The landscapes of Spanish-born photographer Daniel Beltrá help convey the urgent need for environmental conservation in the world’s most ecologically sensitive regions.
If you talk to someone as deeply enmeshed in environmental conservation issues as Seattle-based photographer Daniel Beltrá and ask something like "Does global warming exist?", you might expect an angry, exasperated responresse. But you'd probably be surprised.
It's earnestness that you hear in Beltrá's voice, seasoned with passion and tempered with patience. He explains that the last time he was visiting the Inuit people of the Arctic, they told him they could no longer store their food in the ground, as they had been doing for countless generations. The permafrost is gone now, so their food would rot in the ground if stored there. This has never happened before, and now their way of life has changed. Perhaps forever.
Beltrá is working to change things in the only way he knows how. He is making photographs of the places and people most affected by climate change. Instead of scare tactics and guilt trips, he offers what he has seen and experienced. Beltrá leaves it up to us to decide what to make of it. He sums it up like this: "I try to translate the science into images."
Like many photographers who use images as tools for change in the world, Daniel Beltrá makes photographs that combine beauty and horror, grace and devastation. It is this juxtaposition of opposites that drives him onward. It is the tantalizing glimmer of hope for change that keeps him going. But how he got his start as a photographer is an interesting story all by itself.
Starting with a bang
"As a kid, I always liked photography," Beltrá says. Growing up in his native Spain, he always had cameras with him wherever he went.
I had two main interests: One was a passion for nature and the outdoors — I was in the Boy Scouts, going camping and spending a lot of time outdoors — and the other was photography," he says. "But I never put those two together in my mind as a profession." That is, until he was much older. He was also a member of Greenpeace France and frequently gave money to the World Wildlife Fund.
One morning in 1989, as he was getting ready to attend classes at Complutense University of Madrid, Beltrá was listening to the radio. It was around 7 a.m., and the DJ was talking about a huge explosion that had just happened near the station. Beltrá grabbed his cameras and immediately drove there. "I was one of the first on the scene," he recalls. He shot several photographs of the bombing, which was the work of Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), the Basque separatist group that was notorious for committing terrorist acts across Spain.
After he finished shooting, Beltrá drove to the Spanish News Agency, EFE, which is a wire service much like the Associated Press. Arriving at around 7:30, he ran in and flagged down the nearest person he could find. He told this editor that he had some pictures they might want to see. "But she told me, ‘Oh, I've already sent out our photographers. I'm not interested,'" Beltrá says. "She didn't even want to process the film."
I'm just another guy with a camera. I don't think I'm successful. I think it's very important to be humble and to work hard. I think I've just been lucky, and I need to keep working hard.
The lab tech processed the film, took one look at the negatives and called the director of photography. On the spot, they offered him a job. "That's when I started as a stringer for them, and soon I had a contract," Beltrá says. "From no real background, I started working as a photojournalist."
The EFE years
EFE didn't waste any time. They immediately sent Beltrá out on assignments, and he hit the ground running. "I just started full-time," he says. "From one day to the next, I found myself with a full camera kit and I was working. They sent me on small stories, like a press conference here and there, or a minor sports event. If there was the opportunity, they would pair me with one of the older guys who knew what they were doing, and send me on bigger stories. That's how I did it. I learned a lot, of course."For a while, Beltrá tried to combine work and school, but his job with EFE started to include more and more travel. Between the hours and the travel, he had to make a decision. He decided to leave college before getting his degree in biology. He hasn't looked back.
"It's a first-row ticket to life. With a camera, you can go and do anything you want. You can join the next expedition to Everest, or you can visit an aircraft carrier, or you can go into a surgery room, or you can be in the front row at a rugby match. It's the perfect excuse to do anything."
It was during his time at EFE that Beltrá made an important discovery about being a photographer. "It's a first-row ticket to life," he explains. "With a camera, you can go and do anything you want. You can join the next expedition to Everest, or you can visit an aircraft carrier, or you can go into a surgery room, or you can be in the front row at a rugby match. It's the perfect excuse to do anything."
And it was because of EFE that Beltrá was able to connect with Greenpeace and change the course of both his career and his life.
The Greenpeace connection
It wasn't long after joining EFE that Beltrá knew he wanted to do a story on Greenpeace. He had belonged to the organization since he was a child, and he thought this would be a good way to get a firsthand look at what they do. He contacted Greenpeace in 1990, and they invited him to photograph a Mediterranean survey of marine mammals. The ship was leaving in three days.
