Shifting Perspectives With Aerial Photography

Propelled by the belief that creativity and visual storytelling are vital tools for tackling the challenges we face in the 21st Century, Tom Hegen’s aerial photography plays with perspective to raise awareness of the detrimental impact of humanity on the natural landscape.

Rather than simply telling a story about climate change, Tom is most interested two specific aspects of this; how humans engage with the earth and the repercussions of extraction.

Tom has travelled across the globe, capturing images of open-pit mines and melting glaciers. He plays with alternative perspectives to draw attention to that which we may not always recognise, with the intention of reshaping our relationship with the environment.

Although more artists are recognising the potential of aerial photography, there is a distinctly unique quality about the Munich-based artist’s work that distinguishes him from other aerial photographers.

In The Ash Pond series Tom sustains the viewers gaze with bright ocean blues that merge into dark, earthy hues, grainy textures and complex shapes and lines intersecting with one another.

On first viewing, some of the images appear like abstract paintings, and although they have a surreal quality, the urgency of their message is vital. Collectively, the series tells a story about the anthropocene, from a perspective that forces us to pause, reflect, and hopefully; act.

THE PLUS: What inspired The Ash Pond series?

Tom Hegen: The idea developed from a project I did on coal mining in Germany a couple of years ago. I wanted to continue telling this story by showing where people are disposing of burned coal’s end product. 

TP: Were you shooting from a helicopter or drone? Does the landscape influence this?

TH: This project was shot from a helicopter. For me, it doesn’t really matter whether I use a helicopter, plane or drone; the result the important thing to me. Sometimes I am limited due to the area, so I need to choose a certain technique. 

TP: Can you talk a bit about the relations between human and nature in these shots?

TH: After coal is burned in a fossil fuel power plant, the remains are pumped through pipelines into huge ponds. The ponds are used as a landfill to prevent the release of ash into the atmosphere. Ash ponds use gravity to settle out large particulates from power plant wastewater. Often, the ash is mixed with chemicals to support neutralisation, that’s where the vivid colours come from.

Although the use of ash ponds in combination with air pollution controls decreases the amount of airborne pollutants, the structures pose serious health risks for the surrounding environment as chemicals in the ash leach into groundwater and surface waters. The Ash Pond Series shows a place where a resource we use for creating energy is in its very last stage. These are the left-overs from consumption.

TP: Does the series speak to or reflect ongoing conversations about the climate crisis?

TH: I would say it reflects on our society more generally. I do look at the chain of consumption – all the by-products that are created while extracting and using resources from the earth. It’s more the human and nature relationship that I am interested in, the climate crises is a result of that.

TP: Did you have a pre-desired outcome with the photographs and was it accurate?

TH: I had something in mind when I visited those places because I knew that the ash ponds are a mix of dirt, water and chemicals. So I expected to see something like a giant barrel of mixed, dirty colours. The colour and structure give the photographs almost a painterly quality like someone was pouring and mixing colours in an expressionist way.

TP: Do you think aerial photography requires a specific skill set or character?

TH: What it requires is a certain focus to reduce and finding visual potential in a landscape. Aerial photography has the power of stepping away from an object and the opportunity to show a lot in one frame. But this makes it even harder to compose a good image.

TP: How does your role as a graphic designer influence your photography or vice versa?

TH: The fact that I am trained as a graphic designer very much influences the way I work. A lot of my photographs are based on some visual art rules like colour contrast, the rule of thirds or building up patterns. In a way, I still work as a graphic designer, starting with a blank piece of paper in giving it a face by visual structure.