Snapshots From Space
A phone call with Ben Grant, founder of the Daily Overview, a photography project that gives all of us the opportunity to look down and view Earth from outer space. The photographs on the centerfold of agriculture in Sułoszowa, Poland; Venice, Italy; and Los Caracoles Pass, Chile are courtesy of @dailyoverview.
Paprika: What’s the origin story of Daily Overview—was there an ‘aha’ moment?
Ben Grant: I started a space club with friends from work, interested in news about outer space and satellites and desperate to talk about anything other than the consulting work I was doing. I discovered the overview effect, where astronauts who have spent time in outer-space describe a profound awakening when they see the planet—or a large portion of it—in its entirety. In search of that perspective, I typed ‘earth’ into a satellite imagery software to see if I could frame that view. But rather I spun to Earth, Texas and found the bizarre figure of hundreds and hundreds of irrigation circles. I’d never seen anything like it at that scale. It was stunning and surreal—totally crazy. From that point on, I got obsessed with finding abstract patterns in the land. I amassed a big library and started to post one a day on social media. Within two months, Fast Company’s Co.Exist blog ran a story and it kind of blew up.
Paprika: I second the abstraction— before I understand what I’m looking at, the images are beautiful. What’s the intent? Is it primarily artistic or are there subliminal messages you’re trying to get across?
Ben Grant: I decided the guiding focus would be to frame what human impact on the earth looks like. Unnatural lines at a large scale really come through from the satellite photos, the edges of cities or veins of infrastructural systems. The things humans have created look more interesting to me than lakes or mountains.
The images play on the mind in multiple ways—they might look and feel graphically abstract but they are also a lens to look into the world we’re building and why it looks the way it does. We’re using the graphics to get people’s attention but then when you realize that everything you’re looking at is indeed a real place and not just patterning, you can’t help but wonder about what it is. The initially unrecognizable patterns ignite a curiosity.
Paprika: What altitude are most of the images shot at?
Ben Grant: The images are captured from satellites that operate in geosynchronous orbit, meaning they are traveling 600 km above the earth where it’s always 10:30 in the morning. They are some of the highest resolution commercially available satellites with global coverage. They can show pretty much anywhere and there’s access to images over time because they’ve been doing it for a couple decades. But it’s just one scale. To narrate a story about the expansion of Las Vegas with these super high resolution images is difficult because there is so much data that it would almost be unmanageable. We also tap into NASA LandSAT imagery, which is significantly lower resolution and easier to show larger phenomenon. Finally, we have access to aerial photographs from airplanes to zoom in and shoot a street or a building with 5-6X the resolution. The access to multiple imagery providers gives us an amazing telescoping lens to story-tell. We could use NASA imagery to show the full extent of the forest fires in California, then the aerial photos could show before and after of the houses that were destroyed.
Paprika: Have you returned to other places to see how the landscape has changed over time?
One example I’ve thought of recently is the expansion of lithium mines in the Atacama Desert in Chile, where lithium is mined to make batteries. We want to do a side-by side with the expansion of the Tesla Gigafactory in the middle of Nevada’s desert, where they are building batteries. Or a comparison between the growth of a bauxite mine for aluminum production with the building of Apple Park on the opposite page. There are many interesting territorial lenses, linking vast and distant parts of the world.
I’ve been looking at the development of palm oil plantations, burning the rainforest into perfectly lined rows of for oil production. It’s pretty grim. But there are more positive stories too, such as landfills that have been turned into public parks or renewable energy projects. We could easily just present all kinds of horrible change but we aim to portray as close to an accurate picture as we can, the good and the bad.
It’s all very complex. Deforestation has two sides—the obliteration of ecosystems, but also the growth of economies in places like Bolivia, Peru and Brazil. There are livelihoods that might depend on it—it is how some people feed their families. We try to be as objective as possible. Our ultimate mission is to use art to spark curiosity about these wicked problems and to bring attention to topics for folks to research, read, and question independently. Before anything can be done to address our climate crisis, we really need to understand the full scope of what the problems are.