Photographs & Words by Benjamin Galland
I was just north of Yulee, Florida, after a long day of driving, when I realized I couldn’t squeeze the remaining 50 miles out of the tank to get home. I stopped at a station with pay-first pumps, and as I chatted up the young local behind the counter, I had a memorable conversation.
She asked where I was from, and I told her St. Simons Island, leaving off Georgia as I often do when I’m close enough to home.
“You live on an island? Where’s that?” she asked.
“Just north of here, along 95, right on the coast of Georgia,” I explained.
“Georgia has a coast?”
I told her yes, in fact, it’s the same one Florida has. She let out a long ohhhh, I finished paying and left her there geographically confused.
But ignorance is not bliss. We should know where we are. My aspiration is to spark that search.
I grew up on St. Simons Island and have lived here my whole life. I feel extremely blessed to earn a living doing what I love, in a place I love. In 2009, I co-founded a marketing and advertising firm in Brunswick, across the sound on the mainland. I spend my days photographing everything from food to real estate for some fantastic clients. But owning a small business can be draining, and it’s then I really find solace in my art.
While I’ve photographed on the coast since my early teens, I’ve spent the past 10 years actively documenting the barrier islands of Georgia for a series of books published by the University of Georgia Press. In my efforts to give a unique voice to each island, I’ve struggled with finding a creative and fresh approach to capturing the beauty surrounding me. An example is the photograph of a sand dune in early morning light. I’ve shot it a thousand times, it has a place in my work, but I need something more. I need to feel something more, to be passionate and moved by something.
Flood tide marsh with sky blue reflection
That’s where this new project has taken me. I have literally changed my perspective, and I am obsessed with it. Shooting from a drone, with a straight-down vantage point, has allowed me to explore my coastal muse with a brand new eye. I see fundamental elements like terrain, light, shadow, shapes and texture differently now. I fantasize and dream about new photographs. I have found inspiration in the exploration.
I did not set out to make a statement, but everything starts from the basis of love. My work has always had an underlying connection with conservation. While I’m no politician or even an occasional protester, I am an artist, and I can use my skills to evoke change. The coastal landscape I love is ever changing and in need of protection and care. My hope is that my work may be used to bring an awareness to lawmakers and citizens alike that we must do all we can to be responsible stewards of this beautiful land. Where politics and science tend to rule the conservation topic, I feel that art can go beyond the reach of those traditional methods and strike the emotional connection in all of us.
Art can educate and move the viewer; it can make you stop in mid-scroll and say damn, and if you pick up just a little bit more awareness about what surrounds us, it’s worked.
In “Call to Arms,” the Kentucky songwriter Sturgill Simpson writes, “Nobody is lookin' up to care about a drone, all too busy lookin' down at our phone.”
While I know Sturgill is referring more than my personal works of art, I like the metaphor that he draws here. For me, it’s about being passionate about something that matters. I don’t care if it’s environmental, humanitarian, or political. It’s about creating a path between passion and communication.
Perhaps that’s why I’ve focused my lens on the literal pathways that become so clear in several of these photos. I want to bring you here, to the coast of Georgia, which some folks don’t even know exists. I want you to see the way the light reflects off the late winter marsh, giving it an almost fur-like appearance from above.
Maybe then, you will be moved enough to learn more, explore further and cultivate change.
Brunswick Landing Marina
I grew up on the water, boating through the riverways and marshes. As a child, I remember walking up and down the docks at the Golden Isles Marina at dusk. I’d admire the boats — the contrast of their bright gel coats against the dark water, perfectly aligned in the slips and waiting for the next adventure.
FJ Torras Causeway
I love a flood tide at full moon. It completely changes the landscape for two or three hours, allowing for incredible fishing — and surreal photos. One of the first photos I took in this series, this image has inspired me to think differently about shadows from above.
