Man’s Impact On Planet Earth Is Destructive, But It Sure Looks Pretty

Or at least it does through the lens of aerial photographer Tom Hegen.

Man’s Impact On Planet Earth Is Destructive, But It Sure Looks Pretty

Tom Hegen’s photos are breathtaking. The colours are vivid; the patterns, eye catching. Every single one of them you’d consider a beauty. Until you look closer. Until you read Hegen’s captions, do you realise that the visually-stunning are actually scars: ugly blemishes left behind by mankind as we prioritise industry and industrialisation.

From aboard a helicopter, the German photographer has reminded us that when mining coal, heavy metals like arsenic, copper and lead leach from rocks and soil; that meltwater and not just calved ice is contributing to rising sea levels; that while aquaculture is efficient at feeding the world’s growing population, large fisheries can impact biodiversity and pollute the environment. And Hegen does it all with such finesse that even photos of salt ponds look like pastel-hued, Rothko-inspired paintings.

The research-driven photographer chats with us about his work depicting human-altered landscapes.

Acid mine drainage, where heavy metals like arsenic, copper and lead leach from rocks and soil, has a long-lasting impact on water supplies and the aquatic ecosystem.
Polluted water on the ground of a coal mine, Germany, 2016 – Tom Hegen

Why aerial photography rather than shooting from close-up to depict environmental impact?

It’s a compelling way to document the influences of human presence on earth. My work is very much research driven, and I like to inspire people by telling stories through aerial photography. There are two main reasons why I choose to photograph from the air. First of all – you just see more. Shooting at an altitude provides an overview of a subject that wouldn’t be really visible from the ground. Second, I like the fact that I can create [the illusion of] proximity by stepping away from the object. It’s a powerful contrast.

Your photos are beautiful. Why capture visual beauty rather than allowing the ugliness of the situation come through?

In my eyes, people don’t like to look at ugly things. That’s why I use stylistic elements of abstraction and aestheticization in my aerial photography to draw attention to environmental issues. I aim to get the viewers to focus on issues they usually would not pay attention to. In this way, I hope to raise awareness of environmental problems. But background information is always important to deliver more in-depth insights into a topic.

The production of sea salt is one of the oldest forms of human intervention in natural spaces. The sea salt comes from the natural evaporation of seawater from artificial ponds. Although the industry has taken over large swathes of land around the world, salt ponds and marshes are an important habitat for birds, shellfish and micro-organisms.
Evaporation ponds for sea salt production, Spain, 2018 – Tom Hegen
Large quantities of raw materials are needed to construct growing cities and infrastructure. Quarrying changes a landscape’s aesthetics and topography even as it impacts drainage patterns and causes air pollution from dust and particulates.
Stone deposit site in an open quarry, Germany, 2016 – Tom Hegen

You’ve done over a dozen series, photographing different aspects of man’s influence on our planet’s health. Has working on any series opened your eyes or changed your views on an issue?

Every one of my series tells an exciting and sometimes disturbing story about how we impact our planet. Having seen so many different places and looking deeper into how we interact with our environment, it sometimes [discourages] me from hoping too much that we as a global society will be eager to make changes.

How much research do you do before you begin a series?

My photography projects are very much research driven. I do a lot of research on the subject before taking the actual photos. I am always planning my projects a good deal of time before the actual production starts. Preparation is really important when it comes to aerial photography. It helps for a safe and successful aerial production. I basically work with a four-step-method of research, concept, execution and evaluation.

The Dutch horticulture sector is the world’s market leader in flowers, plants and bulbs, with farmers exporting some two billion tulips every year. Once the tulips are in full bloom, the farmers run cutting machines through the fields, lopping off the colourful flower heads. This allows the remaining energy of the plant to be directed back to the bulb, which helps it bloom better and stronger.
Tulip fields near Amsterdam, the Netherlands, 2017 – Tom Hegen
While fish farms are an efficient alternative to wild fisheries, they are often criticised for polluting the environment — from antibiotics, discarded nutrients and faeces that settle on the seabed — impacting biodiversity and spreading disease. Aquaculture is the most rapidly expanding food industry in the world, accounting for 44 percent of fish produced for human consumption in 2014.
Fish farms in the Mediterranean Sea, Croatia, 2017 – Tom Hegen

The scale of each shoot must be logistically challenging, not to mention the costs involved.

Yeah as mentioned, planning and preparation are key. Also, most of my projects are self-initiated, so there is no client involvement. But my work sells very well as fine art prints in limited editions which gives me the freedom to invest in new projects.

Do you consider yourself an artist of an environmentalist?

I see myself as a visual storyteller that uses art and documentation in his work. However, I do not judge how we are treating our planet. I’d much rather generate awareness of environmentally relevant topics. In my opinion, our society has great potential to develop sustainably. It’s just that too often we do not take those opportunities.

Often milky turquoise in appearance, glacial meltwater comes from glacial melt. Recent satellite monitoring has revealed that 70 percent of Greenland’s contributions to sea level rise comes from meltwater, not ice.
Meltwater pools on top of the Arctic Ice Sheet, Greenland, 2018 – Tom Hegen
Located 250km north of the Arctic Circle, Greenland’s UNESCO-listed Ilulissat Icefjord is covered with floating brash and massive ice. Icebergs that break from the glacier are often so large they are unable to float down the fjord and lay stuck at the bottom of the water. Apart from Antarctica, more glacial ice is calved into the ocean here than anywhere else in the world.
Whales swimming around an iceberg near Ilulissat, Greenland, 2018 – Tom Hegen

How did you get into photography?

I studied Communication Design in Germany and the UK. Photography was part of my studies, but it was also my passion. I started with classic landscape photography but soon realised that those sugar-coated shots did not represent their real environment. I began to question the term “landscaping”. As a consequence, I now focus on landscapes that show the impact of human presence on earth.

Would a younger you have ever imagined travelling the world, photographing our impact on it?

Hmm… maybe not. I would have probably seen myself more in a design agency, but I am very happy that it turned out the way it is now.

Fine art prints of Hegen’s work are available at tomhegen.de.

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