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Guest #mycarryID :: Conservation Photographer
Conservation photographer Daniel Beltrá works on the frontier, always there when things go wrong. Camera ready. His work chronicles attacks on wildlife and nature, calculated or accidental, and is deftly shot from the land or soaring high-above.
His photography has won him many awards and accolades – even appearing in Al Gore’s Inconvient Truth – but it’s the work that drives Daniel. A work that encourages people across the world to talk about important global environmental issues. And we dig that. And snapped up the opportunity to learn more about his work and the gear he carries that makes it possible…
As a world-class photographer you must carry some interesting gear! Can you give us some insight into what makes up your Carry ID?
2 Nikon D810 cameras
Think Tank Pixel Pocket Rocket with memory cards
2L water bladder
Rite in the Rain notebook + pencil
Arc’teryx Gore-Tex jacket
Think Tank Pixel Pocket Rocket with memory cards
2L water bladder
Awesome carry ID! But if you were forced to choose only 3 items, what would you choose and why?
All of my photo gear, ha! It’s all super essential. If you want things outside of that…the head light is something that I always carry because I spend a lot of time in very remote locations and I start working very early or very late and I need a headlamp, normally with a red filter. It allows me to find my gear, but also be less seen. For example, if I’m working around animals, many don’t pick up red light.
Second, I always carry a Kindle because I love reading. I remember, years ago, I went on an expedition in Congo and I didn’t have it and I brought with me three or four books. I read everything very quickly because I had nothing to do at night, and I was just going crazy – changing, exchanging books with anybody I found along the way.
And my iPhone for music! I love music! It helps me relax. If I’m jet-lagged and when I’m travelling like crazy, I just need a little bit of music at a really low volume and that relaxes my brain. If not, I’m just already thinking about what’s happening on the shoot the next day, where I’m going, what I’m doing. It’s just tougher to sleep.
Also I like to play a lot of music from where I’m going. So for example, in Brazil I play a lot of Brazilian music and more classical or samba or bossa nova…stuff like that. I like to try to immerse myself in culture where I’m going so if I cannot read books about that place, I’m going to take a look at the work of photographers and it’s kind of setting the mood of what you’re going to be doing.
As far as your work – which is awesome by the way – you fly all over the world. Any favourite places?
The next one? [chuckles] –– I don’t know. There’s always a bit of a sad twist when I photograph because I go to places that are beautiful like the Amazon for example but I’m normally working on the frontier with things that are getting destroyed. I remember many years ago, I went to Peru and I absolutely loved their weather! It was a gorgeous country. And last year, I went to Greenland to photograph ice caps melting – the first time I went to Greenland and I thought it was stunning, but it’s sometimes…when you look at your work, the images created are really beautiful even if you showcase something that’s pretty sad.
One nugget of advice for new conservation photographers?
In the beginning, work near your home. If you try and buy the best gear and travel the furthest, to say the Amazon, you won’t be able to compete with seasoned photographers who’ve spent a great deal of time there. Shoot the stories in your backyard, your community, where you have access and contacts and that’s the way to build a career.
I’m curious. Have you ever had any run-ins with individuals trying to stop you during your work? With the big oil spills for example?
There’s been many times. The Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill, Louisiana, for instance. In the air, they set limitations for how long we could fly and we couldn’t fly below 3,000 feet. We couldn’t have access to many of the beaches. I remember we had a funny one: we were on the beach getting images, very early in the morning, and the local police comes in and says, “You cannot be here!”. “We’re members of the press,” we said. Five minutes later, the sheriff department arrives and says, “You can’t be here. You need to get permission and it’s given by the army and there’s a command center set up by the army in Louisiana”. We head out there and the army tells us, “No! No! We’re not giving the permission. It’s the center organized by BP that’s giving the permission”. At the end of the day, members of the press were authorized by the people responsible for the spill, BP.
Can you imagine, we’re not authorized to be on the beach. They told us that they would organize a beach trip for us later and I saw the cleanest beaches in Louisiana. Definitely, there’s many times that happened. And if we talk about working in the Amazon, there’s many, many places where we’re not wanted and so there are all kinds of ways to try and figure out how to work without getting into too much trouble. There’s a lot of violence now, especially for local people. There’s literally hundreds of people getting killed in Brazil…so it’s for protesting for environmental issues only.
It’s pretty scary. But you know, we always say, “As gringos arriving in a situation like this. It’s definitely way easier than being a local.”
