They look like they belong in a modern art museum.

Photo from J Henry Fair, used with permission.

But this isn't an oil painting.


The kaleidoscope above is actually "red mud" waste from processing bauxite ore, the world's main source of aluminum.

For years, J Henry Fair, a photographer and activist, has been taking aerial photographs of industrial sites, capturing how humanity affects the numerous interlocking systems that make up our environment.

The images are surprising, thought-provoking, and even a little intense.

In Louisiana, that red mud is channeled to large, shallow pools like this one, where it slowly evaporates and dries out.

Photo from J Henry Fair, used with permission.

The mud can be highly alkaline and contain elements such as arsenic and mercury. Most of the time, the mud is kept contained, but an industrial accident in 2010 near Budapest, Hungary, sent more than a million cubic meters of toxic waste into the Marcal river.

In Canada, gigantic tanks hold millions of gallons of tar sand oil.

Photo from J Henry Fair, used with permission.

Once you extract oil sands, you need to "upgrade" it by removing particulate matter. This gigantic tank in Canada, seen from above, stores 400,000 to 500,000 barrels of oil. The inspection catch can be seen in the center.

This tank has rusted and been painted over multiple times, forming a shifting pattern of colors.

Photo from J Henry Fair, used with permission.

It looks like a close-up of an alien eye.

This is what it looks like when coal ash is diverted from the atmosphere and into water instead.

Photo from J Henry Fair, used with permission.

Coal provides about 30% of the United States' electricity. Filters and scrubbers can capture the ash and particulate matter produced by burning coal, preventing it from entering the atmosphere. But the pollution has to go somewhere. Much of it ends up in holding ponds instead.

This coal ash holding pond in Pennsylvania is the largest in the United States.

Photo from J Henry Fair, used with permission.

This pond is in Shippingport. It's a "high hazard" impoundment. If it failed, people could be in danger.

On the other side of the state, fracking fluid is collected in lined pits.

Photo from J Henry Fair, used with permission.

The fluid includes ground-up rock, lubricants, chemicals, and sometimes radioactive material from the fracked shale layer.

Fair notes that the overspray, seen at the top of the photo, is a regulatory violation. Any fluid that escapes could seep into the local water system.

This ochre-colored pattern is actually from the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Photo from J Henry Fair, used with permission.

In this photo, light petroleum from the Deepwater Horizon accident lingers just below the ocean surface. Dispersant chemicals eventually broke up the surface spill, sinking it toward the ocean floor.

This is a picture of the tailings of a Swedish iron mine.

Photo from J Henry Fair, used with permission.

Fine waste material mixes with water and is pumped into impoundments, essentially large ponds or dams.

Finally, this emerald view is actually an impoundment at a pesticide factory.

Photo from J Henry Fair, used with permission.

Fair's flight services for all these striking images were provided by Lighthawk and Southwings.

These images show a side of our habits we don't often see.

We use the materials produced at these sites every day — aluminum cans, plastics, coal-powered electricity — but we've put great distance between the actual production and the consumer. Yet our effect is still present.

"Once you really know and accept the consequences of something, then you have to make a moral judgment," Fair says. The good news is that if you don't think it's worth it, it's not hard to change.

"We all feel a sense of futility. The questions are so big that we all feel like there's nothing I can do. But in fact, everything adds up. Everything matters," Fair says. It can be as simple as eating chicken instead of beef or buying a different brand of toilet paper.

Fair is turning the project into a book.

Titled "Industrial Scars," it's being published by Papadakis and features a foreword by Bill McKibben of 350.org. You can also find more of Fair's work on his website.

Photo from J Henry Fair, used with permission.

Watch the trailer for the book below: