself if you were to meet someone today and have a lunch or a dinner with them, and you had never met them before? Do you think of yourself as an environmental photographer, or as a strict artist, or as both? DANIEL BELTRÁ: I would say I was both. It’s always difficult to put a label on yourself. At the end, it’s just a label, so I hope the work speaks by itself. I definitely started on this as a photojournalist. I evolved maybe towards a documentary photographer, and I guess over the years, I’m developing more of a vision, and I want to express more conscience of how I do that, what I put out, and how I present my work. So, that’s probably where the art comes in. But at the end of the day, they’re just labels. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Right. I gotcha. I’m on your site right now. For our listeners who just joined us, we’re so thankful to have Daniel Beltrá on, the environmental photographer and great artist. We’re on his site right now, it’s danielbeltra.com. You know, I’m looking at the projects part, and you have all these wonderful projects. I’ve been scrolling through them as we’ve been chatting here. I’m on Amazon right now. I know this is hard; this is like a Sophie’s choice. Do you have a favorite project, if you were to point to one that you’ve worked on in your life? DANIEL BELTRÁ: Definitely, the work I’ve done in the Amazon is a very, very important one for me because I’ve been going to the Amazon for over a decade already, almost every year. In fact, I hope to be going back again soon, and there’s always a lot of work to be done. People ask me is this project done or finished, and I always say no, there’s so much happening, that I don’t think it will ever be finished in my life. There’s always new stories to tell, hopefully with the goal to protect that beautiful rainforest. But in particular, in 2005, I photographed the biggest drought that ever occurred in the region since we’ve had records, and that’s really probably the project that started the whole art thing, and a way of developing a vision, a mission. I do a lot of photography from the air, a lot of aerial work, and images that are more abstract and also beautiful and scary and daunting at the same time, so that project is very dear to me. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, you’re going to go back to the Amazon. So, you revisit the places you photographed. How often? Is it a yearly thing? Is it something you try to get back to on a biannual basis? What is your sort of rhythm of work and life once you’ve made a photography journal and a portrait of a certain situation or a certain region? DANIEL BELTRÁ: Again, even if I go back to the Amazon, rarely I go back to exactly the same region. The Amazon is as large as the U.S.; it’s huge in surface, so I work on the subject, but not so often I come back to the same spots. It probably would be very interesting, but as I was saying early on, it’s also a question of budgets and funding and figuring out a way to come back. For example, this last September, I was very lucky to go back to the Arctic. I had been in the Arctic 15 years before that, and I remember going in Alaska, in Barrow in an icebreaker, and not being able to go any further because the ice was covering everything. Last September I went to the Arctic, we had the lowest ice record in the summer ever, and the ice is really melting away. Lots of navigation routes are opening, and we don’t know how much longer we’re going to have ice in the summer in the Arctic, which is a pretty scary thought. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Yeah, it is. You’re relatively still, even though we were having fun at the beginning of the show talking about ages. I’m 50 years old. I don’t consider myself that old, and I know you’re younger than me. You have a long way to go and so much more to do. What are some places on your list that you have to go to in your lifetime to photograph? Where do you really want to go? What’s on the future for you? DANIEL BELTRÁ: Well, right now, I don’t know when or if that’s going to happen, but I’d love to do a big project in Greenland. I think Greenland is a bit of a canary in the coalmine with all the melting of the planet. Last year, I think they were saying that there was a surface melt in Greenland, I think it was over 93% of the ice, and so if the ice really goes in a place like Greenland, that’s going to be an incredible challenge for all of us because all this ice seeping on an island, on land, is going to really raise the sea level. If the ice melts in the Arctic, it has other implications, but it’s already floating in the water, so that doesn’t have much change when we talk about sea level. We can see what happened, for example, in Europe with Sandy last year. Definitely the big storms and the surge on sea level is going to be a problem in the future. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Yeah, and, so, Greenland is on your list, and this year you’re going to still go back to the Amazon, you said. DANIEL BELTRÁ: Yeah, I’m hoping to go back there. I went back last year working in Brazil, documenting what’s going to be the third largest dam in the world, and it’s the Belmonte project in the Amazon that was very controversial. There’s a full plan to do a bunch of more dams in the region, and so I’m very interested in working on that. I don’t know exactly how or when that’s going to happen, but I hope it can happen this year. JOHN SHEGERIAN: What are some of the effects, the positive effects, that your work creates? What are some of the catalyst effects that your work creates when people come away from having seen it? What are the results that you see from people actually observing and understanding what you’ve done with your photography? DANIEL BELTRÁ: Well, it’s difficult to quantify that. For example, having the opportunity right now to be talking with you and all your listeners is a phenomenal chance to be here and hopefully inspiring people. When I was talking about the Prince Charles Rainforest Project, we made books that were distributed for free, a million copies around the world, to document the plight of the world’s rainforest and the links between destruction and climate change. We made a 500-copy book that was given by Prince Charles to world leaders before the Copenhagen Summit, so there are definitely things that are amazing opportunities to try to have a little influence, but it’s also very difficult to quantify that, and I definitely cannot take all the credit. I work, as I said, with other organizations, with many people that are more talented than me and that are working hard. So, it’s funny. My career has taken two paths. On one hand, there’s all that big scope distribution, and then the art world is definitely a more thoughtful world, which is much more permanent. I’m very interested in that because, unfortunately, when I was only doing media work, images, they go in and out and everyone forgets about them. When you do this other kind of work, if you can put your photos in the gallery, in a museum, you have a permanence and the dialogue is there much longer. I’m very interested in that. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Let’s talk about that. We’re down to the last four minutes or so, but I want you to share, if people come on your website like I’ve asked them to, danielbeltra.com, and they view your beautiful work and they want to own a piece, do you sell the work through your website? DANIEL BELTRÁ: No. The work is sold through art galleries, and also right now I have a show at the G2 Gallery. My main gallery is in Chicago. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Perfect. So, that’s how people can access. They can go and see the galleries that your work is being exhibited at and for sale, and they can access your great work through those galleries. DANIEL BELTRÁ: Definitely. But the work is definitely available online, and it can be seen for free by everybody, and I’m very interested also in doing shows where the work is not for sale. For example, with the oil spill, we had big shows at the Seattle Aquarium, at the Long Beach Aquarium, we had shows in Europe, so I’m always very interested in the educational part of the project. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Let’s talk about that. I’m looking at the spill right now, and the pictures are both just visually gorgeous in some ways, but visually haunting in others. Sometimes they say people go to a NASCAR race, not to see the cars race, but to see the cars crash. Is there something that ever worries you about people looking at this and wanting to just see the sort of disaster that’s within? DANIEL BELTRÁ: Well, there might be a little bit of that, but I think with the work I do now, I’m trying to step away from that part. I felt, as a journalist, there was much more of that before. I think maybe there’s a strong attraction that’s even a bit sick, as you were saying. I mean, who’s actually interested in watching an accident? But at the end of the day, you can’t take your eyes away. So, there’s a bit of that maybe, but with the way I present the work now, I hope that it’s more the beauty that can spur an interest, and the fact that people sometimes approach a show and they look at the photo and they say, “This is beautiful. What is it?” Then they look at it and they’re like, “Ooh, this is an oil spill.” Sometimes I get pretty sad because of that. But it’s a different way of engaging, and hopefully it’s a way that has a longer longevity. People might be more interested in having a photo of an oil spill if it looks beautiful on the wall of their house instead of an accident that’s horrible. With that different angle, I’m hoping to engage and inspire. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You are, because I look at it, and I love the beauty of it, but then I say to myself, “Darn, this beauty came out of this disaster, and let’s not ever let that disaster happen again.” DANIEL BELTRÁ: Exactly, and that’s what I’m trying to do. One of the photos that is very dear to me in that collection is a group of pelicans that are covered in oil. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Yes, I’m looking at that right now. DANIEL BELTRÁ: And sometimes people tell me, “That’s a photo that’s different from the project. Maybe you shouldn’t show that because it’s too harsh.” For me, it’s not at all; it’s the photo that grounds the whole project. It can be beautiful, but at the end of the day, the main message is what are we doing? Are we really making sense when we go drilling places when we cannot cap the spill? We talk about the 4.9 million barrels that spilled in the Gulf and everybody says, “That’s so much.” But if you think that we consume in the U.S. only 20 million barrels per day, so every day, it’s 4 times what got spilled in the Gulf in three months. So, we have a lot to do. I don’t like to point fingers; I’ve done that before. What I said, again, it’s dialogue, it’s inspiration, and it’s hoping to find common ground and solve the problem we have. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I agree. And a shameless plug, we’re down to the last 15 or so seconds. Tell our listeners again where to buy your great work. DANIEL BELTRÁ: Well, the work right now is at the G2 Gallery in Venice in Los Angeles, and definitely the Catherine Edelman Gallery in Chicago. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Well, Daniel, you’re always welcome to come back on Green is Good to talk about one of your latest projects. We want our listeners, like you said, to go enjoy your work for free if they want, if they can’t make it to L.A. or Chicago, danielbeltra.com. Daniel, you are both an amazing artist and environmental photographer, and truly living proof that green is good. DANIEL BELTRÁ: Well, thank you very much, John. It’s been a pleasure.