It takes a second to orient yourself to the bright colors, geometric shapes, and gritty textures of Tom Hegen’s aerial photography. The photos look like abstract paintings, but they’re kind of the opposite of abstract — they’re actually objective documentation of our planet. What you’re looking at is the surface of Earth from above, and that fresh perspective makes you pay attention.
Hegen’s work circles around the concept of the Anthropocene, which is the proposed term for a new geologic era of human dominance over Earth’s geology and ecosystems. From open-pit mining to melting glaciers, the Munich-based artist travels around the globe documenting mankind’s abusive relationship with nature. His work is like a Catan board come to life with a dire warning about the repercussions of obtaining resources. It’s easy to ignore where the materials that make up our food, our homes, and our gadgets come from, but seeing them in these photos makes you pause for a second and consider the consequences of our way of life.
We talked to Hegen about the need for aerial photography that captures landscapes transformed by human intervention, and how he gets his surreal shots.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
What drew me to your work was seeing the incredible human impact on the landscape in such a stark way, literally carving into Earth’s surface. What inspired you to document these locations?
I am interested in the concept of the Anthropocene. It is a term used by scientists which theorize that humans, in recent centuries, have become one of the most important factors influencing the biological, geological and atmospheric processes on Earth. Some of the most significant changes in the Anthropocene include climate change, the ozone hole in the Antarctic, rapidly rising sea levels, and landscape changes caused by river shifts or the degradation of raw materials. In my photography, I explore the origin and scale of that idea to understand the dimensions of man’s intervention in natural spaces and to direct attention toward how humans can take responsibility.
Aerial photography is a compelling way to document those interventions because it basically makes the dimensions of human force on Earth visible. I am also fascinated by the abstraction that comes with the change of perspective; seeing something familiar from a new vantage point that you are not used to. I use abstraction and aestheticization as a language to inspire people and also to offer the viewer a connection to the subject as they need to decode what they are looking at.
You made a transition from more traditional landscape photography to aerial photography. What inspired this approach to photographing the land?
I started off with classic (not to say “romantic”) landscape photography, but soon realized that those sugarcoated shots do not represent their real environment. I began to question the term “landscape” as known from “landscape photography.” “Land” is a word of Germanic origin and the roots of the suffix “-scape,” German “-schaffen” refers to the verb “shaping.” So landscape in a sense of landscaping refers to an activity that modifies the visible features of an area. As a consequence of that, I started seeing landscape photography of documenting places influenced by human rather than landscape photography as showing pure, unspoiled nature.
What tools do you use for your photography?
For my projects, I use various techniques like helicopters, small planes, hot air balloons, or quadrocopters to get my projects done. For me it’s not really about the tool I’m using, it’s mainly the story and concept behind the photos. I spend more time researching getting photos [than being concerned] about the technique.
How do you decide what equipment or form of transportation to use — whether it’s a plane, helicopter, balloon, or drone? Have you ever had difficulty navigating a hot air balloon, and is it easier to get permission to fly over with a helicopter as opposed to a drone?
Decision for the equipment is mainly based on the area I am working on. In vast landscapes like the Arctic, a drone would have just too little range to cover the area. I hardly use hot air balloons, as (as you said), they are very hard to navigate. Planes are also not my favorite, as it’s difficult to shoot on a 90° angle. And yes, there is a difference on getting permission with a helicopter and, for example, a drone. Drone usage is usually very restricted.
I’m curious about your postproduction process. The photos are so rich, I’m curious how much of editing is done in post?
Post-processing is an important part of my creation. First of all, there is the selection of the right photographs. I often have several hundred images to choose from for a series of around 12 to 18 images. After that, I really care about colour development, lights, and contrast. But I have some principles: Don’t add what hasn’t been there, don’t remove what has been there (part of technical errors like lens dust).
How do you find these places, and what is your research process like?
A lot of my projects include an enormous amount of research on the subject, the area, and the technical requirements. Before getting up in the air, I have quite an exact idea in mind of what I would like to photograph. My photography projects are very much research-driven. I do a lot of research on the subject before taking the actual photos. I am always planning my projects a good time before the actual production. It helps for a safe and successful aerial production. I basically work with a four-step method of research, concept, execution, and evaluation. It’s hard to tell how much time I need for one series. Sometimes, the idea sits around for a couple of months until I get the opportunity to realize it.
I’m curious about access. Do you get permission? Have you had any difficulties or faced any restrictions photographing these industries at work?
That really depends on the area and tools you are using and in which country you are in. Each country has its unique laws. But generally, there is a difference between manned and unmanned aerial vehicles, where more restrictions apply.
Is there a particular location that you’ve photographed that completely surprised you?
Last year, I did a project about the effects of global warming on the Arctic ice sheet. I documented the meltwater river and lakes on top of it. When I was approaching this vast landscape by air, I was overwhelmed by its scale and that even when this area is so remote, we still have an impact on it.
Have you ever been disappointed by a location once you got up in the air?
Maybe once when I was in Australia, I was planning on photographing a salt lake with an open-pit mine on it. I had a certain look in mind, a white surface of the lake and some brown, grey-ish marks on its surface. My pilot and me flew for around half an hour to reach the lake. Once we reached it, I saw that the lake was just completely brown / red. It had rained a lot the day before and all the water dissolved the upper crust of the lake. Think I need to go back there at some point.
Is there a place you haven’t photographed that you really want to?
Yeah, lots! My shooting list is quite long, I just don’t want to stress on it and take my time for each project.
Do you have any tips for aerial / drone photographers out there?
Follow the rules, practice a lot, and develop your own visual style.
What are you working on next?
In 2018, I published my first coffee table book, HABITAT, which is about human intervention in natural environments. Later this year, I will start working on my second book, which will be around a similar topic.