I am blessed to live in a beautiful area: the western panhandle of the Florida Gulf Coast. Part of our charm is we are not as well-known as the more popular vacation destinations in our state. We “locals” treasure our hidden gem for its snow-white beaches and emerald waters.
As a stock photographer, this idyllic backdrop has been an absolute dream to capture in images. I walk the pristine shorelines of the Gulf of Mexico, shooting rippled sand dunes and wind-blown sea oats with a backdrop of the most amazingly clear water that looks like it’s Photoshopped. When out shooting, I often say to myself, “This is my job… and I get paid for it!”
Then came April 25, 2010.
Reports of the BP oil spill became increasingly dire in the days following that horrific accident that claimed 11 lives in an industry that is vital to our local community. What was initially a feeling of concern shifted to a feeling of worry. As “tarball” and “tar patty” sightings edged closer to our backyard, that worry turned to dread. As the oil spill continued to gush and was now visible for all to see on live streaming video, it was clear that getting hit was no longer an “if,” but a “when.”
BP staging areas popped up on our local beaches. My early trips to the shoreline made me think they were possibly misplaced. I saw nothing but gorgeous water, happy beachgoers, and the profound beauty I always found on our shores. The only things “messing up” our shoreline were the skimming ships, responder tents, and bright orange oil boom now snaked across our Gulf waters. I thought, “Well, at least we’re prepared.” Right?
On May 26th, I went to my favorite park, Johnson Beach (part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore) and had a wonderful time shooting the idyllic flip-flop-type photographs that fill my Shutterstock portfolio. As I breathed in the beauty of the Gulf, I lamented that the seashore was deserted despite our summer season being underway. Around-the-clock news reports of the oil disaster, even though well to our west, were scaring away our vacationers.
Just two days later, I saw a different story. Small boats manned with workers in white Hazmat suits were skimming up seawood with nets. You couldn’t see oil, but for the first time it seemed clear that oil must be approaching our shores.
It was surreal to watch. Leisure boats now hired as “Vessels of Opportunity” were manned with white-clad BP workers; it looked like a scene in a science fiction movie, and there I was in my flip-flops with my camera in hand as usual, but no longer was I photographing travel-alluring images… I was documenting a horrible chapter in our Gulf Coast’s history.
Left: Pensacola Beach before the oil spill. Right: Oil-covered sand, photographed June 23, 2010.
The first photos I submitted for editorial were not particularly dramatic, and I didn’t have much of an emotional response to them because there simply wasn’t oil present. BP and the government were facing increased criticism for their response to the crisis, so in our area, the notion lingered that we were witnessing a staged response for public relations purposes.
However, the photos I shot did evoke some odd feelings: I hadn’t captured oil-soaked pelicans or beached dolphins. I had not a single photo of oil. It was interesting to become aware of the “editorial photographer” desire to capture news-worthy photos, but that desire contrasted starkly with the fear I felt for our shores. Adding to the emotional mix was concern that I might be even contributing to the media overhype that was gutting our tourism industry.
Another week passed and by early June, doom was in the air as the beaches became staging grounds for a yet-unseen invasion. Armies of BP workers in neon-colored shirts appeared under tents erected on our beaches. Scores of oil workers interspersed with occasional beachgoers made for interesting editorial photography, but like before, the workers patrolling the shoreline were not picking up much of anything. The beachgoers were probably thinking the same thing I was: Why are you here? Our tourists were scared away but our Pensacola beaches were as beautiful as ever.
Then came June 23rd.
I awoke that morning to news reports of oil washing ashore on Pensacola Beach. Our local authorities, our local media, and I were stunned. The oil was suddenly here and we had no warning! News networks from around the country had been reporting “Live from Pensacola Beach” for weeks about the oil spill, but their background video showed nothing but gorgeous sand and surf. The President even visited Pensacola Beach and there was not a compelling photo op with him either, just photos of him kneeling down and looking at the gorgeous white sand.
So the media left, and then the oil hit.
When I arrived on Pensacola Beach on June 23rd, I was overwhelmed at the degree of oil that had washed ashore so suddenly. I had photographed these beautiful beaches for years and I was in disbelief of what I saw before me: a swath of dark brown oil-stained shoreline as far as the eye could see.
For a sunny summer day, the beach was not crowded with beachgoers, and those that were there stared in disbelief at the black sticky goo splattered over the white sand. Cellphones were whipped out to snap photos. People poked at the oil globs with sticks. Every now and then an ominous voice bellowed over the lifeguard station loudspeaker warning people to “Stay away from the oil… step back from the oil… do not touch the oil.” The army of BP workers deployed on the beach worked silently and slowly in the 90+ degree heat, toting their shovels and bags. It was obvious they were no match for the sticky black disaster lying beneath their bright yellow boots.
Because the beach impact was so unexpected, there wasn’t much “authority” over the cleanup operation yet (the next day, the area was cordoned off and free access was no longer allowed). I was able to approach anything I wanted to photograph with some coordinated help from the Shutterstock team. I shot the workers up close and I was able to stand on the water’s edge to photograph the sticky oil while hopping around, trying to avoid stepping directly into the globs of toxic goo.
Several beachgoers asked me what media outlet I was with, and they expressed frustration that the masses of media were absent now that the oil had finally hit our shores. A woman showed me an oil-soaked crab that was dead on the sugar-white sand. As an editorial photographer, I got momentarily excited: a dead animal – what a great impact shot! But as I was shooting this poor crab fouled with oil, I was jarred… wait a second, how can I be excited to be shooting a dead animal in the midst of a catastrophic environmental disaster? It was a reflective moment, personally and professionally.
Similarly, I came across a group of children playing happily in the sand with the dark oil-splattered shoreline behind them. What a contrast – happy kids on oil-soaked beaches – what a great editorial shot! But again, my heart saddened immediately at the reality of what I was photographing.
As I got in my car, I was eager to rush home and submit what I had captured. Beachgoers had said to me, “You’re going to be famous – you’re the only one here documenting this mess!” and I was definitely feeling the adrenaline of what I had just photographed.
But as I crossed the bridge away from Pensacola Beach, that adrenaline waned. Tears flowed as the reality set in that the paradise I knew and loved may now exist only in the photographs I had previously captured.
It is a tale of two beaches. One that once was, and one that may never be again.
• Nikon D-300s,
• Variety of Nikon/Nikkor glass