What I See and What I Don’t

Found via Think Progress, a video of an Associated Press reporter diving in oiled Gulf waters and living to tell the tale.

I think that there are some really interesting things going on with this video, and they spark a lot of thoughts for me. I can’t help but think about the power of broadcast media here. The media is bringing us these horrific and grim images of oiled birds, satellite photos showing the oil spill from space, and now, these visions of an underwater nightmare with water so clotted with oil that it’s hard to find the surface. The media has also brought us so many iconic images that have spurred people into action or infuriation, not just in the case of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, but in countless instances.

Photo and video reporting has ended wars and sparked riots and everything in between.

That iconic image by Kevin Carter of a starving Sudanese toddler being stalked by a vulture. Coffins from Iraq and Afghanistan. Photos from Little Rock, the Twin Towers, Vietnam, Hiroshima. Neda Agha-Soltan. Images have tremendous power and the widespread availability of really compelling, stark, and sometimes terrifying imagery has made many things that were once abstract seem more immediate. There’s also a problematic history when it comes to the way that places outside the United States are framed for viewers and readers here, what kinds of images we are shown; The Sudan is starving children and lions, India is saris and The Ganges, Brazil is bikinis and favelas.

Images motivate people to do things. They fire up deep rage, horror, compassion. If we were not looking at photos and videos of the spill in the Gulf of Mexico, it would seem more remote and distant, less like something that is actually happening. Instead we are confronted with them everywhere we turn.

The oil spill is the result of catastrophic entanglements of people, policy, governments, and history. It’s such a huge environmental disaster that it’s almost unfathomable to me. I hear NPR reports where they spew numbers and it all starts to blur in my mind, but I find the images highly accessible. It is the pictures that stick with me, not the numbers and the press interviews. It is pictures of environmental devastation that spur people to take action, just like images of Earth sent back from the Apollo 17 mission mobilised a lot of environmental activists.

One of the divers in the video, Al Walker, has been diving around oil rigs his whole life. He’s intimately familiar with the ecosystems that arise around rigs and, as this video illustrates, these ecosystems are highly fragile. It makes me start to wonder about all of the other fragile constructs around me and what will bring them down.

And it makes me think about all of the images that I am not seeing. Nigeria and Russia are both experiencing what could best be described as ongoing oil spills that have active since the 1970s. Both are wildly underreported even though I’m willing to bet there are some very compelling and grim images available with which to motivate members of the public. For every report from the Gulf, there are 100 untold stories from regions around the world exploited for their oil and gas deposits.

Is there any particular reason that the Gulf spill is being widely reported and there are huge levels of outrage about it while US corporations are highly active in, say, Nigeria, devastating the natural environment, displacing communities, and using private security forces to suppress critics of the oil and gas industry? Many people seem quite surprised to learn about the environmental devastation in, well, to pick one example, Ecuador, where US companies that dumped toxic chemicals in open pits are currently being sued by 30,000 indigenous people.

These stories are being picked up by the US media, but mostly by environmental organisations. The mainstream media is definitely choosing not to cover them, even though they certainly meet the criteria for ‘newsworthy’ in my book. Indeed, I’d argue that many of these situations are beyond newsworthy, and are crying out for some serious investigative journalism to call attention to these issues and to our own complicity in them.

The Deepwater Horizon spill is certainly grim, and the images in the video I’m about to show you are rather upsetting if you care about ocean health, but it’s worth asking why this is the only oil spill that people in the United States are hearing about. I think that the answer to that question is tied in with a lot of things, and I bet you do too.

The video opens with a scene on a boat. People are leaning over the side to look at the water, which is covered in a brown, greasy scum.

Diver Al Walker: ‘It’s almost like being a little kid, and afraid of the boogeyman in the closet, but this boogeyman is real. Just globs of death out there.’

AP Reporter Rich Matthews: ‘Al Walker’s been diving oil rigs for most of his life. After thousands of dives, he knows them about as well as anyone alive.’

The camera cuts to a person diving in the water, cutting to a school of fish.

We are taken to another cut showing the diver out of the water being interviewed. He talks in voiceover as the camera shows us more underwater scenes, intercut with shots of oil on the water. The burbling sounds of SCUBA regulators can be heard in the background on the underwater shots.

Al Walker: ‘I’ve contributed my life to preachin’ to everyone how, how positive oil drilling has impacted the marine ecosystem here. But this, this is unacceptable.’

Rich Matthews: ‘That is what makes the spill so heartbreaking for Walker. He’s seen how rigs contribute to the life here, providing artificial reefs for coral to live on. Now, the leak from the Deepwater Horizon could be erasing years of good by wiping away that life.’

The camera shows another diver preparing to jump into the water. ‘By now, almost everyone knows what the oil looks like from the surface. We wanted to know what it looks like underwater,’ Rich Matthews says. The scene pans up to show us the oil floating on the surface and obscuring the view.

‘Splashing here 40 miles offshore, the images are heartbreaking’ Matthews says. ‘Oil so thick it blocks out almost all of the light below. Because of the darkness I stayed just 10 to 15 feet under the surface, but I could see oil in almost every direction as far as I could look, up, and down.’

Rich Matthews: ‘We also dove an oil rig to check the ecosystem there. Scott Porter, a longtime diver who studies coral reefs, went along.’

Diver Scott Porter: ‘When we first got in the water and passed through that first thirty feet, uhm, what I noticed was a murky haze on the water that’s usually not there. Now, we’ll have freshwater mixing that’ll give us a haze, but this was like a chemical solution haze.’

A diver is seen moving in water greenish, hazy water, with schools of fish and coral visible. The camera transitions to show us the framework of the rig, with fish drifting around it. More burbling from SCUBA regulators can be heard.

Rich Matthews: ‘Both men noted there were virtually no fish for the first thirty feet of the dive, and that is strange. Once we dropped out of that murk, there was life, abundant life. Still, all was not well, according to Walker. At 60 feet below the surface, we found these strange floating strands of what seems to be dispersed oil.’

Al Walker: ‘Something I’ve never seen diving in my whole life out here, these big snotballs. No. I never saw it in my life. Ever.’

Scott Porter: ‘It’s not just a normal algae bloom or something that gives a—’

Al Walker ‘Oh, no. There’s nothing natural about what we dove in today.’

The camera cuts to show us the peculiar clots in the water. They do indeed look a lot like snot.

Rich Matthews: ‘Just one week after the spill, Walker dove the same rig we dove this week. That day, he found oil billowing, blowing by him with the current. Even then, most of the oil was underwater, but not deep down, just to about 30 feet.’

The water in this image is turbid, with chunks making it very difficult to see. Another shot of oil drifting between the struts of an oil rig’s framework.

Rich Matthews: ‘Then he returned, two weeks after the explosion, and saw a large, thick oil plume at about 120 feet below the surface. NOAA has now confirmed the existence of those plumes as far as 142 miles away from the leak.’

We cut back to the Al Walker. As he speaks, he gestures at the camera.

Al Walker: ‘The oil is transformed. I’ve seen it to where it’s sticking to the camera lens, sticking to everything. Then I’ve seen it to where it’s like big, fluffy-type, ah, uh, scenarios, like real soft comin’ at you.’

The voiceover continues over shots of polluted water with clumps of oil drifting through it.

Rich Matthews: ‘Walker wants to share his pictures with the world, wants everyone to see what is at stake and what’s happening beneath the surface. It’s why he continues to dive, despite his fear of what’s in the water.’

Al Walker: ‘It’s me and a couple science buddies, we’re out there swimming in the, in the toxins, in—because we care.’

Rich Matthews: ‘Porter has a permit to study the coral and has been taking samples since the explosion, but it doesn’t take a sample to declare how bad this really is.’

Scott Porter: ‘The stuff we saw today—I don’t—I don’t know of anything that would be able to live through that.’

Rich Matthews: ‘And many things haven’t.’

Another shot of divers handling coral underwater before the camera cuts back to the pictures of water with suspended oil.

The final shot shows a diver surfacing. Initially the water appears uniformly brown and murky but as the diver rises, a clear spot appears and we can see the diver’s bright blue suit.

Rich Matthews: ‘Rich Matthews, the Associated Press, in the Gulf of Mexico.’

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