The Loading of Kulluk
by Maria Luci
Being based in Alaska, photographer Mark Meyer has gotten used to taking on a wide variety of assignments—from large commercial productions to run-and-gun reportage shoots. The latter is what the international environmental organization Greenpeace came calling for.
Last December, Greenpeace contacted Mark asking if he’d be willing to photograph Shell Oil’s arctic drill barge, Kulluk, which had run aground that month in the Gulf of Alaska. The 30-year-old barge was carrying over 140,000 gallons of diesel fuel when it ran aground during a towing. Controversy surrounding the barge grew after a Shell official admitted it had been moved to avoid paying millions of dollars in taxes. The incident became a public relations nightmare for Shell, who had been trying to convince the American people that they could safely drill in The Arctic.
Greenpeace had been following the incident closely and knew that the barge was to be loaded onto a Chinese heavy lift vessel to be shipped to Asia for repairs. The organization saw this as a chance to get a closer look at Kulluk to determine whether Shell’s claims about its hull damage were correct. They also wanted “to produce a record of the event.” So they asked Mark to fly to Dutch Harbor and spend several days capturing the loading operation.
While not an unusual assignment for Mark, who regularly shoots reportage for national news outlets like The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, this project was different in the fact that Greenpeace had a mission. But with this assignment, Mark felt no reservations behind their motives and took it on without hesitation, saying, “it was about capturing something interesting and of public interest with wider policy implications.”
Greenpeace explained to Mark that they wanted close up shots of the barge that they could carefully scrutinize as well as share with the world. They warned Mark that even though he would be shooting straight documentary photographs, he should expect some possible resistance from Shell. He was advised to “be honest, but to avoid calling attention” to himself.
Mark arrived in Dutch Harbor to find that Shell had booked every hotel room. He ended up securing a small cabin with no electricity or running water, but had the advantage of a great vantage point to shoot Kulluk. Mark hunkered down with a 500 mm f/4 lens and waited for the loading to begin. Once the process started, Mark found himself somewhat in awe, saying,
The amount of money and resources a company like Shell can bring to project like this is truly staggering. A small fleet of tugs and patrol vessels were in constant motion during the operation and a small army of specialized welders were flown in from around the world to secure the barge to the lift ship as quickly as they could. Although one understands this in the abstract, it’s not the same as seeing it in action. I also learned through talking with local people that the area around Dutch Harbor has some very serious environmental problems because of all the industry packed tightly into a small area with little regulation. This would make an interesting story on its own.
Luckily, Mark was able to capture the loading up of Kulluk with no trouble from Shell and quickly delivered the high res photos back to Greenpeace; well, as quickly as he could using the local library’s internet connection—”it took hours to FTP the images.” Mark says the reaction to his photos from Greenpeace was positive and he got word that they put the images to use almost as quickly as he could send them.
View more of Mark’s work at photo-mark.com.