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Behind the lens

CRISTINA MITTERMEIER Behind the Lens places a spotlight on the world’s foremost ocean conservation photographers. Each edition focusses on the work of an individual who continues to shape global public opinion through powerful imagery and compelling storytelling.


Q&A CRISTINA MITTERMEIER National Geographic Photographer, Co-founder and Vision Lead at SeaLegacy Cristina is a Sony Artisan of Imagery, the editor of 25 coffee table books on conservation issues and the founder of the International League of Conservation Photographers. Most recently, Cristina was acknowledged as one of National Geographic's Adventurers of the Year for 2018 and is a National Geographic Woman of Impact. Earlier this year, she released a Fine Art photography book, called Amaze.

OCEA NO G R A PH I C M AGAZ I N E (OM ): W H E N DID YOU FIRST CONNECT WITH TH E OCEAN? CRISTINA MITTERMEIER (CM): I have a memory as a young child, probably 7 or 8 years old, of going to the coastal town in Mexico where my father grew up, a place called Tampico. The oil industry was big there. I remember going to the beach and really enjoying the waves and then coming out of the ocean with tar stuck to me. My mum spent 30 minutes with a piece of cloth cleaning the tar off me. I don’t remember it as a bad thing - it was just what happened when you were on the beach. I remember loving being in the water, something I feel to this day. Growing up in Mexico, which was - and is - such a fast-growing country, you witness a lot of environmental devastation, beautiful ecosystems turned into developments almost overnight. I’ve been witness to that my whole life. The real thing that I wonder: why are people not as concerned as I am? Take the devastation of the mangroves on the Yucatan Peninsula, for example. I went there in 1985 and returned in 1991. Hotels had replaced the mangroves and estuaries. The ecosystems were gone. In adult life, the ocean has been an ever-present. Just last week I was in Isla Mujeres photographing whales sharks, spending hours in the ocean. It feels like the place where I belong.

OM: YO U W ER E A M ARI N E S C I E N T I S T BE F OR E YOU WERE A P ROFESSIONAL P H OTO G R A PH ER. W H E N D I D YOU RE AL I S E TH E P OWER OF OCEAN P H OTOGRAP H Y? CM: I spent 20 years as a photographer focussed on terrestrial subjects and people before I had the opportunity to shoot underwater. It’s expensive and the learning curve is massive. You need the equipment and the opportunities to get in the water. I was only able to do it because Paul Nicklen, my partner, is a phenomenal underwater photographer and he mentored me. Otherwise there would have been very little chance for me to buy a housing and go experimenting. He loaned me the equipment. I wanted to do it, but just didn’t know how to go about it. It felt like an insurmountable wall of knowledge. I have huge respect for underwater photographers because it’s not easy.

OM: A CENT R A L T H RE AD OF YOU R W ORK F O CUSSES ON H IGH LIGH TING TH E RELAT IO NS H IP BE T W E E N T H E OC E AN AN D H UMANITY. WH Y IS TH AT CONNECTION SO IMPO RTA NT TO YOU ? CM: I often think if extra-terrestrials were to look at the Earth from space they would recognise it as an ocean planet. It is the largest ecosystem, the dominant ecosystem. We are, therefore, all ocean creatures - even if we don’t know it. Our existence is because of the ocean, so it's important to make that connection - to show people that the ocean is not some foreign place that we visit on holiday, but that is it our life-support system. Building that understanding is at the core of what I do.


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O M: M U C H OF T H AT W ORK RE VOLVES AROUND WOMEN IN COASTAL COMMUNITIES. TELL U S A L I T T L E M ORE ABOU T YOU R DESIRE TO SH INE A LIGH T ON TH ESE P EOP LE AND T H EIR S TORI E S PART I C U L ARLY. CM: I’m a curious person. Every once in a while I encounter a fact that completely shocks me. I studied fisheries and aquaculture at university and was surprised to learn that 46% of the workforce in fisheries is women. When we think about the people who go out to sea, the people who make a living from the ocean, we always think about men. And yet half of those people are women, and many of them have to do the menial jobs that are poorly paid and not recognised - the cleaning, the selling and the packaging of fish. They rarely have access to managerial or more visible roles that are better paid. I feel it’s so important to shine a light on that to open opportunities for women. I also think that if women had more control over fisheries, or if women managed fisheries, we would be a lot kinder to the ocean.

