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Saving the oceans with a camera lens

Cristina Mittermeier is a Marine Biologist and photojournalist who specializes in portraying conservation issues and the relationship between human beings and nature. She has completed several assignments for National Geographic and is the co-founder and Executive Director of SeaLegacy, a group that uses the power of imagery to encourage people to protect the oceans. On Friday evening, she was in Halifax to give her presentation, Water’s Edge: 25 years on the frontline of conservation. The Gazette had a chance to sit down with Mittermeier and discuss conservation, photography and the importance of the environment.


Gazette: How did you start your journey as a conservation photographer?
Cristina: I was initially trained as a scientist and I felt the urgency to communicate what I see in the ocean, and I felt science was just not the right tool to do it. Science is a very linear process and the complexity of the humans’ relationship with nature cannot be captured in a linear process because they are always changing. So I felt that storytelling was a much better tool to help people understand and become more emotionally engaged with what’s happening to our planet, nature, and to our oceans. I figured out, because I love photography, that pictures were a very good way of captivating audiences and inviting them into a conversation in a very non-threatening way. Science can be a little threatening because not everybody has that kind of education.

G: What do you aim to do through SeaLegacy?
When I first realized that there were many other photographers that were already using their images to engage not just audiences and the public at large but also politicians and influential people and the decision-making processes, I thought that we had our unique opportunity to really elevate the art of nature photography, to give it a purpose, and call it conservation photography. It has worked really well. We have been given a seat at the table at conversations about the future of the planet and the future of nature.

What I am trying to do personally with SeaLegacy is first of all to contribute as a person and as a photographer. If I were a lawyer, I would be contributing through law, if I were a doctor, I would be trying to help through my own circle of influence. I am a photographer, so the one thing I can contribute is images, and storytelling.

[…] We have identified three areas where we really want to work, three areas where we know we can have an impact: solutions for climate change, that is the most important [and] overarching need of our lives and if we cannot solve climate change, it doesn’t matter what else we do.

Offering protection to vulnerable ecosystems and species, and we do that through fisheries reform – we need to stop managing the oceans for fish and start managing them for the fish; and through Marine Protected Areas, that is the best line of defense that we have and we need to be aiming for 20–30 per cent of the oceans protected as soon as possible.

The third area where I want to contribute through SeaLegacy is livelihoods of coastal people. Three billion people on this planet depend on marine and coastal resources for their daily survival and it would be such a mistake to ignore that. So, that’s my small contribution. I have a small ambition and that is to save the oceans.

G: What are some of the challenges that you face while on assignments to capture the photographs?
C: The biggest challenge we face is the difficulty to raise funding for this type of work. Because the conservation community has been so focused on science for so many years, it seems like all the funding goes to scientific learning and understanding, and very little money goes to communications and the message itself.

I feel like that if we were investing the same in communications as we are in science, we would not be having this conversation. Everyone would be so aware of the limited resources of our planet. So the biggest challenge is not the bear that is chasing you or the weather that is brutal, it’s the lack of funding. We lie on the generosity and the wisdom of very wealthy individuals who fund this type of work.

G: What is your favourite subject to photograph?
I find that photographing people is what gives me the most pleasure. I find that it is easy for me to create a rapport with individuals. I have had the opportunity and privilege to travel so much and see so many people who are suffering and lead marginal lives, I have a commitment to share their stories.

G: What are some of the immediate environmental concerns that Canada needs to address?
Canada is in a tough spot right now and it needs to make up time really quickly. As soon as we get officials in the government that are willing to pay attention to science, to the environment, to nature, to the way the world sees Canada.

We need to know very quickly to fulfill the commitments made at the Aichi Targets for the Convention on Biological Diversity of protecting 10 per cent of Canada’s oceans by 2020. We are almost there. That was a commitment that was made in front of the United Nations, and we need to fulfill our commitment. Then we need to take into account the needs and aspirations of all Canadians, First Nations, and to not forget those who don’t have a voice, our wildlife. I feel that trophy hunting and the slaughter of wildlife in Canada need to be addressed.

G: What awareness do you intend to bring through your presentation Water’s Edge at the Sustainable Oceans 2015 conference?
C: When I speak, I really try to make my presentations informative, engaging, and funny. Hopefully I can get people to think through them. I try to offer solutions that anyone can implement in their lives so we all can leave the conference feeling activated, engaged, excited, and hopeful. So that’s my goal.

G: What advice would you give to aspiring photojournalists?
It takes a lot of work to become a photojournalist and to become a good one. So don’t be afraid of hard work. Ninety-nine per cent of the time we fail, so don’t be afraid of failing. It is part of the job. Stay true to the thing that you love and the purpose that you have in your work because that is what is going to make you get up in the morning and keep trying. That’s the best advice I can give you.


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