CRISTINA MITTERMEIER - INTERVIEW
Her work has been published in National Geographic, TIME Magazine, and McLean’s to name a few. In 2005 she founded the International League of Conservation Photographers. She has won many awards, including the Smithsonian Photographer of the Year and the Mission Award from the North American Nature Photography Association.
Her latest book Amaze is a visually powerful & inspiring collection of images & stories from the farthest corners of the world, showcasing landscapes, indigenous peoples, and wild animals… All part of the ‘maze’ of sustainable existence.
Did your interest in photography develop alongside your work as a marine biologist & conservationist? Or did one of those precede the other? Tell us a bit about how you came to get involved in this type of work.
I never set out to be a photographer. I never owned a camera as a child, and to this day, the workings of the camera are not what I am passionate about. I switched from a focus on science to one in communications, because I had an urgent need to communicate the plight of our natural world. Although science is fundamental to understanding what is happening to our planet, it fails to convey the emotions that make us care. Most importantly, it lacks the power to communicate the urgency to protect nature and wildlife for the benefit of all.
It hasn't been a short or easy journey. I worked hard at teaching myself the basics of photography, and then I went back to school to learn more about the underpinnings of Fine Art, which is the foundation of the type of photography I feel best conveys emotion. I studied the work of people I admire, and I tried to be innovative in the way I articulated the purpose of my photography. I didn't just want to take pictures; I wanted to make images of such power and purpose that they would move people to action.
Together with your partner Paul Nicklen you founded Sea Legacy. What was the motivation behind this enormous undertaking?
SeaLegacy was born from equal parts frustration and fear. After spending nearly 25 years working to protect wildlife and ecosystems, I know that in the absence of a pivotal change in our moral compass around nature, we simply cannot succeed against the powers of greed and profiteering that are driving natural resources to dangerous depletion. We knew that with National Geographic's massive brand reach we could have a conversation with millions of people, but we wanted the freedom to shoot what we think is most important, instead of being tied to the editorial needs of NG. We started SeaLegacy to make our conservation aspirations more achievable.
What advice would you give to someone who looks to you for inspiration, in the sense of creating photographic work fuelled by the desire to effect change… but maybe doesn't know where to begin?
That's not an easy question to answer. There are lots of factors at play, all connected to individual circumstances - skills, networks, abilities, and opportunity. That said, I believe that education is key. Get a strong foundation of knowledge and theory on the subjects you are passionate about and then work incredibly hard and practice. Study the work of other photographers and look for opportunities to learn in the field. Become a photography assistant to a professional photographer so that you can learn field techniques; from writing proposals to organizing gear, to managing the logistics of a shoot. Being a photographer is not easy; most of us work as freelancers, which allows great freedom but comes with no guarantee of income or benefits. This is a profession that demands some hustling and some assertiveness, and it isn't as glamorous as people think. The competition is steep as there are so many talented photographers out there, and it's challenging to make a real living from it. So, if you are serious about making a photography as a profession, set some goals for yourself. Become a good writer, learn business practices, be an effective communicator with potential clients, be serious about your work as a volunteer, and do everything you possibly can to get closer to those goals. Most importantly, know that it won't happen overnight.
How has your experience with indigenous people been? How have you managed to get immersed in their lives?
With over 10% of our population belonging to a large number of ethnic groups, Mexico is still a place where it is possible to interact with indigenous people almost on a daily basis. I was lucky to grow up feeling comfortable and at ease with people of different world views, who speak different languages, and who lead their lives by very different rules. When I first had opportunity to visit other countries and spend time with indigenous people elsewhere, the experience remained the same. Regardless of the community you are visiting, it is always wise to have an open mind and a respectful approach. Just because someone looks different doesn't make them less human or less valuable. On the contrary, if you take the time to explore the experiences of people who still live close to the land and who guide their relationship with Earth and with each other by the lessons learned over thousands of years, you can learn a lot.
Similarly, there must have been moments, when you found yourself in danger. Can you describe one?
It is a very human thing to get scared. Of course, I get scared, but when I feel a little fear, that is when I know that I am in the right place. The important question is how do you channel that fear? I call all the little voices in my head, the "Peanut Gallery," and they are constantly telling me to be cautious, to stay in my comfort zone, to take the safe route. I make a constant effort to silence those voices. They are the voices that tell us that women don't deserve the same opportunities, or that the world is a dangerous place for a girl, or that we don't deserve the achievements we conquer. Whether I am making a speech or diving with sharks, I change my inner-dialogue into a conversation about empowerment. If I'm not willing to take this next step, I might as well go sit down on my couch for the rest of my life. I take the responsibility of telling a story that is bigger than myself seriously.
You have described yourself as an Ethnographic photographer. Can you describe what that means?
As a photographer and conservationist my work is about building a greater awareness of the responsibility of what it means to be a human. It is about understanding that the history of every living thing that has ever existed on this planet also lives within us. It is about the ethical imperative-the urgent reminder that we are inextricably linked to all other species on this planet and that we have a duty to act as the keepers of our fellow life forms.
Tell us about your heroes in real life.
I suppose my biggest hero is my partner, photographer Paul Nicklen. From the time he was a boy he has been in love with the Arctic, and his is a life dedicated to telling the story of our changing polar regions. I don't know anyone else who is willing to go through the extreme conditions Paul is willing to endure to get the shots that tell a story that connects humans to the realities of climate change.
You have put out a book entitled Amaze. Can you speak to us about it?
From ocean shores to some of the most remote indigenous communities in the world, my new book explores humanity's relationship with the planet and possibilities for a mindful, sustainable future. I hope to take people on a journey to the place where the oceans and its creatures meet humanity: the water's edge.
One of the goals with Amaze is to elicit wonder and awe at the natural world and the labyrinth or "maze" of navigating a sustainable existence.
The book combines two series: "Enoughness" and "The Water's Edge.""Enoughness" is a personal "true north" to navigate modern life with planetary integrity. The elements that make up enoughness help us cultivate fulfillment from within. It is a powerful resource. Rather than needing or expecting the world to give us something, enoughness naturally inspires us to give back, to others and to the planet. Cultivating a sense of belonging, embracing spirituality, intentionally finding purpose, tapping into existing sacred ecologies, and embracing our natural gifts for creative expression: these are the ways we can nurture enoughness as individuals and as an intimately connected global community.
"The Water's Edge" presents photographs from around the globe that capture the frontier between land and ocean and the special meaning it has for human life. Whether it is fisherfolk bringing in their daily haul, women washing laundry in the shallows, or surfers frolicking in the spray, the water's edge is revealed as an integral and universal space in which ephemeral moments reveal not only our common dependency on the planet but also our common humanity.
Every journey begins with a story. Mine started with my lifelong fascination with the ocean and the realization, through a career as a mother, as a marine biologist and as a photographer, of the many threats it faces and how those threats will impact humanity. Looking back at my 25 years working as a scientist and storyteller I saw the narrative for Amaze. It is both a celebration and a call to action; it's a plea on behalf of the creatures and the communities that live closest to the sea, but it is also an alarm raised on behalf of all humanity.