Photographers' Blog

Pictures from a mile deep: Ground Zero of the BP oil leak

Fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon, off Louisiana, in this handout photograph taken on April 21, 2010.  REUTERS/U.S. Coast Guard/Handout

Illustrating a news story with photographs can be much more challenging than simply deploying a talented photographer on site. Sometimes initially identifying where and how the best pictures will be made is a daunting task, let alone getting a photographer there, especially when the subject is spread over thousands of square miles of sea and ground zero is miles offshore and a mile below the surface. No news event in recent memory has been more challenging to cover than the Gulf Coast oil spill due to the nature and dynamics of the story.

Oil is seen on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico as BP tries to stop oil leaking from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead in the Gulf of Mexico 55 miles (89 km) south of Port Fourchon, Louisiana May 8, 2010.  REUTERS/Sean Gardner

When it was first determined that the BP well was gushing oil, our coverage efforts for the next several months were focused on oil seen on the surface, oil reaching the hundreds of miles of shoreline, impact on local fishermen and residents and wildlife and clean up efforts.

Plaquemines Parish Coastal Zone Director P. J. Hahan holds a tri-colored heron after spotting the seriously oiled bird along Queen Bess Island near Grand Isle, Louisiana July 17, 2010.  REUTERS/Sean Gardner

While several talented Reuters photographers documented these aspects of the story, my co-workers and I on the Washington picture desk, with help from our colleagues in Singapore, went 5,000 feet below the surface to illustrate the actual leak and containment, all from the comfort of our desk chair. How? By capturing still images from live video feeds of the seabed operations provided by BP.

A room known as The HIVE is command and control for ROV operations at the incident site, and is located in the Houston Crisis Center at BP Westlake.   Reuters/BP/Handout

Pressured by Congress, on May 21, a month after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig caught on fire; BP began showing on their website live video feeds of oil gushing from a riser on the seabed floor. During the following 4 months while efforts to contain and kill the well were underway, live video feeds could be viewed from up to 16 remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), tethered to and managed by up to 8 surface boats.

A ROV works to cut through the riser pipe at the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico in this video image taken from a BP live video feed June 3, 2010.  REUTERS/BP/Handout

A combination photo shows the BP oil leak in images taken from BP live video on May 26, 2010 (top L), June 1, 2010 (top R), July 13, 2010 and on July 15, 2010 (bottom R) after the leak was contained.   REUTERS/BP/Handout

The ROVs carried out all the tasks necessary for containment, giving the viewer of the live feed a front row seat to perhaps one of the largest engineering undertakings ever performed at such depths. As the story as a whole involved so many angles, some of the key turning points to illustrate centered on the progress seen only from the video feeds, from the first view of the leak at the source, to the capping of the well and the first time no oil could be seen gushing from the mechanism.

Stills on the Hill

Photographers Larry Downing and Kevin Lamarque discuss what it takes to get the shots on Capitol Hill.

Oil from all angles

From the moment the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico made headlines, Reuters has provided extensive coverage. Below are accounts from six of our photographers who have been sent at various times to document the story.


Reuters photographer Lee Celano photographs oil in a marsh near Pass a Loutre, Louisiana, May 20, 2010.  REUTERS/Matthew Bigg

Covering the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster as a still photographer for Reuters has brought unique challenges. Although the volume of oil leaking into the Gulf of Mexico is huge, relatively small patches of oil have landed along coastal Louisiana. It’s like a monster who hides most of the time and lashes out quickly, withholding its full strength. But it has been important to show that oil is in fact having an ecological impact here, and to find areas with visible proof.

On Thursday May 20, I accompanied a Reuters TV crew, correspondent Mathew Bigg and Maura Wood of the National Wildlife Federation on a boat, looking for heavy concentrations of oil in an area at the very southern tip of Louisiana. We headed for an area which had just begun being inundated with oil from the Deepwater Horizon leak. After hours of searching, a broken propeller, and an unexpected lunch aboard a work barge, we had found the spot. As Wood prepared to take a sample of the water to check its toxicity, I suited up in chest waders and slowly got into the murky water, one camera and lens stuffed into my waiters. Maneuvering in the soft lagoon floor was tricky; I sank down as I tried to walk and was concerned I might loose my balance and get myself and camera wet. So I held onto the drifting boat long enough to get into position, cautiously letting go so I could have both hands free to shoot. Wood leaned over to get samples and I was able to shoot it from from the perspective of the oily water.

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