Days after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig erupted in April 2010, Spanish-born environmental photographer Daniel Beltrá, on assignment from Greenpeace, flew to Louisiana, chartered a Cessna, and strapped on his camera. Two thousand feet above the Gulf of Mexico, Beltrá witnessed one of the worst environmental catastrophes in history—the sunken BP rig gushing hundreds of millions of gallons into the ocean.
Beltrá's initial assignment turned into his own monthlong project. In the dozen subsequent flights he took over the Gulf, Beltrá captured some of the most memorable images of the disaster: marble-like slicks of brown, orange, and red (some fluorescent due to chemical dispersants, he suspects); black smoke rising off controlled burning areas; boats with iridescent wakes. The images, in their abstractness, exude a terrifying beauty. "I love images when it's not very clear what is happening; it creates an interaction with a viewer," he says.
An image of oil-drenched pelicans won Beltrá the prestigious Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year award in 2011. Now, after the photographs have toured the globe in several exhibitions, Beltrá is releasing them in a book titled Spill. Wary of the abstract images being categorized as fine art, Beltrá doesn't want his work to exist in a vacuum. "I'd rather have the work seen by a lot of people, hoping to inspire a dialogue," he says.
Though the spill occurred four years ago, the effects are still being felt. In June, BP began paying medical claims to those sickened by the spill. In July, researchers found lesions on the bodies of fish.
Currently Beltrá is documenting shrinking ice caps in the Arctic Circle, observing the toll of global warming firsthand. He hopes his images will be a wake-up call, adding, "What we do makes a difference."