It’s a little past 2pm on a warm April afternoon, 2012, six years to this day to be exact. My pilot, Conrad Marcano, is on the radio informing the closest air traffic control tower that we’re within range of the airspace covering the McKittirick oil and gas field in western Kern County. Wearing a second headset, I listen in to the tower’s acknowledgement of our presence over the San Joaquin valley in California, a vital bit of information that will be relayed to all other pilots in the area.
Visibility drops to about 6-8 miles from where we sit, though you couldn’t tell if you were on the ground. A minute passes before the surrounding landscape of agricultural fields disappear to make way for patches of barren desert like land forms, devoid of the lively color you would associate with sunny California. We have now reached the perimeter of a sprawling landscape, pock marked by hundreds upon hundreds of pump jacks, snaking gas lines and other infrastructure set up for the extraction of oil. There are no welcome signs, or any warnings of any kind. At an altitude of 3000 feet the scenery is breathtaking and foreboding.
We’ve finally arrived in Kern county the playground of some of the biggest oil companies like Chevron Corp and Area Energy LLC, as yields of an average of 303 million barrels of oil per day literally helping their owners and shareholders make money in their sleep.
This will also be my playground for the remainder of this flight, and two more, in the hopes of producing photographs that focus on the Oil and gas industry, and its role in the use of water for its survival.
We fly over various industrial systems and mind-boggling transformations of the landscape, often banking to passenger’s right that allowed me a better view of the details on the ground. As we scouted the fields a feeling of guilt came over me as I was wondering that somehow I was complicit in the making of all of this. Even when I lived in Dubai, where I often came into visual contact of the oil and gas industry’s infrastructure, I never imagined witnessing such an awe-inspiring, yet, somehow tragic state of the world’s natural landscape.
I let go of that thought as soon as I begin to locate areas with photographic interest from the thin airplane window. The topography is as I had remembered it when I first began sourcing various types of maps including Google Earth’s dated images, prior to taking the flight. It’s tempting and probably less risky and expensive to have used the satellite imagery as a way to make my point, but there is no comparison to having a first hand look at the state of our world.
Using this kind of planning method gave me, and the pilots I worked with, a way to previsualize and understand the objective. But nothing prepared us for the elements like the dense, cold, metallic air you breathe in, or the disorienting smells of the industry that clings to your skin and clothes as soon as I opened the airplane window to begin photographing.
If there’s anything I most cherish during the time I spent living in California, it is the gorgeous, seductive sunlight. I snap a few photographs as we circle a particular site that is bathed in this light. The images on the digital camera back are giving me some good results, but the composition is not where I want it to be. I ask Conrad to circle again. He acknowledges and we bank a little more steeply. He is careful not to overdo it or the airplane might stall (reduce the amount of lift) due to the angle, and force us to crash.
When you are working from a moving aircraft the ground moves so fast that you need to take several shots during one circle made by the plane. If you continuously look through the viewfinder as you circle, you risk the chance of vertigo and throwing up. Combine that with the sweltering heat and dense industrial air pollution and you really hope for it to be over sooner than later.
As I finish photographing one site, I quickly scan the coordinates from the pilot map on my lap, and direct the pilot towards the next area of interest. We hit turbulence and Conrad forces the airplane to climb another 1000 feet, as he does his best to maneuver us out of any danger and over to the next location .
Suddenly we hear the air traffic control tower over the headset, informing us about a twin-engine plane that is also in the airspace and has for some reason lost radio contact. So we, and any pilots in the area, are on high alert to keep a look out for the missing plane. From the ground looking up we typically see an enormous sky, in which it’s impossible to miss a plane in clear weather. When you’re in the sky, the ground can be very distracting as you’re constantly in motion, which makes it very difficult to spot a small plane, let alone one that’s gone missing.
For the next five minutes or so, Conrad and I continue to look around out of the front and side windows, like you would when you are merging and looking for road traffic behind or to the side of you. Conrad having more experience in a situation like this is quicker to spot the lost plane, which is about 1500 feet below us heading due east. He quickly radios it in to the tower. Within minutes the tower confirms they have both visual and radio contact with the missing plane. Our plane roars on to the next site.
The resulting photographs made from the this and two subsequent flights, gave me a rare, and raw insight into the world that’s constantly being shifted and shaped by massive industries, such as the oil and gas industry. From landscape-altering extraction and refining processes to the dumping of waste water into colorful toxic ponds that often mask their true nature for local and migratory birds and animals, it is hard for me to not come away with a negative perspective on the future of our only home that allows us to live without artificial and limited means.
Many of the vistas you see in these images depict the dominance of human ingenuity and influence of our incessant and unsustainable activity on the climate and environment. These photographs for me, further reinforces the view of the Anthropocene period that we humans are experiencing in the life of this planet.
As an artist I was constantly in flux with my decision between wanting to expose the industry for what it is and remaining a neutral observer. The thought of all that aviation fuel being burned, just to transport and provide me with a bird’s eye view of this side of the world, helped me take the latter position.
Just as with all my other works, this particular series would not be a condemnation of the industry, but a way for me to say that, together we are collectively responsible for all of this, and if there’s a way for you and I to rethink our position, then there’s a further chance for positive dialogue and action.
Six years ago I realized that I may not be able to change the world, but that I could certainly try and change my direction in life in order to simplify it, and minimize as much of my own impact on our precious planet — I haven’t looked back since.
So how about you? What positive changes have you made that you think has helped to lessen the impact on the environment?