Scenes From An American Oil Spill

Alan Chin at work (photo by Suzannah Evans)A few weeks ago, I was on a boat in Barataria Bay off Louisiana’s Grand Isle, touring mangrove islands encircled by orange and white booms. The mangroves brimmed with roosting pelicans with their cottonball chicks and roseate spoonbills turned from pink to beige by a thin film of oil. A local Fox field reporter asked if she could see an oiled bird rescue-the avatars of the crisis. But the breeding colony didn’t have birds that were oily enough for removal, so the Fish and Wildlife Service was just taking media out on motorboats for an educational tour.

One of my boatmates was Alan S. Chin, an experienced photojournalist whose work in Kosovo earned him Pulitzer nominations in 1999 and 2000. Since then, he’s been embedded in Iraq and Afghanistan multiple times, but he told me that photographing the oil disaster has been one of the most difficult jobs he’d ever done. In conflict, there are immediate visual stories with blood and shoes and twisted metal. The creeping oil spill has been more evasive.

There have been a few memorable images: the Jerry Bruckheimer-esque burning rig, the grainy spillcam and the oiled pelicans, which started cropping up in photos a full six weeks after the Deepwater Horizon exploded, providing a gut-punch visual that seemed to finally define the crisis. But unlike the Exxon Valdez spill, in a finite area with a finite amount of oil conveniently located on the surface and near the shore, the scale of the Gulf disaster is difficult to convey. The changes are in the chemistry of the water. The livelihoods of the people who live on the Gulf will slip away as quietly as the tide.

I called Chin up after our on-the-water meeting, and he agreed to share some of his images with the Awl and talk about the unique challenges of depicting the disaster. As the media storyline tips toward talk of the “disappearing” oil slick, he emphasized the less perceptible effects of the disaster that even his experienced lens struggled to capture.