Keith Berr is an American advertising photographer whose passion project has contributed to saving the unique Bonneville Salt Flats ecosystem in Utah for future generations.
Tell us about Bonneville, a ‘sacred place‘
The Bonneville Salt Flats in northwest Utah is one of the most unique places on earth; with expansive vistas surrounded by mountains and crystalline salt that glistens in the often-present sunlight, it’s a place of sheer beauty. Formed from the remnants of Lake Bonneville that covered much of Utah until about 12,000 years ago, the hard salt-compacted surface is flat and stretches for distances that made it suitable for high-speed racing.
Every August people come from around the world for Speedweek to test piston-driven machines to the limits of their capabilities. It’s where racers set land-speed records, movies are made and photographers create memorable imagery.
But the salt flats are disappearing; the crust is getting thinner and the muddy remains of where the salt once was can be seen on either side of the access road as you enter this designated Historical Monument. The main culprit is potash mining by a company called Intrepid. Potash is used as a fertilizer and demand for it is increasing as intensive agricultural practices deplete the land of its natural mineral content. Potash is potassium-rich salts and it’s found in ancient evaporated sea beds layered into the earth’s crust and Bonneville has lots of it. But only a small percentage of what’s harvested is useful, the rest is discarded as garbage. This continuous mineral extraction has sadly led to the reduction of the salt flat surface from 100,000 acres to under 30,000 acres since the 1960s. The Bonneville Salt Flats are in serious trouble and, along with willful neglect by the government in allowing Intrepid to continue their harvesting, many areas that were once seven-feet thick are down to only a few inches. Because of this, it’s now designated as an ‘area of critical environmental concern’ and in need of assistance to prevent further destruction from human activities.
How can a photographer help?
As an advertising photographer the remit in my work is to bring visual concepts to life in an attention-grabbing way that draws in the viewer and causes a reaction.
When first experiencing the racing at Bonneville, I quickly grew to love the culture and the people that came from around the world to experience this place that’s like no other on the planet. I spoke to many people who expressed their deep concerns that the salt flats would cease to exist if something wasn’t done to stop the potash mining. A friend steered me in the direction of the Save The Salt Coalition, a group that had been working for years to do just this. The Bonneville Salt Flats is a historic landmark that needs the public’s awareness of the peril it’s in, a call to action for folks to voice their concerns to their government representatives who would hopefully be able to do something tangible to drive back its destruction.
My background in advertising photography gave me the idea of creating our own marketing campaign concept that would bring awareness to the plight of the landscape and how this magnificent natural wonder was being destroyed by the potash mining.
My partner and I travelled across the country from our home in Cleveland, Ohio every year for a decade, spending our own money in order to record and create the imagery that would make people stop and look at what was being lost. It became a passion project. We devised photography and headlines that were designed to drive people to The Save The Salt Coalition and it was an excellent way for us to contribute to this very worthy cause. By joining with other like-minded individuals and groups, who were all encouraging people to donate their time and dollars to this organisation, we gained more attention from the public and government.
What is ‘Save the Salt’?
I called the project ‘Save The Salt’ and it’s a complex body of work. The idea was to create multi-layered artworks that show the beauty of the landscape, as well as how people connect with it.
A huge influence for this project is the work of Erik Almås. His stylised creations and multi-layered images inspired me to experiment with new ways of working and to become more artistic. Erik is generous in sharing how he creates his epic work and, to me, he’s the master of image conceptualisation and assembly. Taking his lead I decided to create a series of photographically composited images, depicting an array of different vehicles and their owners in the midst of the unique landscape. The plan was to set up photoshoots with different car owners and use the sweet light at the day’s end in order to create a powerful image. The skies, mountains and salt would all be captured separately as multiple-exposure panoramas and assembled in the studio later as individual components that would make the final people-and-car compositions. I also had to factor in space on the artworks for the headlines and calls to action that would communicate the message to the target audience.
Shooting the Salt
All the images were shot during the annual Speedweek in August over a ten-year period. On each trip, when we first arrived in Bonneville, we would cruise through the pits and see old friends and discover new racing teams. There we would find something interesting in the people or racing machines that we would want to photograph. On many occasions we partnered up with other photographers to generate images for the racing team’s use as well as for us to create another shot for the ad series in our campaign. Every year I also made a point of taking new (empty) panoramas of the mountains, skies and salt so I could use them as base layers for future image compilations. Having a library of images with different lighting, salt conditions and skies enables me to composite stronger final photographic pieces of art.