Boardwalk through marsh
The one that started it all. I absolutely was blown away with how pelage-like the marsh looked one evening while standing on that boardwalk. I was just elevated enough to see the top of the marsh, and as it moved with the wind it reminded me of a dog’s coat. I went back the following evening with my drone to capture more of that scene than could be viewed by just standing there. This is one thing I love about photography — being able to present an image in a way that is impossible without a camera.
Wildlife Preserve Road I
Perhaps what has drawn me in the most with this series is being forced out of my creative comfort zone. Composing traditional landscape photos is almost second nature to me, but standing in the middle of this road, looking at the convergence of rivers and the shapes the marsh and light might play on it force me to wonder and think. I always try to envision the shot before taking to the air.
Moored Boat, Frederica River
Morning is my absolute favorite time to shoot. Ask anyone, I’m a morning person, but the light is absolutely stunning this time of day on the coast. The cast of the shadows is equally as impressive, setting motion to the still and depth to the shallow. The terrain takes a completely different form from this angle and I love exploiting it.
Tracks Over the Satilla
This is a prime example of how light differs on a landscape from above — the darker, cooler foliage on the top contrasting with the bright, warmer foliage on the bottom. Georgia has one of the most extensive freight rail systems in the U.S., with more than 5,000 miles of track. This is the CSXT rail just outside of Atkinson, Georgia.
Wildlife Preserve Road II
I often visit sites multiple times. I get fixated on an idea, and it’s only afterwards, when I’ve left, that I start breaking out of the mold and thinking of other shots. I love this image — how a straight and pedestrian road is juxtaposed with a wild and winding creek. I’ve been obsessed with natural juxtaposition for a very long time.
I shot out of bed at 4 a.m., awakened by thought of this photo. At that point, I had been working on this project for about a month and I was spending all of my time thinking of new locations and photographs. That progressed to dreaming of new shots, and I left St. Simons for the closest place I could encounter — the Satilla, just east of Lulaton, Georgia. I have a long love affair with this 235-mile blackwater river that courses through Southeast Georgia. It is an important part of our ecosystem. In 2010, a litter-trap was installed on the river, the first in Georgia and the second in the nation.
Bridge to Cabretta Island
Spanning the gap from Sapelo Island to Cabretta Island, this bridge saw extensive structural damage after Hurricane Irma, leaving it impassible.
Mud matters. Providing key habitat for millions of migratory shorebirds, crabs, mollusks, fish ... as well as any footwear you dare step in with.
I love the contrast of colors, textures and shapes. When we see the edge of the Marsh, it ends. It proves the story goes on, way past our vantage point.
Quite possibly one of my favorite places on earth. One cannot easily explain the feeling of a planed-out boat, cruising the high tide of this waterway, with its hundreds of turns and tributaries. I am not done with this location.
Birds in Tidal Pool
One of the few photos I shot that’s not exactly a straight down angle. Light reflects differently on the water at every single angle, and in order to really see the blue reflection of the sky in the water, this needed more of an acute angle.
I could produce a whole collection of these images alone. I am continually fascinated by the myriad of color and texture found at the beach. When we are walking on it, it’s hard to grasp and envision. At 400 feet, we see the bigger picture.
One of my favorite wading birds for the obvious colorful reasons. Just like the flamingo, their pink color is diet-derived.
Village Creek Flood Tide
At the local flood tide, when full moon and sunset collide, the landscape is surreal. It’s expansive and mesmerizing.
I love this photo for the sole reason I didn’t have to focus on any individual element, but rather the whole picture. It’s not about the hammock and its shadow, or the boardwalk, or the creek. It’s all of it — the entirety of our surroundings — we should focus on.
Breakers on Pelican Spit, off the coast of Little St. Simons Island
Cabretta Island Beach at Dusk.
Path to Beach
My best friend from high school designed this boardwalk, and I’ve always been enamored with how it twists and turns its way to the beach, dodging trees and dunes where it can. I attempted to illustrate that with traditional photo methods several times and haven’t been pleased until now.