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Don’t Turn Away

Colin Finlay photographs the consequences of climate change. by Caroline Pham
July 15, 2014

Examining the work of acclaimed photojournalist Colin Finlay often evokes a curious awe—surreal, color-drenched photographs that could easily pass for the swirling handiwork of a painter. They’re beautiful. It’s only when the subjects of Finlay’s work are revealed that the sentiment turns to one of shock.

See, Finlay photographs a particularly grim subject—the destruction of our planet. Each work in his striking aerial series displays the stunning results of climate change and irresponsible human activity. For this, he has spent decades traveling the world, training his lens on
 vast areas of environmental ruin to draw the public’s attention to the rapidly deteriorating state of our Earth. One of his biggest challenges is access: Some are in hard-to-get-to locations. Others are blocked by the facilities, governments, or companies responsible for the damage. So Finlay takes to the skies, repressing his fear of heights to hang out of helicopters, photographing the devastation below.

He communicates a combination of marvel and dread—admiring the bluish desert oasis of the Bahamas during the full moon while capturing the waters being slowly sucked off the reefs.

“The only way to access these places is through the helicopter. Really, it’s the best way to see the overall impact,” Finlay says. “From the ground, how do I convey a 2-billion-gallon tailing pond? It’s just not possible.”

Though Finlay has a rough sense of what he’s going to photograph before up in the air, nothing prepares him for the moments when the helicopter door slides open. “There are perspectives that are only going to come from committing to that seat in the helicopter, opening up the door, and looking at the vastness of what’s below,” Finlay says.

When he thinks about his travels, he communicates a combination of marvel and dread—admiring the bluish desert oasis of the Bahamas during the full moon while capturing the waters being slowly sucked off the reefs, or the extraordinary aerial view of the monstrous, melting glaciers disappearing in Iceland.

It’s an odd juxtaposition, Finlay knows, that out of such environmental devastation can come magnificent images, but both the beauty and ambiguity of his photographs serve to provoke deeper, and more difficult, questions and conversation.

“We need to be able to look at it. And we need to not be able to turn away. That’s my job as a photographer, to make sure that they don’t turn away.”

Melting Glaciers, Iceland: Land that had been covered in ice since before 1550 is now being revealed. Melting glacial ice is freeing volcanic magma from deep below the ground, and as ice sheets continue to shrink, scientists believe that we will see more eruptions in Alaska, Patagonia, and Antarctica.

Valley of 10,000 Smokes, Alaska, U.S.: In 1912, the Novarupta volcano erupted, spewing 100 times more ash than Mount St. Helens did in its unforgettable 1980 eruption, and covering 40 square miles of the glacial valley in 700 feet of ash.

African Silt Travels to the Reefs of the Bahamas: Desertification of both the Sahara and the Sahel on the African continent is causing silt to travel westward, settling on and slowly choking the reefs of Grand Cay island. The limestone reefs date back to the Jurassic Period.

Lake Magadi, Kenya: Tata Chemicals’ manufacturing facility at Lake Magadi produces soda ash, used in glassmaking and laundry detergent. The company has proposed a massive expansion into adjoining Lake Natron, the breeding ground for three-quarters of the world’s nearly endangered Lesser Flamingoes.

Tar Sands, Keystone Pipeline Origin, Alberta, Canada: Processing oil leached from tar sands generates about
 two to four times more greenhouse gases per barrel than conventionally produced oil. The tar sands leak chemicals into the soil and water, wrecking vast areas of boreal forest. Canada accounts for one-fourth of the original boreal forest remaining on earth.

Aluminum Bauxite Tailing Ponds, Texas, U.S.: Between 1967 and 1979, an estimated 1,223,755 pounds of mercury were released into Texas’s Lavaca Bay, and eventually linked to Alcoa, an aluminum manufacturer. Lavaca Bay is the nation’s largest aquatic federal Superfund site.

Photos Copyright 2014 ColinFinlay.com

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