Oil and Photojournalism Don’t Mix

Brown Pelican juvenile and oil boom

Juvenile Brown Pelican rests along side oil boom laid to protect beaches on Grand Isle, Louisiana three weeks after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. (Photo by Gerry Ellis/Audubon/Minden Pictures)

After many weeks – turned months – of discussions and false starts a bit over a week ago I finally boarded a flight out of PDX for New Orleans, or N’awlins as they urged me with southern politeness to say.  Over the next year, documenting the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster aftermath I hope to perfect enough southern drawl to keep their gentle smirks at bay.

The city about to celebrate 5 years of survival from Hurricane Katrina.  Five years elapsed should be an important anniversary number, but to celebrate now, on the heals of yet another disaster feels a bit eerie.  Some in the city feel it, others go about their lives like the rest of the US – pretty oblivious.  The media after, trumpeting the President’s words, has all but proclaimed this, the greatest human caused environmental disaster in the history of our planet, a done deal, little more than a clean up operation – a bit like putting out the garbage and recycling bins at week’s end.

As every cancer survivor knows the 5th anniversary is monumental.  Just down the road from N’awlins highways 23 and 1 take you to as far as you can travel in this Mississippi world of water.  That’s were the oil is.  That’s where it comes ashore.  Strange thing is – it always has.  This state IS oil.  The very big business of oil.  And the BP disaster has only brought to a head what journalists down here have known for years – oil and (photo) journalism don’t mix.

It’s important, politically critical, you understand that if you are going to try and work here – even with those who privately, way off the record, well past the third of fourth drink, despise BP and the oil culture for what they do, did and have done.  I had someone look at me with pleading eyes (which looked right through to their heart) and say, “You don’t understand, if I don’t play along, I won’t be here tomorrow, and that means I won’t be here to help you when I can.” Helping me means getting access to some glimpse of a truth.

From the Florida panhandle to Grand Isle Louisiana BP contracted cleanup crews patrol the beaches and bayous.  Standing sentry over them are “boys in blue” shirts that essentially act as BP bouncers – they enforce the no access rules.  And behind them a second defense of local sheriffs and state patrols and U.S. Coast Guard.  And invisibly behind them – BP.

Yesterday I batted 1 out of 3 with the BP boys in blue.  And 2 for 2 with the local parish sheriffs.  That means I got about 60 photos versus 600.  And that has become the challenge.  A month or so after the April 20th well explosion, President Obama called this a war on the shore and summoned a pocket full of anecdotal sound bites from the Presidential Book of War Quotes.  And since everyone down the line has treated this as a war zone in which journalists are one of the enemy.

I only wish I had signed up for the initial boot camp of propaganda the clean up contractors went through.  What were they told that so effectively slipped under their skin and ensured fear if they helped anyone with a microphone, notepad or god forbid, a camera.  One fellow in Florida finally offered to show me the innocent bits of bottle and flotsam he had collected that were iced in oil.  As I point the camera into is net, he said, “wait, wait!” with sarcasm, “let me get my boots out of the picture so they don’t know it’s me.”

Needless to say I never walk around with cameras out – that kills any hope of dialogue, discovery and disclosure – it’s like being a ninja photographer behind enemy lines.  It’s clear we have made oil a critical element of modern life – from our cars to computer – but what is very certain – oil and photojournalism don’t mix.

Tomorrow a bit more on the equipment and logistics of photographing around oil.

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