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Photographing the BP Oil Spill

By NYIP Staff on June 02, 2010


Jim Edds is a 1996 graduate of the New York Institute of Photography; his great success as a photographer comes not only from his skill and hard work, but also from his courage — he has carved a niche for himself as a photographer of "extreme weather." Camera in hand, he runs toward the tornadoes, hurricanes, and other climatic dangers from which others flee. If you watch The Weather Channel, you see a lot of Jim's work.

We've covered Jim's exploits, as he travels the world from his base in Pensacola, Florida. As we heard the oil from the Deepwater Horizon was headed in that direction, we sent an e-mail asking if Jim was involved. This is his report on the catastrophe currently unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico as the oil spill reaches the shores of Florida.

An important aspect of what you're about to read is how Jim got access to these events. You couldn't ask for a better description of how a professional conducts himself (or herself) to make friends, trade favors, and get the shot.

You can see more of Jim's work at his website,

Pensacola, Florida:06/05/10

Jim Edds photo of tar ball

The past two days have been a real whirlwind for me. I live in Pensacola, Florida and today this was ground zero for all the national and local media. This was the first day oil washed up on our beautiful white beaches.

Two days ago I was standing on the end of the Pensacola Beach Fishing Pier with my camera looking for any sign of oil on the surface. My morning started with nine emails on my iphone first thing. Well, any time I get that many emails I know something is going down. The one that caught my attention was from The Weather Channel. They said the oil was just a few miles offshore of Pensacola and their reporters were enroute. My first thought was "Wow, it's actually coming this way after all." I'd been in denial like most folks down here in sunny Florida. If you can't see it, it's just not there, I was thinking.

As I peered through my binoculars scanning the horizon for any sign of oil, a guy who works with a local radio station came up next to me. We chatted for a few minutes about what was to come and then he got a tip that Governor Charlie Crist was going to be at the local EPA lab. I told him I used to work there and would show him the way to save him time.

Jim Edds media trucks
Jim Edds BP press conference

About thirty seconds after we arrived near a boat basin, there was a flurry of activity — security people came out of nowhere, three patrol boats motored in, a helicopter buzzed overhead, and people in all levels of government showed up. Obviously this rendezvous was not advertised to the media. Word trickled down to me that the Governor was going to take a boat ride out to check out the oil sheen on the water. There was an AP writer there and a couple of other news writers but nobody with a video cam. Well, my motto is: always keep your gear close by, 'cause you never know when that Sasquatch is going to jump out in front of your car. Well, there's usually no Sasquatch but when one jumps out in front of your car you'll wish you had your cam. Right?

So I'm thinking to myself, nobody has a video cam here except me. I grabbed my cam and TWC hat and asked the first security guy if they had a spot for me on this boat. We sure do, what did you say your name was? The 40' all metal patrol boat was leaving right at that moment, so I made a bee line to the dock.

The newspaper reporters were all over Governor Crist. He was mobbed with mics in his face so I held back and just chilled out shooting some b-roll as we got up to speed. I knew from all my boat diving days that folks are usually more animated on the ride in. So I filmed the wake, the two Florida Wildlife Commission escort boats, the shoreline — stuff I knew would round out my story.

We only motored seven miles out to look at the inshore booms designed to protect Pensacola Bay. It would have taken too long to motor out the pass and find the oil sheen seven miles out. OK, change of plans — better get some shots of the Governor overlooking the bright orange boom, I thought.

Jim Edds and Governor Crist

Since I had a smaller cam I could hold it down and flip out the viewfinder and get a nice shot of the Governor and staff checking out the boom. To cut out all the reporters I just held the cam out over the water a tad — it framed up real nice. Ok, all I need now is a sound bite from the Governor. In my hurry to get on the boat I forgot my wire that connects the wireless receiver to the camera. Now I'm in trouble! So I asked the radio station guy if he could record the audio on his handheld digital recorder and email it to me when I got home. Sure, no problem — since I showed him the way over! I gave him my questions and the interview was perfect. After I was finished, the radio station director asked if I wanted to get a pic with Governor. Humm, sounds like a good idea, so I looked at one of the security guys and made like I was squeezing a shutter and pointed to the Governor. He gave me a nod of the head and well, here's the shot.

When I got home I dialed up The Weather Channel and said I had an exclusive story of the Governor inspecting the shoreline defenses in Pensacola Bay. They wanted to have a look at it.

A few hours later, TWC reporter Julie Martin is broadcasting live from Pensacola Beach and says they have some exclusive video of Governor Crist inspecting the boom in Pensacola Bay. Oh, that footage looked familiar! An eventful day to say the least.

