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May 5th, 2009

Shooting a prince’s photo book to fight global deforestation

Posted by liveBooks

Conservation photographer Daniel Beltrá was named the winner of The Prince’s Rainforests Project (PRP) Award on April 16 at this year’s Sony World Photography Awards Gala ceremony in Cannes, France. The award includes a three-month expedition to document threatened tropical rainforests in the Amazon, Africa, and Indonesia, all fully funded by Sony Eco. Daniel’s work, usually for Greenpeace, has also garnered awards from World Press Photo, Pictures of the Year International, National Press Photographers Association, and the Lucies — he calls his recent success “a snowball.” When we heard Daniel had won this prestigious award, including a 15,000-Euro prize, an Alpha 900 camera, a lens, and a laptop from Sony, plus a book and exhibitions, we asked him to tell us about the innovative way the PRP plans to use his images, creating a high-impact book that Prince Charles can hand-deliver as gifts to world leaders, persuading them to commit to working against tropical deforestation.
Soy fields near Belterra, Para State, Brazil, with isolated Brasilan nut trees (castanheira). ©Daniel Beltra

Soy fields near Belterra, Para State, Brazil, with isolated Brasilan nut trees. ©Daniel Beltra

Miki Johnson: Tell me about this award and how it will work.

Daniel Beltrá: For me, the most exciting part of this award is the book. We are working with Stuart Smith, who is one of the best book designers in the world. Amongst others, he does books for Eliot Erwitt and James Nachtwey. The idea is to create a very limited edition book of only 500 copies. Prince Charles is going to offer it to prominent people, and heads of state around the world. There’s a conference in November and he’s going to be giving this book to many presidents as a personal present from him. All this is to gear up the world and get them to commit to stop tropical deforestation as a way to tackle global warming.

Of course every photographer that makes a book hopes that it will have some impact, but I’ve never seen one used at this level before. They have very clear ideas of how they want the book made: They only want it to be 70 or 80 pages; they want big pictures; and they want to reach an equilibrium between the biodiversity, the indigenous populations, the impending destruction and sustainable solutions. This is a worldwide problem so they don’t want to point any fingers or blame anyone — it’s everybody’s responsibility. Tropical deforestation creates 20% of the CO2 released, which is more than the entire transport sector in the world. If you stopped all the trains and the planes and the cars and boats in the world, you still would manage to drop the CO2 level more if you just stopped tropical deforestation, so it’s a no-brainer really. So what Prince Charles and his Rainforests Project want to do is create a huge fund where the world would put money for these countries so they don’t cut further and further.

I haven’t done a book before, so I’m excited but it’s such short notice it feels like a sprint for six months. Luckily there are a lot of very capable and talented people around me and that’s going to help a lot. Sony for example is putting so much effort in because they are launching a new line to the professional market. And they have great technology. We’re going to be doing exhibitions and they have these big weatherproof screens that can be set up outdoors to show the images.

Purple flowers of the Jambo tree in Bellterra, Para State, Brazil. ©Daniel Beltra

Purple flowers of the Jambo tree in Bellterra, Para State, Brazil. ©Daniel Beltra

MJ: It sounds like you are on a pretty tight schedule. Is it hard working with NGOs sometimes that don’t have realistic expectations for how long photo projects take?

DB: I basically have three to four weeks per country to go to three places: the Brazilian Amazon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Indonesia, which is probably going to be Borneo and Sumatra. The shooting list they gave me originally was too wide, so we’re going to use some of my past photography, and that will help a lot. The portfolio I presented for this award was 30 of my best photographs. Those were images I made during nine years working in the Amazon. I’m not going to get the same thing in a few weeks. My personal idea was to have good photography drive the project and not a really specific shooting list, because there’s not really enough time for that. The Amazon is the size of the continental U.S. or Europe. You could spend weeks just trying to reach a particular spot. The distances are enormous and many of the places need to be reached by plane, so it’s a challenge. But I’m confident we’re going to produce a good piece.

MJ: It must have been interesting to find yourself sitting with the Prince of Wales, showing him your photographs.

DB: The commitment Prince Charles has made to this issue is really global. When we met in London and I was showing him my photos, he really knew a lot about the issues. He was saying, oh this is palm oil in Indonesia, I’ve been working with this and I went there last year. He’s very knowledgeable and he’s very passionate about the environment. There are so many people who are so high in the world, who could sit back and have a relaxed life, so it’s very humbling to see how committed he is.

Between Cuiaba and Manaus, Brazil. ©Daniel Beltra

Between Cuiaba and Manaus, Brazil. ©Daniel Beltra

It doesn’t make much sense. My career has been a complete snowball. I started in photography in 1988. And until 2005 I didn’t participate in a single competition. But in 2005, Tom Stoddart saw the story I did on the drought in the Amazon and he said, “You need to send this to the World Press.” And I was saying, “I don’t know.” And he said, “Daniel, please trust me, send this to the World Press.” And then a week before the deadline Tom called and said, “Did you send that to the World Press?” And I said no. He said, “Daniel, send it!” So I did — and I won an award.

That really opened the world for me. I went to Amsterdam and I met all these other photographers and I thought, wow, I don’t feel any more like this crazy guy who works 90% of his time on environmental issues, because at that time conservation wasn’t such a hot topic. In 2007 I got another World Press award then last year I got the inaugural Global Vision Award from Picture of the Year International (POYi) and I’ve gotten 10 big awards in 4 years. Then, a couple years ago, I was invited to join the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP). It was such an honor to be part of a group of dedicated photographers I had admired for so long. So it’s been a total rollercoaster for me.

So suddenly, you become a name in photography when a few years ago you were nobody. It doesn’t mean that much ultimately, and I don’t want it to go to my head. I want to have time to go and shoot. There are so many important stories that need to be told. But this publicity is also a great way to expose what’s happening to more people. So I am more and more open to doing exhibitions and giving talks, but it’s difficult to handle sometimes. And at the end of the day, I need to figure out how to make a better business decisions so I can hire help and have more time.

I remember until just a few years ago, when I would turn in a story to Greenpeace, who I work with a lot, I would just try to rest a little. Now it’s like I’m more busy when I come home than when I’m shooting. It’s almost a relaxation to go in the field. It’s like, no more email, no more phone, and whatever happens, I’ll deal with it when I’m back. Nobody is obliging me to do this, I am extremely lucky and can’t complain. But I want to make sure I’m maximizing the impact of my work and I also want to have a life.

Be Part of the RESOLUTION: Robert Glenn Ketchum has also written extensively about using photo books to persuade legistalors about conservation issues. Why do you think photo books can have such an impact on policy makers?

One Comment

  1. May 6th, 2009 at 3:19 pm

    Marita Holdaway

    This is very exciting!

    Daniel will be exhibiting at Benham Gallery in June,2009 during the American for the Arts Conference, their theme is Sustainable Communities.

    We are excited to be one of the first galleries to exhibit his work especially during such an important conference!

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