Our concepting of final images doesn’t come in advance of a photo session but actually during the shooting sessions. I have to envision what pieces and that I already have in hand, or will need to produce in order to make the new ad come to life. All lighting, angles and shadows needed to match perfectly so we could create the art that would ultimately be used for the ad campaign.
Some years the weather hampered anything we could do. Even a small rain storm in one of the surrounding mountains could send torrents of water onto the salt flats and flood the plains into becoming a lake again. The water doesn’t absorb into the earth, it stays on the compacted salt surface until the wind, or sun dries out the ground. Racing and setting records has to be done on a safe surface and it had to be dry so some years we sat with disappointed racers and spectators from around the world and looked at a salt surface that was unable to support the racing that people had travelled so far to do.
We realised the most effective way to communicate the message of the campaign with a wide audience was to share the poster ads on social media. I chose dramatic skies to overlay the headlines and strong white salt bases to push the ‘call to action’ message.
Social media only took us so far, however, so I decided to enter the project into a few categories of the American Advertising Federation Awards (ADDYs). This allowed the body of the work to be seen by a much bigger audience and further afield, too. We were successful in scooping a few of the local level prizes as well as a gold at district level and a silver at national level.
The ad images allowed the national advertising world to see the Bonneville Salt Flats as a part of a campaign that was working to save the historic landmark. Through this we were able to expand our reach and influence that would (hopefully) bring awareness and action by many more involved people.
What did you achieve?
It has been a team effort by multiple organisations and people to reach the point where the Bonneville Salt Flats now has some funding that may help heal the iconic landmark.
The Utah State Legislature approved a $5 million appropriation to restore the Bonneville Salt Flats as part of the state budget. Utah legislators received more than 1,000 emails from the motorsports community, which helped focus much needed attention on the critical funding request. The money will help support a program to restore this iconic land formation in northwestern Utah. The purpose of our ad campaign was to bring awareness of an iconic, historical landmark being destroyed and asking people to support the Save The Salt Coalition through donations, or emailing, sending letters and talking directly to their government representatives to push for action. Even in Sharjah at the World Photo Exposition at XPosure, we specified that any monies made in the sale of our art would be sent to the Save the Salt Coalition. Our sole purpose has always been to bring awareness to generate interest and to Save the Salt.
“This marks the first public dollars appropriated to restore the depleted salt surface since the land speed racing community began its quest more than 30 years ago,” said Save the Salt Foundation Vice Chairman Tom Burkland. “This is a job well done. Land speed racers the world over say,‘Thank You Utah!’”
A ‘Restore Bonneville’ program was authorised by the Utah Department of Natural Resources which aims to increase the volume of salt being pumped onto the Bonneville Salt Flats by the Potash mining company. Racing community representatives worked with lawmakers, regulators and Intrepid Potash, Inc. and crafted a 10-year plan. The idea is that salt brine pumping levels will dramatically rise as a result of infrastructure upgrades. The racing venue should gradually expand from its current length of about 8 miles with the goal of reaching its original 13-mile length.
Seeing a project come to fruition and then make a difference to help save a historic landmark and help nature and the speed racing culture coexist for generations to come is a challenge. It is so gratifying for all of our work and the considerable efforts of the Save The Salt Coalition – and to every person that continues to be a part of this team has given the Bonneville Salt Flats a chance to survive and revive, I say thank you. The world is a place that needs all of our help to preserve its natural wonders.
The advantage of doing pro bono campaigns is that it allows the creator to design something that has no parameters. The artistic freedom I had to create the art wasn’t dictated by other factors like budget or client briefs and art directors. This in turn gave me the ability to hone new skills which means my studio will be able to offer other types of advertising photography to future paying clients.
It’s a win-win situation to be able to use one’s talents to help others and enrich your own toolbox for future projects. I encourage others to find a passion project to help make a change in the world through your art. It is good for the world and for the soul.
Keith Berr works globally as an advertising photographer.