At first, his editor at EFE turned him down, but Beltrá tried negotiating. "Let's make a deal," he told the editor. "If I take two weeks of holidays and produce a good story, will you send it out on the wire?" His editor agreed, so Beltrá did a story on the Greenpeace mission and the editor kept his word. "That really opened the doors for me with Greenpeace," Beltrá says.
For the next two years Greenpeace repeatedly approached Beltrá with more assignments, and he became increasingly frustrated because he couldn't accept them. "I was stuck in EFE, and I couldn't take outside work like that," he says. So he decided to make some changes. "I ended up quitting EFE and I became a correspondent for Gamma, a French agency in Spain," he says. "Because I was on a freelance basis, this allowed me to work with Greenpeace." It turned out to be the ideal relationship.
In the air, on the ground
The pace ever since has been fierce but rewarding for Beltrá, who is on the road up to nine months of the year. It's also allowed him to explore new ways of taking pictures, especially when it comes to aerial imagery. "I never tried to be an aerial photographer," Beltrá says. "It just happened by chance."
Once, Beltrá was on a Greenpeace ship that was equipped with a small helicopter. He decided to catch a ride in the whirlybird, and when he started to shoot, he thought, Well, this is interesting. Photographing from the air gave everything a new perspective. "Something clicked in my brain, and since then I've done it a lot," he says.
Beltrá has a few suggestions for getting great images. "I shoot handheld," he offers. "I keep my body away from contacting the parts of the plane, except where I'm sitting. I try to shoot at higher shutter speeds, and I shoot a lot. In that sense, digital photography has helped tremendously. You can shoot so much more, and you get better results."
To compare, when Beltrá shoots on the ground, he'll take between 100 and 300 images a day, but when he is in the air, he might capture 3,000 to 4,000 images in the same amount of time.
This creates its own problems of image management, such as the substantial time needed to download, caption and back up. "Especially if it's a long day, I have three to five hours of work to do after shooting," Beltrá says. Using Mac laptops with Photo Mechanic and Adobe Lightroom, he downloads and backs up his images to sometimes two or three portable hard drives. Each drive is stored in a different case or piece of luggage, and sometimes Beltrá keeps one with him at all times. It may sound like overkill, but it doesn't pay to take chances with once-in-a-lifetime images when you are in remote, possibly dangerous locations.
Aerial photography has an aesthetic all its own, and Beltrá is totally entranced by it. "If you look at a burned area with some fallen trees once you are on the ground, you don't get any idea of the scale," he explains. "Once you get up in the air, it's very easy to see the scale and it's easy to see the contrast. I like to work in those borders between the pristine forests and what we cut and burn, or a mining operation and the trees. It's simple and direct, but it's also a different way of looking at things. I think we respond well to still images, and from the air things can be both beautiful and shocking.
Sometimes presenting something that is terrible in a more interesting and artistic way can make the difference in getting people to look at it or getting it published."
Even on the ground, Beltrá regularly finds himself working in extreme conditions. Two of his biggest challenges are dust and humidity. To deal with dust, he finds that he often uses zoom lenses, like the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L and the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS lenses. He carries three or four camera bodies — the Canon 5D Mark II is his current favorite — so he can mount a lens on a body in less dusty conditions and leave it on during the shoot, minimizing the risk of dust on the image sensor.
Humidity is another matter. In the tropical rainforests he visits frequently, such as the Amazon, condensation is a constant concern. It can get inside the cameras and lenses and really create problems. To counter this, at night Beltrá stores all his camera gear in either Think Tank roller bags or Pelican cases with lots of silica gel to absorb any moisture and condensation.
"At night, I try to make all the gear really dry so at least I start the next day with completely dry gear," he says. "Humidity is definitely a big problem, but I've been very lucky with my Canon cameras. I've never had a problem in the field."
The major league
As his collection of images grew, Beltrá began looking for new venues through which he could distribute his work and spread his messages of conservation. In 2005, he noticed the creation of the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP), which was formed by Cristina Mittermeier during the 8th World Wilderness Congress in Anchorage, Alaska.
Mittermeier, who is a professional photographer and trained marine biologist, saw that there was a shortage of high-quality, relevant images related to the loss of natural habitat, and felt that there was a need for a coalition of like-minded photographers.
Today, the ILCP includes such world-renowned photographers as Art Wolfe, Jim Brandenburg, Franz Lanting and Robert Glenn Ketchum, who work together to spread the word about endangered places around the world.
