They might look like abstract paintings, but Tom Hegen’s photos of salt evaporation ponds are very real – and say something less than pretty about our impact on the world. We asked him about shooting the series, and whether he still has the taste for the stuff.
Tell us a bit about yourself and this project.
I’m a photographer from Munich, Germany. Over the past two years I’ve been working on an aerial photo book exploring landscapes that have been heavily transformed by humans, titled Habitat. In addition to this Salt Series, I’ve also shot a Quarry Series, Coalmine Series and Toxic Water series. By photographing the places where natural resources are being regulated, channelled or controlled, I hope to bring attention to the scale of humanity’s intervening with nature.
What gave you the idea for this series?
I’m interested in the theory of the Anthropocene: a proposed epoch that considers human activity the most significant factor currently influencing the planet’s biological, geological and atmospheric processes. I want people to ask questions about when human influence on the Earth began, and how our civilisation has developed since.
What drew you to these salt ponds?
Salt is a product that most of us use every day but know little about at a production level, and I wanted to bring attention to that. The extraction of sea salt is one of the oldest forms of human landscaping; in Europe it dates back to antiquity. The natural composition of the farms was another factor. I have a background in graphic design, so I often look at photography from a visual communication perspective, using abstraction and aestheticisation to connect the viewer with a social or environmental topic. The salt evaporation ponds naturally provided many of these components: grids, lines, patterns, angles, colour contrasts, and the rule of thirds.
Where does the range of colour in your photos come from?
These salt ponds are all artificially created. Workers flood them with salt water from the ocean, which the sun and wind then evaporates, leaving highly concentrated brine. There’s a tiny species of shrimp in the ponds that eats a microscopic type of algae, but as the water becomes too salty, the shrimps disappear and the algae proliferates, intensifying its colour. These colours can vary from lighter shades of green to vibrant reds.
Why do you prefer aerial photography?
You have to have perspective to be able to see rising sea levels, deforestation, the depletion of raw materials, and changes in the landscape caused by river shifts or coastal erosion. People should look more closely at the impact we have on our environment and ask if – and how – we might assume some responsibility for it.
Does it take a lot of planning to put together a series like this?
The Salt Series only took about a week of actual shooting, but in that time I managed to get to five different farms across Spain and France. I was shooting from a helicopter, as that’s the most efficient way to cover huge areas and different light conditions.
Do you look at your table salt differently now?
Yes. In planning for this project I was surprised to learn that a lot of salt harvesting is still done manually. When the ponds dry out they leave behind a crust that workers then come and lift out by hand. When I reach for the salt these days I’m always reminded of the e ort it would have taken to extract it.
This article first appeared in Smith Journal volume 28, with the title ‘Salt of the Earth’. Buy a copy at our online store, find your closest stockist or subscribe. Habitat will be published in late 2018 by Kerber Verlag.