O M: YOU ’ V E S AI D T H AT I F P E OP L E A REN’T SCARED OR WORRIED ABOUT TH E STATE OF T H E O C E AN , T H E Y ’ RE N OT PAY I N G ATTENTION. H OW BIG A ROLE DO YOU TH INK YOUR NO N- PROF I T ORGAN I S AT I ON S E AL EGACY IS H AVING IN GRABBING P EOP LE’S ATTENTION? CM: SeaLegacy’s success is something that’s caught us a little by surprise. It started off as a humble desire to contribute to the narrative of how important the ocean is. We’ve come to realise that ecology - or just a general understanding of how our planet works - is not general knowledge for many people. People have no understanding of how our planet works. We use social media to share small pieces of information that help people realise, for example, the critical role that plankton plays. Or we might answer the question: why does it rain? These are all titbits of knowledge that most people don’t have. SeaLegacy is about sharing from a very personal perspective. It’s been amazing how receptive people have been to this narrative. We remain positive and hopeful, and people have gravitated towards that.

O M: W H AT D O YOU H OP E TO AC H I E V E WITH SEALEGACY? CM: SeaLegacy is only four and a half years old. When you start a non-profit and you’re trying to raise money, it’s like a small airplane that’s trying to take off along a long runway. For us that runway has been trying to make the most of opportunities placed in front of us, stories that are in our own backyard - it’s cheaper than travelling to the other side of the world and it’s what we know best. But now, for the first time, it feels like we are catching up with who we are going to become. For the first time we have an opportunity to sit down with our entire staff, which is now up to 20 people, and look ahead and ask: what are the stories? What are the longer-term objectives for the next year, three years, ten years? Ultimately, for us, that objective is to have a healthy and abundant ocean. Whatever we need to do to get that, that’s the plan.

O M: S OC I AL M E D I A I S A P L AT F ORM SEALEGACY IS H ARNESSING WELL. H OW BIG A ROLE D O YO U T H I N K S O C I A L P L AT F O R M S C A N P L AY I N T H E F I G H T F O R I M P R OV E D O C E A N H E A LT H ? CM: Just five years ago, the only opportunity to publish any meaningful stories was through magazines like National Geographic, and every photographer was fighting for those limited pages. Social media has changed that. The lightbulb for me was what the world witnessed with the Arab Spring, a social media-ignited revolution. I thought, wow, if we can use social media to fight for human rights and democracy, we can use it to fight for ocean conservation as well. I equate it to a giant campfire that all of us humans are gathered around. We’re having a global conversation, every day, 24 hours a day. It’s an incredible way of communicating. At SeaLegacy we take a lot of time to read people’s comments, because it allows us to see where people’s understanding of certain issues is and where the concerns are.

Continued on p.80...

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Q&A Continued...

OM: YO U’ VE TA K E N I S S U E W I T H T H E I N AC C ESSIBILITY OF SCIENCE PAP ERS, PA RT I C U L A R LY T H E I R P O O R V I S UA L M E S S AG I N G . D O YO U T H I N K T H E O C E A N S C I E N C E C O MMU NIT Y NE E D S A C OM M U N I C AT I ON S RETH INK? CM: I find it shocking. When you’re trained as a scientist, you’re trained in the rigours of scientific discourse. When I started doing more advocacy-related work people in the scientific community really looked down on me. It was as if advocacy work was ‘dumbing it down’. But the reality is there is an intellectual barrier for the vast majority of people to understanding science in the way it is generally presented. Science is important, fundamental, but the really important bit is the way we communicate the parts that matter to most people. The vast majority of people don’t need to know the details of experiments, but they do need to know that melting polar regions will impact them. It’s not up to debate; it’s fact. And our job as storytellers is to connect those stories with people on a personal level.

O M: H OW MU CH D OE S S E AL E GAC Y L I AI S E DIRECTLY WITH TH E SCIENTIFIC COMMUNITY? CM: A lot. Paul and I have had opportunities over the years to work with many wonderful scientists and form personal relationships with them. We realised when we started SeaLegacy that we were photographers before we were scientists and would need to rely on people who knew more than we did. So we created something call The Compass, a way for us to get the true north of what the story is. The Compass is composed of scientists in various disciplines, from global ecology to climate change. I call them my ‘phone a friends’. These are people who I have a chance to phone and ask questions about things that I don’t understand.