"From the air, things can be both beautiful and shocking. Sometimes presenting something that is terrible in a more interesting and artistic way can make the difference in getting people to look at it or getting it published."
"I contacted one of their photographers, inquiring how to become a member, but he told me you can only join ILCP by invitation, so good luck," Beltrá says. However, it wasn't long before he got a call from Mittermeier asking him to submit his portfolio. After being invited to audition into the group, Beltrá started out as an associate and then worked his way up to becoming an ILCP fellow.
"It's really been very interesting because these people are the top photographers in my specialty on the planet," Beltrá says. "So for me, it was really quite humbling and exciting to be part of this group. Many of us are trying to do the same thing: improving and promoting conservation through our art, through our images. It's exciting."
A meaningful life
In his book "The Gift," poet and essayist Lewis Hyde talked about the difference between labor and work. In basic terms, he wrote that work is what we get paid for and labor is how and why we live.
For his part, Daniel Beltrá has done an excellent job of harmonizing both work and labor in his life. He has structured his life so that he can labor for the causes he believes in and make the world a better place for everyone to treasure.He's even getting rewarded for his efforts. Last year Beltrá was given the Prince's Rainforests Project Award, sponsored by Prince Charles of England, in recognition of 20-plus years of recording the effects of deforestation and environmental devastation around the world, most notably in the Amazon. As part of the award, a limited-edition book of his images was published and given to world leaders at the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.
Some photographers find it difficult to balance married life and work, especially when that work involves traveling so many months out of the year. But for Beltrá and his wife, Shoshana, this is everyday life.
"When we're together, we're very happy. When we're not together, we miss each other, but life goes on," he says. "Like me, she's not afraid of being alone. She met me when I was already traveling the world, and I haven't changed what I've been doing. She believes in what I do, and she's very supportive."
In recent years, the distances between Daniel and Shoshana have been easier to bridge because of improved communication technology. In 2007, the last time he did an extended tour of the Southern Oceans and Antarctica on a Greenpeace ship, he had internet access 24/7. "It's way better now," he adds. "Rarely do I have a week without being able to say hello."
"I'm just another guy with a camera. I don't think I'm successful. I think it's very important to be humble and to work hard. I think I've just been lucky, and I need to keep working hard."
From his home in Seattle, Daniel Beltrá can look back on what he has accomplished and look forward to his next challenges. Although he has garnered successes that other photographers can only dream of, he has a hard time seeing that success.
"I'm just another guy with a camera," he insists. "I don't think I'm successful. I think it's very important to be humble and to work hard. I think I've just been lucky, and I need to keep working hard. As a photographer, especially for photojournalists, the majority of us are trying to raise awareness and fight for important issues. So I find myself in the position where I can have an impact. It makes me work even harder because I feel a bigger responsibility."
Beltrá pauses briefly and adds, "It's really scary what's happening in our world. If I can help with my images, that's what I want to do."
It's a first-row ticket to life. With a camera, you can go and do anything you want. You can join the next expedition to Everest, or you can visit an aircraft carrier, or you can go into a surgery room, or you can be in the front row at a rugby match. It's the perfect excuse to do anything.
IN THE LOUPE: Daniel Beltrá
Books: “Rainforests: Lifebelt for an Endangered Planet.” Working on an upcoming monograph.
Recent awards: The Prince’s Rainforests Project Award (2009), ILCP Photographer of the Month (February 2010), ABC News Person of the Week (November 2009), Global Vision Award from the Pictures of the Year International Competition (2008), World Press Photo award-winning images (2006, 2007).
Preferred equipment: Canon 5D Mark II (“Smaller cameras are nice,” Beltrá says). Lenses: 24-70mm f/2.8 L, 500mm f/4 L and 24mm f/2.8 TSE. Mac computers. Think Tank roller bags.
Personal projects: “I don’t have time for personal projects,” he says. “I want to be working on conservation projects.”
Pet peeves: So-called “wildlife” photographers using game-farm animals as models. “I think that’s so wrong,” he says. “It’s wrong for the animals. It’s wrong for all the other photographers actually working in the wild. It’s an exploitation of the animal.”
Hobbies: Hiking, being outdoors, bird watching.
Inspiration and influences: Yann Arthus-Bertrand, Edward Burtinsky, Sebastião Salgado, Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Advice to aspiring landscape photographers: “Forget about equipment. Forget about traveling to remote places. Find stories that are near your house and don’t require spending a lot of money to reach, but where you can be comfortable enough to go back several times. Shoot it a lot, edit it a lot and be tough with editing yourself.”