A Photographer Anticipates the Moments Before the Flood

As the climate talks in Paris draw to a close, we revisit Carl De Keyzer’s epic work Moments Before the Flood, in which he circumnavigates the European coastline, traveling more than 82,000 miles and visiting more than 5,000 locations, to “photograph this beautiful and very unique coastline, riddled with history, before it’s too late …”

The response to Moments has motivated him to further continue his work on climate change. “Because I live in one of the low countries, global warming is a very hot topic here,” he says. “If all predictions become reality, and probably even sooner than predicted, people here will wonder where life can continue. Already there is advertising in the Dutch media about moving and buying property in countries with mountains and higher ground.”—Whitney Johnson, deputy director of photography

WHITNEY JOHNSON: I’m familiar with Moments Before the Flood and a fan of the work. Can you remind me how you first became interested in this subject matter and why you decided to take it on?

CARL DE KEYZER: In 2006, when the Concertgebouw (concert hall) of the city of Bruges asked me to make some images for a catalogue for a new concert season built around the theme of water, I found myself working along the Belgian coastline. It was the time of Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth, and there were numerous alarming articles in the press about a catastrophe waiting to happen. I started looking at the sea and the beach very differently, a place where I spent so many perfect days as a child. This fear—although, I must say, at first I belonged to the group of “nonbelievers”—became the subject of a large-scale photo project.

WHITNEY: You have written: “I don’t want to photograph the disaster, I want to photograph the disaster waiting to happen.” Can you talk a bit about the challenges inherent in this statement as a photographer?

CARL: It is clear now that it is a matter of time before the entire European coastline disappears under water. The same goes for numerous big cities, like New York, around the world. The village I live in now will become a coastal village in 50 to 100 years time. In 2009, as now, almost nothing was visible of this catastrophe waiting to happen. My idea was to photograph this beautiful and very unique coastline, riddled with history, before it’s too late—as a last witness.

Photographing beaches is a challenge because it’s the highest cliché in the world of photography. When I stood on these 5,000 and more beaches in Europe I kept the title of my book in the back of my head. This title gave me a legitimation to be there and to see things differently.

WHITNEY: Can you talk a bit about how history plays a role in this project?

CARL: The project is not just about the fear of a possible sea level rise. It’s also about the history of Europe looking at the sea and wondering when the next enemy would appear.

In the images, you see all kinds of possible defense constructions to hold back the Romans, Germans, Vikings, and now nature as enemy number one. Europe is littered with remains of this kind: for example, the image with the Maunsell Forts in the Thames Estuary, where the British built military forts to stop the German Stuka bombers from reaching London by flying low over the River Thames. There is the image of the bridge into the sea taken at the Normandy D-Day landing site. Also, Venice, the eternally threatened city by the sea, where every morning a labyrinth of wooden pathways has to be set up to allow tourists to reach their hotels.

WHITNEY: Can you talk about how technology influenced this project?

CARL: I used the highest resolution a digital camera had to offer, even now. Most images were taken with an 80-million pixel camera. This helped a lot to show the possible threat in a hyperrealistic way. It’s not something vague hiding in the bushes, but a sharper-than-life reality. Combining different exposures increased the dynamic range of the images using a technique called exposure fusion. This technique, where different images of the sea overlapped, increased the notion of the sea as the enemy number one. Even during calm days. I never waited for storm or bad weather. Calm beach days have the potential to be more frightening when used in the context of my concept.

WHITNEY: In an earlier interview you said that “Flirting with beauty is something I see as a vital new development in my work.” Can you elaborate on this a bit?

CARL: I never sold as many prints through galleries and museums as I have with this project. Some images are truly beautiful, and I guess collectors still prefer to buy a beautiful photograph instead of images of my former projects, like Siberian prison camps or war zones in the Congo. Still, for me, everything in the image has to be functional. By flirting with beauty, I believe the notion of danger increased. From a distance you see a beautiful landscape in mind-blowing detail, but when getting closer, the critical visitor realizes that this is about fear and not about pure beauty and simple aesthetics. Aesthetics is important in my work but only as a means to attract viewers and to put them on the wrong foot.

Carl De Keyzer is a Belgian photographer who likes to tackle large-scale projects and themes. He started his career as a freelancer in 1982, while also teaching at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent. During this time, he co-founded the XYZ-Photography Gallery. He has been a member of the Magnum Photos agency since 1994. See more of his work on his website.

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