Tara Pixley uses her creativity to advocate for healthier communities through “Immersed in Oil” project

Image of Tara Pixley holding a camera.

Tara Pixley is many things: a visual journalist, an experienced media producer and consultant, and a journalism professor based in Los Angeles. But whether she is collaborating with the Wall Street Journal to document a Black Lives Matter march in Los Angeles or capturing portraits of the Dames Aflame contemporary burlesque dancers in Atlanta, Pixley remains conscious of the way that photography can be used to tell stories that resonate across culture, languages, and time.

As a queer, first-generation Jamaican-American raised in the Southeast U.S., Pixley cares deeply about the visual rhetoric of photography, often pushing audiences to rethink visual representations of gender, race, class, and sexuality. A founding member and Executive Director of Authority Collective, Pixley is helping to build a community for women and nonbinary photographers of color, challenging organizations to be more diverse and inclusive in how they tell their visual stories.

“A central tenant of my life and my existence through my work is that none of us are free until all of us are free,” explains Pixley. “We need to understand that we are all one community, and that the fabric of humanity binds us inextricably with each other.”

Image of Tara Pixley.

Pixley’s most recent project turns her photographic eye to the environmental impact of oil production on Los Angeles and surrounding Californian communities. “Immersed in Oil” plans to bring together photography, video, audio, interviews, maps, data, and statistics to create an accessible digital archive to push for policy changes across California and the United States.

I sat down with Tara as part of the Adobe Changemakers series to explore how artists can use their creative talents to advocate for a more sustainable future.

Becoming “Immersed in Oil”

Pixley was shocked as she began to learn more about oil production in California. While many people imagine that Los Angeles was built on Hollywood, glamour, or beaches. It’s not. It was built on oil.

“Los Angeles is the largest urban oil field in the country,” explains Pixley. “While other states may boast much higher oil production, California has the largest concentration of people in proximity to oil production.”

The more Pixley researched the subject, the more she realized how the toxic environmental impacts of oil production affected communities throughout California — and especially the most vulnerable ones.

“The Marathon Los Angeles Refinery is located in Wilmington, a working-class community with a predominantly Latin American population and a high number of undocumented residents,” says Pixley. “We know the health impacts of oil infrastructure. People have higher rates of asthma, cancer, and preterm birth. But when people are rushing home to take care of their kids before heading to a second shift, they don’t have the time and energy to fight big oil.”

“This is what I mean when I say that environmental injustice is at the intersection of everything we need to be thinking about as a society right now. Environmental injustice has its roots in racial injustice, colonization, slavery. It’s all of our toxic traits brought together,” adds Pixley.

Through the “Immersed in Oil” project, Pixley is building trust with communities and documenting their struggles through the medium of photography. While many communities have seen journalists come and go, Pixley is committed to a long-term view of the project, using her storytelling skills to advocate for change.

“I’m not the only person trying to bring attention to oil in the U.S., but one thing I noticed during my research is how much the current imagery focuses on landscapes,” says Pixley. “You might see an oil derrick next to a house, or an aerial shot of an oil refinery. Those are important visuals for helping audiences understand how close communities are to oil production, but what’s missing to me is the people being impacted.”

“I’m not seeing the eight-year-old kid who struggles at school because they’re getting nose bleeds and headaches every day. I’m not seeing the teenagers who play football and study in the shadow of a decommissioned oil derrick at Beverly Hills High School. I care about those families who want to raise their children and help them succeed, without worrying that they’ll develop cancer because of this proximity to oil,” adds Pixley.

Image of Tara Pixley.

Creating a sustainable resource for change

Pixley envisions the “Immersed in Oil” project as a website that serves as a sustainable framework for change. As a public digital resource launching in 2024, people and organizations interested in bringing policy change can contribute information, conduct research, and share stories online. Visuals are important to making the information eye-catching, memorable, and shareable. Pixley and her collaborators use Adobe Creative Cloud apps such as Adobe InDesign, Adobe Premiere Pro with Frame.io, and the Substance 3D Collection to design the website and fill it with content ranging from photography and interviews to 360-degree video and interactive data visualizations.

For her own photography, Pixley primarily works with Photoshop and Lightroom to achieve film-quality images with a fraction of the environmental impact. “Film results in beautiful images, but the process of development involves a lot of harsh chemicals and paper,” says Pixley. “Adobe Lightroom allows me to achieve the look that I love about film, but with a much lower carbon footprint.”

“This story takes place in Los Angeles, but it’s everyone’s story,” says Pixley. “I’m a first-generation American, raised in a working-class Afro-Caribbean community in Georgia. I know what it’s like to be overlooked by corporations, undervalued by the government, and live in the shadow of fear that your children won’t be safe or healthy. I think one of the most important things that I can do through my work is to bring people closer and show how something that impacts one of us, impacts us all.”

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