Visually illustrating climate change and global environmental shifts is no easy task. But for photographer Daniel Beltrá, documenting humanity’s effect on our planet has been a lifelong passion. To date he’s photographed the polar regions, the Amazon, Iceland, Greenland, and even the BP oil spill.
From a young age, Beltrá loved to be outdoors, but it wasn’t until he was given a camera that he realized how photography could change people’s perceptions. “Photography became a tool to expose what’s happening in the planet, and all the aggressions that the natural world was suffering from us—even though we are supposedly the world’s most intelligent species,” he says.
Over the course of his career, Beltrá has discovered a surprisingly effective way to get his message across: abstract, aerial images that, for him, have more impact than traditional storytelling methods. “These photographs are painterly, abstract, beautiful, and also scary, depending on what they’re depicting,” he says. “It helps to have a certain separation from these big issues—deforestation, global warming, climate change, etc. I find that being up and a bit away helps you to understand the problem.”
He says that it’s common for people to view his photographs and not know what they’re looking at. But for him, that’s an advantage. “Images that have that kind of tension, where at first you don’t even know what you’re looking at, but then you feel intrigued … [It] ends up creating a relationship to the subject that’s a bit more deep.”
Beltrá’s projects require a lot of planning and are heavily weather-dependent. He works in a small, chartered airplane, shooting through a narrow window behind the pilot. Throughout the flight, he shoots almost nonstop, using up to three cameras at a time.
While Beltrá has spent a lot of time perfecting his technique and looking for extraordinary compositions, there are still a lot of factors—such as the motion of the airplane—to contend with.
“Planes are complicated because you add speed to the equation, you cannot slow down,” he says. “Composing is not that easy—it happens very fast. I always tell people that it just goes from my eyes to my fingers to my brain. I don’t even really know how it happens.”
Sometimes, he says, he doesn’t even fully realize what he’s captured until he reviews the photographs later. “There are images that I discover later when I edit, that I think, Wow, this is incredible,” he says, “but I don’t even remember taking it.”
Beltrá views his relationship with the pilot as a collaboration. “I always say that the copyright should be shared—they definitely do a lot of the work,” he says. “I try and meet with them before the flight so they can understand what I’m trying to achieve.” If, for instance, Beltrá sees a stunning landscape while in the air, the pilot will loop back around to help him get the shot.
Fortunately, Beltrá’s relentless dedication has been rewarded more than a few times, winning him Wildlife Photographer of the Year and even placing one of his books in the hands of Prince Charles.
But his primary aim is to teach people about the dangers of climate change.
“The important part is to make people understand that we’re all in this together,” he says. “At the end of the day, we all still live on the same planet—we all drink the same water, breathe the same air. I don’t think there’s anybody that wouldn’t want to keep that healthy.”
See more of Daniel Beltrá’s work on his website.