Coast Guard Commander Glander of the USCGS Oak discusses the skimming operation

The next day, I was back out again on Pensacola Beach. I wanted to get photos of the oil sheen and the wildlife. I had heard how BP was keeping photogs away from the bad areas in southern Louisiana but nobody was going to tell me I couldn't shoot a picture if I was in a public place.

About 11 am I got a call from my contact at The Weather Channel. She asked where I was, and how long would it take me to get to the airport. "Fifteen minutes," I lied, because I knew something big was up. She said the Governor was at the airport getting ready to board a Florida National Guard Helicopter and go offshore to check out the oil spill. "I'm in," I said as I turned my car around.

About fifteen minutes later, someone from the security detail called and gave me directions. I knew the general airport area but this was a secret area nearby so he had to stay on the phone with me to walk me in. At one point he asked where I was, and then he said "Well, just put the pedal to the metal — the area is secured." Wow. I didn't see anyone to secure the area but they had to be there. Now I felt like I was in a movie.

I found the rendezvous place, gathered up my gear, and a sharply-dressed man said, "I'll take care of your car, Mr. Edds." Oh sweet, free parking! I walked into a building and there was a big crowd around the Governor getting a briefing in case the helicopter had to ditch.

Jim Edds photo US Coast Guard
Jim Edds Boons at Coast Guard base

The Governor made eye with me and to my surprise he yelled out, "Hey Jim, come over here." Wow, he remembers me! I must have done something right yesterday.

We headed out to the awaiting National Guard helicopter on the tarmac and a two-star general came up to me and said, "Jim, we thought we'd put you here and the Governor right in front of you." Wow, I was going to ride in the first class seats. No more space available for me! I said, "I think the Governor would probably prefer to sit facing forward instead of backward." (I know I would). The Governor said something like, "Thanks for thinking of me, Jim". Oops, now I'm in trouble! But I was just thinking I wanted him comfortable so I could get him at ease — a more natural shot. Let me figure out the camera angles. Well, it was a good idea cause the Governor took a seat looking forward with the door wide open. I was facing him — we were just about knee to knee. It was a bit unnerving to have the sliding door wide open for the flight. I mean, you could literally fall right out if you weren't strapped in. The thought made me yank on my five-point seatbelt harness one more time.

We lifted off and headed down the coast to the Florida-Alabama state line. We flew along the coast and crossed the bridge that separates Florida and Alabama. I made sure I filmed that bridge because in 1982 I was run over by a boat and almost died there. I got my own helicopter ride back to the hospital then.

Jim Edds cleaning up Pensacola beach

Once out of the Gulf we found the oil sheen. It was hard to see in the overcast skies if you were right over it. Once we moved off we could see it clearly. The Governor was looking at it and at times discussing the situation with the general. He was zeroed in on it and wanted to know how far out we were — basically our exact location. At one point we saw a sheen only four miles out. Wow, now that's really close.

We made a box flight pattern and came back to the airport. About five minutes out from the airport I made the decision to set up the camera to do a sound bite. Once on the ground everything would happen fast, and the Governor was already behind schedule. I wanted that sound bite desperately, so as soon as the rotors spun down and we took the headsets off I asked him if we could do a sound bite. The gracious Governor agreed.

Now, here's the difficult part. He asked if we could do it outside the helicopter, but I could hear a nearby plane reving up. It was just too loud. I knew it wouldn't work. So I asked him if we could walk over to the terminal about 50 yards away. No problem. I gave him the wireless handheld mic and said, "Governor, with a one-man crew, you'll have to hold the mic if you don't mind." I framed him up but he was backlit — nope won't work. Geez, this is not so easy but my training was taking over — concentrate on the viewfinder — look edge to edge, take the exposure — any hot spots, any dark spots. Yes! So I put him slightly down sun and it looked good. Oh yeah, this time I remembered to bring the wireless mic cable!

Jim Edds tar ball Pensacola beach

I had already discussed the questions with the Governor during the walk over to the small terminal — basically why we went out today and what did he see — simple — that's my style. Thirty seconds was all I needed and I was out of there to feed my footage. An hour or so later, The Weather Channel's Julie Martin, still on the beach, used my aerial footage in her live broadcast.

Afterward when all the excitement wore off I wondered if the Governor had requested me for this mission. I'll never know but I just have this feeling ... they were waiting for me, no doubt. This was my small part in a larger-than-life saga more encompassing than anything I have ever covered. The oil continues to spread through the Gulf of Mexico, and still no one knows what is going to happen to the fishermen, the wildlife, the tourism-related jobs, our shorelines. Well, I'm going to do my best to get the story out with photos and video.

When I was shooting over the past two days, I would often fall back on my training from many years ago. I tried to look cool and calm on the surface, remembering what I had learned, and paddle like mad below.