Piloting a motor-powered paraglider while minding changing wind and weather conditions, New Orleans-based photographer Ben Depp has spent three years soaring above South Louisiana’s swamps and vanishing coast in search of vivid views of a rapidlychanging eroding coastline. The Bayou’s End series documents the scale of the ecological effects of industrialization, saltwater intrusion and rising waters. But beyond its meaningful contribution to the ongoing dialogue on Louisiana’s wetland loss, the work transcends its documentary context with painterly compositions that possess an uncommon and startling abstract beauty.
More than an ordinary aerial surveyor, Depp’s view is a personalized one, recalling earlier examinations of the face of America by such masters as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. “I spend hours at a time in the air,” says Depp, “waiting to capture the spaces where the geometric patterns of human enterprise — canals, oil platforms, pipelines and roads — collide with nature’s organic forms.”
While wetlands aerial images taken from satellite or plane offer a distanced, more subjective view, Depp flies at a unique perspective, from as high as 2,000 feet above ground, to nearly skimming the earth’s surface. His photographs alternately present a plethora of detail — distinct marsh grasses, living cypress side by side with trees killed by saltwater intrusion — while capturing the abstract forms created by such features as sedimentary patterns made by freshwater diversions from the Mississippi River. Flooded cane fields, a wrecked and abandoned fishing trawler, ravaged shorelines. In Depp’s imagery, the beautiful and the ugly are given equal time in this powerful meditation on natural beauty and the environment.
Judith Turner-Yamamoto: How did you get your start in photography? What first drew you to the field?
Ben Depp: I discovered photography while attending community college in North Carolina, where I was studying graphic design. My family had relocated to Waxhaw from Rockville, Maryland, a Washington, D.C., suburb, when I was in my early teens. I took a photography class and fell in love. I dislike computers and being indoors, so I was already figuring out that graphic design wasn’t a good fit for me.
I transferred to Randolph Community College in Asheboro, which has a very large two-and-a-half-year technical photography program. The school has a great campus with huge studios and tons of equipment, and one of the best things was the low in-state tuition.
I lived in a van during photography school to avoid paying rent, and I graduated with almost no debt. If I had education debt, that probably would have kept me from doing the work I’m doing now.
JTY: You moved to Haiti 10 years ago. Was there a direct leap from rural North Carolina to Haiti, or some experience in between?
BD: During school and for a few months after the program, I worked part-time for the Enquirer Journal in Monroe, North Carolina. I was interested in working internationally as a photojournalist so I traveled to India, Bangladesh and Nepal, where I worked for some non-profits and covered news.
I connected with a photo agency that started distributing my work during this time. After that, I came back to the States for a year, and then in 2008, moved with my wife to Haiti. She was working in human rights and found a job there, and I followed her. I continued to work for non-profits, newspapers and magazines for five years while we lived in Haiti.
JTY: In Haiti you were photographing its people and the toll of environmental disaster on their lives. Talk about shifting with the Bayou’s End project to focus on the toll on the land itself.
BD: It was in Haiti that I became really interested in environmental stories after seeing how closely human flourishing and suffering are tied to environmental health. Haiti is devastated by deforestation. This deforestation causes soil erosion, desertification and regular flooding. Many agricultural areas have been compromised and whole areas are uninhabitable. Much of the suffering and hunger in Haiti can be traced back to this.
JTY: What took you to New Orleans initially?
BD: In 2013 we moved from Haiti to New Orleans, where my wife had a new job opportunity. In Louisiana I learned about this story of coastal erosion and wetland loss. It’s an environmental story similar to deforestation in that it’s caused by shortsighted profit-seeking.
JTY: How does that compare or differ from your experience of land devastation in Haiti?
BD: In Haiti, the recent deforestation is caused by people trying to make a tiny bit of money to buy food and scrape by. In Louisiana, the primary cause is oil companies that dug 10,000 miles of canals through the wetlands, causing saltwater intrusion that killed the vegetation, which held the soil in place. Another contributor is the engineering of the Mississippi River for shipping. Dredging and levees prevent sediment from replenishing the wetlands.
There are several documentary photographers who have done an excellent job documenting this issue for decades — especially the impact on small fishing communities. I didn’t want to simply revisit that same work over again. For a few months I didn’t shoot much besides editorial assignments.