O M: IN T ER MS O F T H E C ON N E C T I ON BE T W EEN P OWERFUL P H OTOGRAP H Y AND PA S S I O N AT E S TO RY T E L L I N G , T H E R E ’ S A C L E A R L I N K B E T W E E N S E A L E G AC Y A N D A NOT H ER O R G AN I S AT I ON YOU F OU N D E D , T H E INTERNATIONAL LEAGUE OF CONSERVATION P H OTO G R A P H E R S ( I L C P ) . W H AT I N S P I R E D YOU TO FOUND ILCP AND HOW IMPORTANT D O YO U T H INK I T S P H OTOGRAP H E RS ARE I N SH ARING TH E BEAUTY AND P LIGH T OF TH E NAT U R A L W O R L D W I T H T H E P U BL I C ? CM: Both were founded out of a frustration at the lack of meaningful storytelling through photography. Back when I created ILCP a lot of photographers hadn’t recognised the power of visual storytelling for conservation or environmental work. Being an environmentalist was seen as a negative thing by a lot of photographers. I tried to create platforms within existing organisations, but the resistance was huge. I looked for photographers who, like myself, had a desire to use their images to create change and built a platform that would allow them to continue to do that. It was so special and attracted such talent and passion from around the world. It was incredibly rewarding. After a while though, I became an administrator. While all these talented photographers were out in the field, I was in the office making sure the nonprofit worked. After six years I stepped down as president. It’s still a wonderful, prestigious organisation, but I wanted to go back to the ocean. When Paul and I moved to British Columbia I thought about retiring, just spending my time gardening and swimming in the ocean. It lasted a few months. You can’t hide from the news and I felt I had to do something. I wanted to use everything I learned at ILCP and apply it to the ocean. That’s what we’ve done with SeaLegacy.

O M: YO UR NEW BOOK , AM AZ E , H AS J U S T C OME OUT IN EUROP E. WH EN READERS CLOSE T H AT F INA L PAGE , W H AT D O YOU H OP E YOUR IMAGES WILL H AVE MADE TH EM FEEL? CM: I hope they don’t think ‘she’s a great photographer’. I want them to have taken the time to read the text. There’s a lot of knowledge that I’ve harnessed from working with indigenous people around the world on how to become a citizen of this planet, by finding our own sense of purpose and ‘enoughness’. If people take the time to reach that point, by the last page they will have found a new planetary compass, of how to live a life more fulfilled, more purposeful, more aligned with the world, and how to do that in a joyful, hopeful way.


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O M: PH OTOGRAP H Y H AS T H E P OW ER TO EXP OSE ECOLOGICAL ISSUES IN A P ROFOUND WAY. H OW I M P O RTA N T I S I T T H AT PEOPLE ARE DAZZLED AND AMAZED TOO, THAT S IMPLE S E N S E OF T H I N K I N G ‘ W OW’? CM: Because a lot of people don’t have the opportunity to explore, they presume a lot of our planet is already developed and wrecked. With photography you can remind people that this is a beautiful planet, that it’s worth fighting for and that those last remote corners need protecting. You can beat people over the head with a stick regarding the problems we face. We have no shortage of issues to photograph in an apocalyptic way, but that’s defeatist. Hope is a powerful emotion. When you can set your sights on a hopeful future, you can navigate towards that future. If you just focus on the negative narrative, that’s where you’ll end up.

O M: IN T E RM S OF RE C ON N E C T I N G P EOP LE WITH TH E OCEAN, H OW IMP ORTANT IS IT TO INS T IL A S E N S E OF ADV E N T U RE ? CM: Oh my god, so important. When we started SeaLegacy we agreed that we wanted it to be a call to adventure. We recognised what a tremendous privilege it is to be in the water almost every day. Most people don’t get that chance, and the vast majority of the people on this planet will never get that chance. We wanted to bring people on an adventure with us, to take them out into the field - sharing those successes, failures, frustrations, victories. People get invested in that journey with you. Adventure is so important. And it’s an invitation to be more adventurous too. For me, I’ve had those doubts myself since I was young: it’s too dangerous, girls shouldn’t be doing that. I’m trying to share my sense of adventure with other women, to show them that it is entirely possible to be adventurous and be part of that world of excitement.

O M: W H AT ’ S BE E N YOU R P ROU D E S T ACH IEVEMENT AS A P H OTOGRAP H ER? CM: I’m very proud of having coined and defined the term ‘conservation photography’, something different from nature photography that gives purpose to thousands of photographers. It’s made it ok and cool, right? I wanted to create an army of storytellers and I think that has certainly happened. The other day I was looking at the National Geographic Instagram account. When you look at all the images they’ve ever posted, I have two in the top ten! Those two are not hopeful images, they are images of devastation (ed: one of them, an image of a starving polar bear, is featured in these pages). They were difficult to make, the sort of images that scar your soul when you’re working on them. I think that pain and horror shines through. If for every ten beautiful images I make I can create one poignant image that tells a story about what’s happening to our planet, that makes me really proud.

