When photographers work with a big-name client like, say, Bloomberg, they can usually expect a fleshed-out pitch and a concrete shot list. But what happens when the photographer has a better understanding of what’s being shot and the thing being shot is half a world away?
Complete creative freedom is what happens.
Alastair Philip Wiper, who has done work for Bloomberg Businessweek in the past and has kept in touch with the weekly magazine over the last few years, received exactly that as he ventured to France and China to get imagery of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, a nuclear fusion megaproject known as ITER for short.
I shot for Businessweek a few years ago and stayed in contact with one of their photo editors, Jane Yeomans. We’ve had a few shoots that nearly worked out and then didn’t, but when I pitched this it fit perfectly with an issue they were working on, so it just went through smoothly. I had complete creative freedom. In fact, I didn’t get a brief at all. I think Jane saw it as my project and knew that great pictures would come out of it, so she just let me do what I wanted.
The ITER experiment began in 2007 and unites 35 countries — including the United States, China, and Russia — with the goal of creating a nuclear fusion reactor that might be one day be a major source of energy. Alastair has been covering this kind of technology for nearly a half-decade and will continue to do so over the next ten years, but he felt that now was a good time to loop in a well-known periodical and spread the word.
I’ve photographed the predecessor of ITER, called JET, in the UK. As such, I probably know more about fusion than your average person. I have been following the progress of ITER for a few years and always planned to photograph the project — I first made contact with the press department about four years ago — but I was waiting for the point when it turned from a building site into something that looked like something.
At that point, I thought it would be good to get a publication on board. I pitched it to Businessweek and they asked me to go to China to cover a part that was being built there as they were doing a story about international collaboration during testy political times.
Most of the imagery from this batch of assets, including all of the video work, was captured in China over the course of a single day. The pièce de résistance is a drone shot that perfectly captures how large the building that holds part of the reactor needs to be to store everything.
It was a huge building. Like, jaw-droppingly big. There was a kind of hazy atmosphere, like it had its own ecosystem. It’s a disused diesel engine factory. The reason they built part of the reactor there was because it has to be lifted onto a barge with a big crane, and they have the facilities for that.
When the goal of an undertaking is to make, per Alastair’s website, “a magnetic fusion device designed to prove the feasibility of fusion as a large-scale and carbon-free energy source based on the same principle that powers our sun and stars,” it’s all hands on deck. As previously mentioned, nearly three dozen countries are pitching in to fund and build this essentially unprecedented technological marvel. Almost as stunning as the reactor is the amount of teamwork involved in the project.
One of the main things that struck me was not just the technology itself, but the coordination of building such a complicated machine so precisely across so many different cultures. When one part is built in China, another in India, another in Russia, another in Italy — with budgets and political backing from each of those countries — and then then the whole thing is assembled in France to become the one of the most advanced machines humans have ever built, that blows my mind.
Obviously, with an endeavor this ambitious, it’s going to take years and years for the work to bear fruit — and for the machine to become a household name. Alastair detailed the coming steps of the process on his site:
The facility is expected to finish its construction phase in 2021, to start commissioning the reactor in the same year, and to begin plasma experiments in 2025, with full deuterium–tritium fusion experiments starting in 2035.
Right now, the person on the street hasn’t heard of ITER. But I’m sure when it’s turned on in a few years, it will be a huge event and ITER will be known as widely as the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.
With a topic as complicated as this, it’s important to spell out exactly what is and what is not taking place. Nuclear fusion reactors are safer and more evolved than nuclear fission reactors. While both produce large amounts of energy, nuclear fission also creates radiation and radioactive waste that lingers for a long time. Nuclear fusion, as succinctly explained by Alastair, makes energy like so:
Two hydrogen atoms come together to form one helium atom, a neutron, and a hell of a lot of energy. It’s the same kind of reaction that happens in the sun.
As such, nuclear fusion is an incredibly appealing path forward when it comes to producing energy around the world for generations to come. Though we’re probably decades away from nuclear fusion being a mainstream source of energy, that aspect of the process could be expedited if the major players all over the globe make it a priority.
I’m sure that nuclear fusion is going to be a big part of our energy in the future. It’s almost perfect — there are no waste or emissions — but it is still around 50 years away from commercial use, so I don’t know if I will see it in my lifetime. But if there is political will, that time frame could be cut in half. Plus, the current situation is definitely edging toward desperation when it comes to finding sustainable energy sources.
Though he only had one day at each location, Alastair made sure to stop, put his camera down, and soak in the mind-boggling work being done in front him. And when you get to view gigantic structures that help build the machine, how can you not?
I always take time to take things in when I’m on this kind of shoot. It’s my main reason for doing this work — to experience places that other people don’t get to and be awestruck by the complicated things that humans build.
Check out more of Alastair’s work at alastairphilipwiper.com.
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