The oil covered hand of a local fishermen who is cleaning up oily sludge from the contaminated beaches at Nanhaitun, Weitang Bay. The spill was caused by a pipeline blast. © Lu Guang / Greenpeace

Today I have had the unique opportunity to meet the Chinese freelance photographer Lu Guang. He visited the Greenpeace office in Amsterdam to talk about his World Press Award winning documentation of the Dalian Oil Spill in China last July. One the biggest challenge for a photographer must be to witness a death happening in front of their lens.  Emotions run high whether you keep to bearing witness or you decide to drop the camera and help. After the presentations I was able to ask him about such a challenge.

Among the many strong images he took during the spill and clean up operations, twelve of them, featuring the death of fire-fighter Zhang Liang, gained him the 3rd prize in the Spot News stories category of the World Press Photo, a prize which he will collect in Amsterdam this Saturday.

Lu Guang talked about his work quietly but still with enthusiasm. He recalled the determination that got him to the location of the disaster, against all last minutes challenges and problems. He spoke about how he decided to stay on location - when all other photographers had already left. He wanted to document the impact of the oil spill on the local community. He had seen life fading away in other circumstances when documenting AIDS and SARS victims but under those circumstances he was kind of prepared for the confrontation of death. At the Dalian oil spill, events unfolded unexpectedly before his eyes.

His photos are stronger than any words can express. He captured the fire-fighter  as he fought for his life when the thick layer of oil  created an overwhelming and suffocating grip on him. His images portrayed the sense of urgency and despair present in all the local community members as well as the environmental destruction casued by our addition to dirty energy like oil.

It is so sad to learn from Lu Guang’s words that Dailiai was a very popular holiday destination and was also well known for its shellfish farming activities. One photo, showing a plateau of scallops covered with oil, seems eerily similar to the shell that represents a famous oil company symbol.  All of his images remind us of how dangerous and unsustainable the choice of oil can be. 

There is only one safe path that will not include these kind of accidents - it’s really only a little detail whether it’s  Dailiai, China, or an oil drill location in the Gulf of Mexico -  and is the one that phase out oil as a source of energy and  move toward a more efficient use of energy and  sustainable and renewable sources.