These Aerial Photos Of California Make The Damage From The Drought Look Beautiful

Thomas Heinser shows what a world without water would look like.

As soon as a massive wildfire ended in Lake County, California, last fall—after burning 76,000 acres, an area twice the size of San Francisco—photographer Thomas Heinser got in a plane and started to document the strange beauty of the damage.


“The black and white trees, blackened, burned trees on ash—it’s a pretty drastic moment,” he says. Heinser has been taking aerial photographs of California for a decade. A series called Reduziert, or “reduced,” is focused on how the state’s environment is changing.

That includes the epic drought, which Heinser began photographing two years ago. “I was driving down I-5 toward Los Angeles and saw an almond orchard, but dead and dry and left to die,” he says. “I thought, this is really bizarre. It looks sad, but also visually it was quite stunning. So that’s how I started to be interested in the Central Valley and capturing the changing landscapes there throughout the last two years.”

After a few El Nino-fueled rainstorms this year, the drought has eased slightly, though as of March 17, 73% of the state is still in severe drought, and 93% still in at least moderate drought. Though some locations have finally had as much rain as an average year, it isn’t enough to make up for four previous years of drought and record-breaking heat.

Heinser’s photos show parched brown fields and hills. Now that recent rain has brought out some green and started to fill some empty reservoirs, he plans to go back. “I have a few flights already scheduled,” he says. “I think the story of the drought will continue as much as the drought does.”

His landscapes also include the technicolor, kaleidoscope-like salt ponds outside San Francisco, where micro-algae change colors as the level of salt in the water rises and falls. “It changes constantly,” Heinser says. Some of the ponds are also the site of wetland restoration, an important step the Bay Area is taking to help protect against rising sea levels.

Though Heinser hopes that the photos provoke conversation about the state of the environment, he’s just as interested in how it looks. “I think that what is striking for me about this particular series is about how much I can stretch photography to become something that’s not necessarily all that photographic,” he says. “When I see people in the gallery looking at those pictures and not really being clear what they are looking at in terms of medium or content, that’s fantastic.”


All Photos: Thomas Heinser

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.