O M: W H AT ’ S BE E N YOU R M OS T E XHILARATING MOMENT AS A P H OTOGRAP H ER? CM: Ay me! Every time I go in the ocean. I was in Antarctica last year. I was there to photograph Paul Nicklen and his encounter with a leopard seal. I got in the water first and was surrounded by five leopard seals. That was exhilarating! I never felt threatened though. Swimming with orcas in Norway was another moment. I had a large female come up close to me. I could feel her echolocations - every click! And last week we were in the water with 250 whale sharks in Mexico. There were so many in the water that while I was photographing one coming at me, another was running me over. They’re harmless but they’re big! I was giggling and crying in my mask. It was beautiful.

O M: YOU R W ORK TAK E S YOU AL L OVER TH E WORLD. WH ERE ARE YOU OFF TO NEXT? CM: I’m off to the coast of Ghana, to photograph a project about women fisherfolk. These are women who were struggling to make a living buying fish. They would buy the fish at 6am and by 10pm if they hadn’t sold their stock, the produce would spoil and they’d be indebted. That debt leads to sexual and human trafficking. A small organisation came up with the idea of bringing in a refrigerator and a smoking machine. By extending the life of the fish they have turned those women into businesswomen. I’m going to photograph that. It’s amazing how small contributions can change the lives and the narratives of people. I’m always excited to photograph that.

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Antarctica A leopard seal patrols an iceberg on which a group of fledging penguins, on their first swim out to see, have become stranded - a stand-off between predator and prey.

British Columbia, Canada A humpback whale emerges with a big splash from the bubble net he just laid to trap a school of herring, a frequent and amazing sight in the Great Bear Sea.

Canadian Arctic Climate change kills slowly and by proxy. While there is no proof this bear was dying due to climate change, the sea ice the species relies on to hunt is disappearing.

British Columbia, Canada Bridging the gap between above and below, this egg yolk jellyfish dances on the thin blue line, a symbol of how connected the two worlds are.

Silver Bank, Dominica A baby humpback peeks its head out of the water. Cristina feels a personal responsibility to do everything in her power to make sure whales have a safe, healthy home to live in.

British Columbia, Canada Molina Dawson, a young Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw warrior, sits in an ancestral fishing camp threatened by open-net salmon farms operating without consent.

British Columbia, Canada Gwantilakw Hunt Cranmer yells her anger from the shoreline on Cormorant Island. Unheeded requests to rid her territory of fish farms began before she was born.

British Columbia, Canada Young Ta’Kaiya Blaney, singer, songwriter, drummer and speaker for her people, the Tla’min First Nation of British Columbia, stands on the edge of the Salish Sea.

Kayapo, Brazil A young Kayapo girl bathes in the warm waters of the Xingu River in the Amazon. Her eyes speak of a beloved river about to be dammed forever and the fear of a future unknown.

Pulicat, India A Tamil woman sets out fish to dry in the midday sun. The majority of this small catch will go to make chicken feed; a sad ending for the foundation of life in the ocean.

Antarctica Like a veil of molten gold, the early evening light bathes the fluke of a lone humpback whale as it feeds in the krill-rich waters off the Antarctic Peninsula.

Falkland Islands King Penguins make their way to sea to feed. While one parent risks its life to get food, the other stays to look after their chick. On Volunteer Point, tourists can visit by car.


Behind the lens CRISTINA MITTERMEIER Trained as a marine biologist and a photographer, the Mexico City-born

Greenland Cristina Mittermeier combines her work behind the lens with her passion for Knowing that his dogs and environmentalism, telling visual stories in some of the world's most remote his village depend on his aim, areas in order to explore our relationship with the earth and ocean and draw Naimanngitsoq Kristiansen, a attention to the beauty and the plight of our planet. traditional Inuit hunter, keeps Cristina has worked in more than 100 countries on every continent in the a patient watch, waiting for harp seals and walrus to world. Her work is about building a greater awareness of the responsibility of is the camerato forbe capturing special photos. Its reminder that we are inextricably comeLight. near. Motion. Moment. The Leica SL what it means a human. It is an urgent


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Photo shot on Leica SL from the series “Parkour Motion”, © Ben Franke

Oceanographic Issue 02

Profile for Oceanographic Magazine

Behind the lens / Cristina Mittermeier  

'Behind the lens' is standalone section in each edition of Oceanographic Magazine that puts the spotlight on one of the world's leading ocea...

Behind the lens / Cristina Mittermeier  

'Behind the lens' is standalone section in each edition of Oceanographic Magazine that puts the spotlight on one of the world's leading ocea...

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