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Aerial of salt-processing plant in southern France

Bird’s Eye View with Tom Hegen

German photographer Tom Hegen may be based out of Munich but his subject matter spans the globe. Known for abstract aerials that document humanity’s impact on the planet, his work takes him from the salt-processing plants of southern France to the bleached coral of the Great Barrier Reef; the melting icebergs of Greenland to the sand dunes of the Namibian desert. Below, Tom shares how this unique perspective has shaped his own relationship with nature.

Photograph by Tom Hegen
Photograph by Tom Hegen

Where did you grow up? Were you creative as a child?

I grew up in Southern Germany, close to the European Alps. As a young boy, I wanted to become a carpenter as I loved to use my hands to create things and to see the results of my creations. I even did an internship when I was a teenager.

Tell us a bit about your career path to date.

I studied graphic design in Germany and the United Kingdom with a Master's degree in Communication Design. Photography was part of my studies, but it was always my passion. I started off with classic landscape photography but soon realized that those sugar-coated shots do not represent their real environment. I began to question the term “landscape” in the sense of “landscaping”, and now focus on landscapes that show the impact of the human presence on earth.

Photograph by Tom Hegen

We were really drawn to your abstract, almost surreal, take on natural forms and landscapes. Do you like how it takes your audience a while to absorb and orient themselves when they see one of your images?

I am fascinated by the abstraction that comes with the change of perspective; seeing something familiar from a new vantage point that you are not used to. It’s like school for the eye. I use abstraction and aestheticization as a language to inspire people and also to offer the viewer a connection to the subject, as they need to decode what they are looking at.

Your photography has a documentary style to it, delving deep into the relationship between man and nature. Do you feel a responsibility to educate your audience through your work?

My photographs document the traces we leave on our planet. We are all consuming the resources our earth is offering, and I try to find the places where these resources are coming from, how they are used and where they are disposed of. I see my work as a reflection of our ever-consuming society and offer an abstract but honest view of the natural environments we heavily affect. In this case, some may call me an environmentalist [but] I see myself more as an artist that reflects the relationship between human and nature.

“I see my work as a reflection of our ever-consuming society."

Photograph by Tom Hegen

In the design world, there has been renewed interest in biophilia – the idea that humans have an innate affinity for nature, and that bringing nature and nature-inspired elements into our interior spaces can somehow enhance our well-being. Is that something you believe in?

Absolutely. I just returned from a two-week, very basic camping holiday. I love being outside for hiking, biking or just recreation, feeling the elements. Most people have disconnected from nature, but we are all part of it, and I think that integrating some of these elements into our life reminds us of that. And in the best case, it’s sustainable too.

Photograph by Tom Hegen
Featured in the August/September 2020 issue of Belle.

Give us a little insight into your process. What goes into a series – from developing a concept through to the actual shooting from the air, then post-processing to sharing your work?

My photography projects are very much research-driven. I do a lot of research on the subject before taking the actual photos. It takes a whole lot of preparation to get a project on track. I am always planning my projects a good time before the actual production. It’s about finding the right locations for the subject, I need to find pilots that can take me there and I need to check for the right season, weather and light. I basically work with a four-step method of research, concept, execution and evaluation.

Photograph by Tom Hegen
Photograph by Tom Hegen

Your photography has taken you around the world to some incredible destinations. What are some of the most memorable places you’ve visited?

Two years ago, I traveled to Greenland to document the effects of global warming on the Arctic Ice Sheet. Below two degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level – this is the agreed target signed in 2015 by 197 countries under the Paris Climate Convention to limit global warming and avoid the catastrophic consequences of climate change. Worldwide, the average surface temperature has already risen by one degree Celsius compared to the pre-industrial era of 1880 – half of the critical limit has therefore already been reached. The Arctic is the fastest-warming place on our planet and provides the first indication of how climate change is affecting the earth’s ecosystem. When you think about the Arctic, you would probably think about a vast landscape of white ice. But in fact, the surface of the Arctic Ice Sheet is not a seamless plain of ice, it’s more like swiss cheese, covered with thousands of seasonal rivers and lakes on the surface through which meltwater is able to flow over the ice, enter into the ice and then flow downstream into the ocean. Seeing the Arctic from the air was fascinating and shocking at the same time. Such a remote place on earth and still, we have an impact on it.

Photograph by Tom Hegen

Since travel is out of the cards for many of us right now, what are some small ways that you are maintaining a connection to nature?

Luckily, I own a camper van and have explored some areas around my city and other countries in Europe. It’s this very simple life that makes me happy!

Finally, what’s keeping you inspired in these uncertain times?

Reading. At the moment, I am reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, which is a fantastic book with so much knowledge. He really connects the dots

Tom Hegen in front of a helicopter

Follow Tom Hegen on Instagram.

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