Tom Hegen’s aerial photography explores the impact of human intervention on natural environments. His latest project, photographed on a DJI drone, documents salt production across Europe
Between 6 April and 18 April 2018, theprintspace gallery in east London will showcase two new bodies of work by DJI Drone Photography Award winners Tom Hegen and Markel Redondo. Two films, one of each project, offer a glimpse behind the scenes.
When DJI launched its Drone Photography Award on British Journal of Photography in late-2017, it called for project ideas that would make creative use of a drone to explore new photographic possibilities. In capturing subject matters impossible to reach on foot, the drone-shot work would open the viewer’s eyes to new possibilities, making them consider the world from an alternative perspective. The Salt Series does just that.
Captured by DJI Drone Photography Award winner Tom Hegen, using a DJI Phantom 4 Pro, The Salt Series documents salt production facilities across Europe. “The production of sea salt is one of the oldest forms of human intervention in natural spaces,” says Hegen “but we rarely ask where it actually comes from and how it is being produced.” With the use of a drone, Hegen was able to fly above some of Europe’s largest salt production sites and reveal the intricate process that many take for granted.
The images that feature in The Salt Series were taken with the camera pointing directly downwards. The resulting photographs combine vivid colours and geometric shapes to create a series of abstract stills that fall somewhere between art and photography.
Hegen is one of two winners of the DJI Drone Photography Award and will join Markel Redondo in exhibiting his work at theprintspace gallery in April. In the interview that follows Hegen discusses the appeal of abstract photography, the creative value of using a drone and how he hopes The Salt Series will provoke discussion.
How did the concept for The Salt Series come about?
As a photographer, I am interested in the relationship between man and nature. I focus on landscapes that have been heavily transformed by human intervention and document the marks that we have left on the earth’s surface in order to meet our daily needs. The Salt Series grew out of this.
Why does the process of salt production make a compelling subject topic?
The extraction of sea salt is one of the oldest forms of human landscaping and it is the oldest method of salt production. In Europe, it dates back to antiquity, some 6,000 years ago. Salt is a raw material that is now part of our everyday lives, but we rarely ask where it actually comes from and how it is being produced. The Salt Series explores artificial landscapes where nature is channelled, regulated and controlled.
Tell us about the salt production facilities that you photographed – why are artificially created ponds so crucial to salt production?
Sea salt production sites are found all over the Mediterranean coast and are usually located around shallow shorelines. The artificially-created ponds shown in The Salt Series are one of the core elements in sea salt production. Workers extract salt water from the sea to create shallow ponds. The sun and wind then evaporates most of the water, leaving behind water with a high salt concentration, also known as brine. Each salt pond has a unique salt density and the colour of the water indicates the salinity of the individual pond. Micro-organisms change their hues as the salinity of the ponds increase. This microscopic algae, also known as the dunaliella, is eaten by tiny shrimp. As the water becomes too salty, the shrimps disappear, causing the algae to proliferate and the colour of the ponds to intensify. The colours can vary from lighter shades of green to vibrant red. Once the ponds have dried out, a crust of salt is left behind. Workers then harvest the salt by delicately lifting it up from the floor. In many salt production sites this step is still done by hand.
Visually, what was the appeal of photographing these ponds?
The strong contrasts and geometric shapes of the salt ponds remind me of abstract paintings. Our need to arrange everything geometrically in order to regulate and have control makes us all, in a sense, designers of our own environment. I see myself as a curator, framing the artworks that have been created by the presence of humans.
Why is human intervention in natural spaces something that interests you?
I am interested in the concept of the Anthropocene. It is a term used by scientists which theorises that humans, in recent centuries, have become one of the most important factors influencing the biological, geological and atmospheric processes on Earth. Some of the most significant changes in the Anthropocene, include, climate change, the ozone hole in the Antarctic, rapidly rising sea levels, and landscape changes caused by river shifts or the degradation of raw materials. In my photography, I explore the origin and scale of that idea in an effort to understand the dimensions of man’s intervention in natural spaces and to direct attention toward how humans can take responsibility.
What appeals to you about drone photography?
I am attracted by the abstraction that comes with the change of perspective; seeing something familiar from a new vantage point that you are not used to. A drone just enables you to see more.
In what ways does using a drone expand your creative potential as a photographer?
Aerial photography allows you to see things that are not visible from the ground. I use a drone when it adds value to the narrative and opens up new creative possibilities, but I never use one just for the sake of it. Over the last few years, multicopters have become more reliable and easier to use. They have democratised aerial photography. That said, operating a drone still requires practice and if you want to make a successful aerial photography project you need to learn about the technique.
How important is colour in the photographs that you take? The photographs in the series are distinct in their vibrancy…
The colours add to the abstraction and aestheticisation of the photographs. I use colour as a language to inspire people and hopefully make them reflect on what they see. I hope to provoke the viewer to question what it is that they are looking at and leave them to reflect. I can then add additional information like written words or data visualizations to ideally make the viewer explore the theme on a deeper level.
The Salt Series is being exhibited at the DJI Drone Photography Award exhibition at theprintspace gallery throughout April. The exhibition is open to the public between 6 April and 18 April, between 9:00 am and 7:00 pm Monday to Friday.
Join us on Thursday 05 April at the private view. Tickets are free but limited, so book now to avoid disappointment!
The DJI Drone Photography Award is a DJI competition supported by British Journal of Photography. DJI is the world’s leading manufacturer in high-end drones. Please click here for more information on sponsored content funding at British Journal of Photography.