Talking photography and environmentalism ahead of Redwood City’s Nat Geo speaker series

by Charles Russo

At the water line in the Great Bear Sea, British Columbia. (Photo courtesy of Cristina Mittermeier)

There are no shortage of quotes about the power of photography, many of them overwrought, but some finely tuned to the nuance and potential of the craft. Speaking with Cristina Mittermeier — contributing photographer, speaker and explorer for National Geographic — I kept thinking of a simple quote, from Eve Arnold: “The instrument is not the camera but the photographer.” In this sense, diving in to explore Mittermeier’s work is to engage in her purpose far more than her medium.

Born in Mexico City, Mittermeier is a marine biologist who has honed photojournalism to drive her conservation efforts. She has founded the International League of Conservation Photographers as well as the non-profit Sea Legacy, which advocates for protection of our oceans through storytelling. The list of publications that have showcased her work, as well as the awards she has won in the process, can seem as vast as the sea itself.

Mittermeier caught up with us over the phone from Seattle, ahead of her presentation for National Geographic Live at the Fox Theater in Redwood City on November 8th, to discuss current projects and her view from the water’s edge.

Down deep with Orca whales in Norway. (Photo courtesy of Cristina Mittermeier)

I heard that you were just in Cuba, what are you working on down there?

Cuba is a launching point for us into a wider Caribbean project where we want to engage in a conversation about coral reef restoration and the importance of creating marine protected areas around coral reefs.

And how long has that project been going on for?

Well, we just launched it. We started in Cuba because…you know, for all of Fidel Castro’s defects, one of his great qualities was that he was a real conservationist. They call him the “Teddy Roosevelt of the Caribbean.” He created a very large network of national parks and protected areas on land. And in 1984 when Jacques Cousteau and the Calypso came to Jardines de la Reina, to the Gardens of the Queen, Fidel went diving with Cousteau and he was so mesmerized by the reefs of the Gardens of the Queen that he declared a marine protected area, which is one of the oldest and largest in the world. Pretty amazing. And so when you dive in the Gardens of the Queen it’s almost like stepping into a time machine and traveling back 30 years to the way that coral reef ecosystems had looked like elsewhere in the Caribbean.

You work in photojournalism, yet you also have an education in marine science, so I was wondering how and when those interests merged for you?

For me it has always been a concern about the overall health of the planet, and what that means for humans. That is what has always driven me since I was in university. I studied marine sciences because I thought — like a lot of people did — that the oceans were going to be the source of food for billions of people. This was in the 1980s, and since then we have learned that it is not an infinite resource, it is not inexhaustible, and that we have done a lot of damage to it. Then for me, it poses the question — what happens to the billion of people that live in coastal communities and depend on the ocean every day? So photography is just a tool that I use to engage people in that conversation, because otherwise the ocean can be a very foreign and distant idea for most people.

Dog team, Qaanaaq. Traditional Inuit hunter, Peter Aviki, dressed in polar bear and caribou skins clothing and making a hole in the ice to tie his dog team up, in Greenland. (Photo courtesy of Cristina Mittermeier)

There’s something you say on your website —and I’m paraphrasing — In an ideal world there would be sacred places that serve as biological capitals to help sustain life on earth. So I wanted to ask you about the mission of your non-profit organization Sea Legacy and your efforts of working towards those ideals in tangible ways?

Yes, I think a lot of the narrative of my work revolves around trying to create those psychological boundaries around places. It feels that as humans we have separated ourselves from nature in such a way that we don’t understand anymore that our life support system depends on a healthy global ecosystem. And I think a lot of people feel really powerless to do anything about it. We see what is happening in our government right now and what corporations have been doing to nature, and I think we feel powerless. So we have tried to engage people in the conversation so they become a constituency that supports the idea of protecting pieces of nature as sacred places that are there for the well-being of humans now and in the future.

In thinking then about the the power of photography, especially since nowadays everyone considers themselves to be a photographer in some capacity, how do you see the role of photography in these efforts towards conservation and environmentalism?

I think because everyone fancies themselves a photographer, photography then is a language we all understand. It doesn’t have the intellectual barrier that science has, for example, because everybody has access to it.

Photographs are an easy language to understand. For those of us who use photographs as a tool for conservation, they are just a means for beginning a conversation. When you show people photographs, they want to know what it smelled like, were you tired, were you hungry, were you scared? And that’s just the beginning of a conversation that can lead to something deeper…about why this is important.

Cristina photographing Abrolhos Reef in Australia. (Photo courtesy of Cristina Mittermeier)

Can you tell me about photographing underwater? I think it is something that the average person just has no experience with…

(laughs) It’s one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done in my life. You have to start by being comfortable underwater, being a good swimmer and a good diver. And then being able to channel your focus to operating your camera underwater as you’re trying not to drown or get carried away by a current.

The way that light travels through water is very different from the way that it travels through air, so your flashes, your strobes, don’t necessarily behave the same way that they would on land. So there is a lot of trial and error. You are being tossed around by current and by tides, it is difficult to hold a position, animals are skittish… it’s very challenging.