Tell me more about working in the Amazon…
Honestly, it’s scary and complicated to work in the Amazon, but I can tell you a funny anecdote. One funny thing that I’ve done many times is when we were driving with the pick-up truck and we’re in an area where they started logging illegally and there’s nobody around. We’re careful not to have anybody when we get out and start photographing. Normally I would take a small bag with me and only one camera and I start taking photos. And if I’m out there and somebody arrives or my driver sees somebody, he just honks. When that happens, I put the camera in the backpack and I take a toilet paper roll and I put it under my arm and I just walk to the car. The guys are like, “You can’t be here! What are you doing?” and they look at me and see the paper and say, “Get out of here!”. No other questions asked. As soon as they see you with that, that’s the professional trick. Hopefully, they’ll not read it on your blog [laughs].
“Shoot the stories in your backyard, your community, where you have access and contacts and that’s the way to build a career.“
Yeah! That’s fantastic! And funny…
There are many stories that are probably more impactful than this. I’ll tell you another one.
For example, we were in Argentina, it was southern Argentina. I was going to start a big campaign with Greenpeace documenting the Southern Patagonian Ice Field but I arrived some days before with some colleagues who went to the Upsala Glacier, which is a bit of a tourist destination out there. The night we arrived, I’m talking with the workers and talking about climate change – if it is happening or not, and if they’re seeing any changes here, and one of the guys said, “Let me show you something”. And he went back and he brings a very old newspaper clipping that shows a black and white photo of the glacier. He said, “If you compare this to where it is right now, it’s just gone, gone…so far away”. And so, that gave me an idea, “Where was this photo taken?” and he’s like, “You need to hike six to seven hours”. The weather has been terrible for like two months. We haven’t seen the glacier once and I only have that night. “Let’s give it a shot”, and at three in the morning, another guy and myself did the hike. We arrive to the view point. It was sunny, it was absolutely spectacular! And later I managed to get access to the original black and white photo. When you compare those two negatives, it’s just…it’s just absolutely shocking. So that photo that I took was published on the front page of Clarín, which is one of the biggest papers in Argentina – that was there. They should have known the story like everyone else. That image went all around the world. Al Gore used it in “An Inconvenient Truth”. It got published a lot. So that was luck and insistence and I’m always trying, that’s definitely a good one for photography.
“There’s always a bit of a sad twisting when I photograph because I go to places that are beautiful like the Amazon for example but I’m normally working on the frontier with things that are getting destroyed.”
Wow! That’s so damn real. And shocking. Totally shocking. Is that your favourite photograph?
I would have to say the pelicans just because I got a group of pelicans covered in oil because I won the Wildlife Photographer of the Year, which is the most important contest in nature and conservation and I find it pretty incredible that each contest is held by the BBC and the National History Museum in London and the oil spill was made by a British company. And I won a big award photo. It was like winning the lottery. Definitely gave a very big push to the story that I thought was crucial to tell. It’s funny because it’s not a photo from the air. My work is mostly from the air.
Yeah, I have noticed it. I have seen the pelicans on your website. They’re beautiful! But it’s incredibly sad too.
It is, it is! I like images that make you think of it. There’s always a relation between beauty and what’s behind. Sometimes, people even tell you, “Why do you make something so horrible look beautiful”. I’m not trying to make it beautiful, but it just happened like that and then I think, starting my career went from photojournalism, documentary and now I’m more into fine art. If somebody hangs this in the wall of a museum and it’s still there for many years, more people get to see them, more people get to talk about it. Even if they are attracted to the…because it looks beautiful. Once they think about it, they read the caption, they’re going to be thinking about something else which is really what motivates me.
Totally! To have that beauty draws your attention and gives it a long life span through which you can translate an important message. What’s next for you? What’s the next adventure?
I’m putting out a book on forests… again, and I’m working on a book that I should have done a while ago. I’ve spent a lot of time on the world tropical forest and the impact that we’re having on the forest and the link that deforestation has to global warming is extremely direct. Definitely, I’m going to work on that. I’ve very interested in water and drought and all that’s been happening. At the end of the day, many of the subjects I photograph, they all turn around the same pot. What we’re doing to the planet, we burn more fossil fuels and we burn the forest and there’s global warming and there’s drought… I’ve never done any work on poaching. I’d love to do some work on poaching, for example, but I don’t have a clear plan right now. It’s scary because at the end of the day, we’re one more in the list of big animals.
Any idea of a date when the book would be released?
No, because it’s still finishing up the design and I need to get a publisher, but I’m excited about that.
Excellent! Dan, it’s been an absolute pleasure.