I’m very lucky in that I have one of the best teachers in the world, my partner Paul Nicklen, he is one of the best underwater photographers in the world and he has been very kind and generous and patient teaching me and walking me through the gear, which is another challenge. And what I want to do with this skill is point my camera from the ocean onto land and on to those billions of people who live on the coastal areas and what the ocean means to them.

Kayapo people of the Xingu region of Brazil. (Photo courtesy of Cristina Mittermeier)

Looking through your photos, it is a wide range of work, and not just focused within the water. So in terms of interacting people in some very remote areas, can you talk about your experience working with those who don’t necessarily interact with others beyond their region?

Yeah, to me that has been one of the greatest and most fun aspects of my work. Because I think we are becoming a very homogenous westernized civilization all across the planet. But the truth is, we are very tribal. Until very recently the vast majority of people lived in small tribal communities. This is not so long ago. And those people hold a lot of knowledge on what it means to live in harmony with earth, and before we lose that knowledge I want to capture with my camera what that experience is like.

I call it sacred ecology. For indigenous people and people who live in remote areas, it just means how they relate to nature. But we all have a sacred ecology, even you and I, even though we are city people, we love walking around in the park. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t enjoy walking through a beautiful forest, and that is part of our sacred ecology. But we have forgotten where the water in the tap comes from, and where the trash that we dump goes to. So I want my photos to remind people of that, to reconnect with nature and to talk to those people who still remember what it is like to live in harmony with nature.

So I have to ask you about one of my favorites images of yours — the woman with the duck on her head?

It’s not a duck, it’s a goose: an early image by Cristina among the ethnic minorites in southwestern China. (Photo courtesy of Cristina Mittermeier)

It’s actually a goose. (laughs) I took that very early in my career when I was just beginning to understand what I wanted to do with my photographs.

I had the opportunity to travel to China. We went to a very remote part of China in the southwestern corner ,which is on the border with Tibet. And that’s where you find a lot of the minorities from Tibet that were overtaken by China, and they have been very marginalized. It is a very interesting corner of China, because these people are not really Chinese. They are from other ethnic groups.

So I was having lunch in a market and I had just purchased a Yashica single reflex camera…and I was playing with it at the lunch table in this market. I was looking through the top and I saw this woman walking towards me. (Of course, when you look through the top of a single reflex camera the image is inverted.) So I saw her walking at me upside down, and she had this goose on her head, and so I got up and walked towards her…and I took 3 exposures. And out of those three frames only one of them was in focus.

It’s a beautiful image, which has a kind of painter’s quality to it.

Well you know I’m fascinated by the Dutch masters, like Renoir and how he would master the light. I think something all of us photographers should be doing is studying art — and painting in particular — because you should look for that kind of light in photographs.

Enga performers take a break at the Sing Sing Cultural festival in Mt. Hagen, withinin the highlands of Papua New Guinea. (Photo courtesy of Cristina Mittermeier)

Is there a favorite of yours that you would like to speak to?

It really depends what I’m trying to say at the moment. Right now, I’m trying to build this narrative thread around relationship of coastal people — especially indigenous people — and the ocean.

So recently I photographed an indigenous girl on the coast of British Columbia, literally in front of my house. She lives in a first nation’s community just 30 kilometers away from me. And she came to be photographed in full regalia. She had her beautiful cedar cape, and her hat and drum. She is 16 years-old, and she is a speaker for her people. She is the youngest person to speak at the UN forum for indigenous rights. And she’s trying to do the same thing I am doing, which is to declare the sovereignty of the indigenous people over the land and the ocean. The photographs we made together are beautiful and evocative, so they’re my new favorite. But I also believe that my favorite picture is the one that I am going to take next.

It seems like there is a whole generation right now that has a renewed interest in photography because of how accessible it has become. Do you have advice for aspiring photographers who want to take it to the next level beyond casual use of the medium?

Absolutely. It is wonderful for me to see that there is this whole renaissance in photography, and so many young people, especially, are picking up everything from their iPhones to mirrorless cameras. The technology is advancing so quickly and there is an abundance of photographs out there.

For young people who want to make a difference in their work, I think the first step is to find what it is that you want to say. Because photography is so big. It took me years to figure out exactly what my line of work was gonna be. I started out thinking I wanted to be a wildlife photographer, but that takes a lot of patience and it is expensive to travel to a place where animals live. So then I thought I would do landscape, and it is very technical, you need a lot of filters, and you need a very mathematical brain to do landscape photography properly. And then I discovered I had a knack for hanging out with people and that people feel at ease with me. I realized that there are not a lot of photographers documenting that place where nature and people live in very close quarters in harmony. That’s how I found the vein of my work.

And for young photographers, that’s what they need to do, they need to figure out what they are passionate about and what they are trying to say, and the rest will fall into place.

Cristina Mittermeier on a fishing boat in the Abrolhos Marine Protected Area. Photo by Paul Nicklen

Cristina Mittermeier will be presenting her work at the Fox Theater in Redwood City on November 8th, as part of the speaker series National Geographic Live. You can buy tickets for the event here.

See more of Cristina’s work at

Learn more about her organization Sea Legacy at

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