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Wildlife Photographer Cristina Mittermeier on the Starving Polar Bear, Climate Change and Women in Science

LONDON AND VANCOUVER ISLAND VIA EMAIL–It was the “soul-crushing” video that went viral across the globe; a starving polar bear on Canada’s Baffin Island having to scavenge through garbage for food. The video and photographs, taken by wildlife photographer Cristina Mittermeier and her partner Paul Nicklen, captured the pathetic face of the consequences of climate change. Ms. Mittermeier, who trained as a biochemical engineer, was born in Mexico City and as a scientist she conducted research on subjects including biodiversity, marine mammals and conservation. Since moving into photography (she trained at Washington, DC’s Corcoran College of Art), she has won a number of awards for her work including Nature’s Best Conservation Photographer of the Year in 2010 and names one of Sony’s Artisans of Imagery.

Ms. Mittermeier has focused much of her photography over the years on indigenous peoples who live on the frontline of protecting their culture and biodiversity (including the Amazon’s Kayapo people) and is the founder of both the International League of Conservation Photographers (she resigned from her position as president in 2011) and SeaLegacy, which advocates for the protection of oceans through storytelling. She told she-files.com’s Ginanne Brownell Mitic that 2017 was a rough year for enviromentalists because of things like the U.S. withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accords but she wrote in an email interview that, “I refuse to surrender to the tsunami of destruction around us.” Ms. Mittermeier, a mother of three grown children, discussed the kind of world she hopes to leave for her children and the importance of encouraging women to go into science. EXCERPTS:

BROWNELL MITIC: Were you surprised by the reaction of how this video of the starving polar bear went viral and made such an impression on people across the globe? 

MITTERMEIER: We were expecting some reaction but were utterly unprepared when the video started to go viral. Hundreds of requests for interviews, emails with questions from followers and social media posts filled our inboxes. It was heartening to experience the avalanche of concern, support and encouragement for the work we do, and we are grateful to all the people around the world who shared, commented and understood that our intent was to spark much-needed debate on the urgency of addressing climate change. Two things were shocking: First was how prevalent climate deniers still are and second was how some media outlets are complicit in denying that climate change is having an effect on our planet. We all have much work ahead of us.

You recently stated that “you are human first” in terms of your feelings upon seeing the polar bear starving and struggling but that being a journalist also meant you had the power to “spread the word” about this situation. What other times has this happened to you in your career as a photojournalist? Is this something you struggle with?

As someone who spends a lot of time [on] the frontline of conservation, this is not the first time we have experienced the immeasurable heartache of witnessing the distress of wildlife because of the carelessness of humans. From the impact of “the blob” on marine creatures, from starfish to whales in the Pacific Northwest, to the increasing uncertainty faced by Antarctic wildlife, like penguins, we are witnessing how the very fabric of our oceans begins to unravel. We are accused of being too shocking, and I feel that is precisely what’s needed. We still have a chance to make things better, but we must do it before we reach the point of no return.

Last year was a rough year for the environment–from the U.S. stepping away from the Paris accords and also making U.S. national parks smaller for things like oil exploration to poaching of rhinos and elephants still being a rampant problem across Africa. How tough was 2017 for you to witness?

This has been the toughest year for me. I have been in the frontlines of conservation for 25 years and during that time I have been frustrated, angry and dismayed at how careless and myopic humans can be in destroying the very ecosystems we all depend upon. [Last] year, however, I have started to have nightmares and I am fearful for the type of planet my children will live on. That said, I force myself to remain optimistic because hope is infectious and it is the only force that will create change.

Why did you switch from being a marine biologist to being a photographer? 

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 on communications because I had an urgent need to communicate the plight of our natural world and 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.

Naimanngitsoq Kristiansen enjoys the first flurries of a snow fall. Northern Greenland

How how did you move into this competitive field–it is not an easy thing.

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.

You have said that data does not create an emotional connection but a photograph does–the polar bear story being an example. Why is that and do you think that scientists and researchers need to rethink ways to better incorporate media in their work to connect more with people and institutions?

There are two lobes on our brains: the left lobe is analytic and mathematical; the right lobe is creative and artistic. Scientists tend to live on their left lobe, thinking about data and systems. Creatives, use their left lobe to convey beauty and emotion. I am trained as a biochemical engineer so I don’t mind engaging my left lobe, but first and foremost, I am an artist so I try to be a bridge between those two realities. Scientists are reluctant to have their data “dumbed down” but if our goal is to build audiences that are informed and empowered, we must make the data accessible and pertinent to people’s lives. There is no better way of overcoming the barrier of intellectualism imposed by science than by opening the door through artistic photography.

You have said that you will retire when we have saved our planet. Do you think that will happen in your lifetime?

Saving our planet is certainly my lifelong goal and I am working feverishly to become unemployed. I have another 15 years in this body to do the very physical work of conservation photography, but my goal has been to create something much larger than myself. I recognize that the work of a single person may not be enough, so I set out to empower an army of photographers around the world to [wield] their cameras like swords on behalf of the natural world. I feel that with the creation of the International League of Conservation Photographers and SeaLegacy, I have accomplished the task of creating a movement of passionate photographers that today call themselves “conservation photographers”. I feel like I have created something that will outlive my short stay on earth.

An American Crocodile in The Gardens of the Queen, Cuba

Does it feel like there are more options for women (and more women going into)  science since you started?

There has never been a more critical time for women to participate not just in science, but in the global discourse on the fate of our planet and the opportunities are endless. There is a general need for both scientists and communicators in fields related to environment and conservation and I find that the thing that often stops us is what I call the “peanut gallery”– those little voices in our heads telling us we are not good enough, or apt enough. As women, we need to step up to those roles because our planet needs us. Did you know that one of the most important jobs that of campaign manager is one of the most difficult to hire for? The same can be said for communications at the executive level. These are jobs where women, with their unique communication skills, can excel. Moreover, regardless of profession, education or work status, every one of us can educate ourselves on the issues and can become passionate advocates for a healthier planet. More importantly, as women, we exert huge influence over our families and communities. We can use that power to infuse everything we do with a new planetary ethic.

What was the motivation behind starting SeaLegacy? And what projects do you have coming up in 2018 that you are especially excited about?

SeaLegacy was born out of equal parts frustration and fear. Having spent nearly 25 years working to protect wildlife and ecosystems and realizing that in the absence of a pivotal change in our moral compass towards 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.

You have children–how did you create a work/life balance when they were growing up? 

My kids are all grown now. When they were young, I worked from home as a portrait and family photographer, as a translator and copy editor and eventually as communications director for Conservation International. I was able to get a lot of work done when they were at school, and I made them a part of my professional life. Because their dad is a scientist and explorer, we traveled with them a lot as a family. That is how I got my initial experience as a photographer and how I first got to see the world. The kids, who are now 32, 25 and 21 all came along. Today they speak several languages and they are all pursuing their passion in science, indigenous cultures, and of course, the natural world.

Kayapo Woman. Her head is shaved down the middle for style and the temporary tattooing on her face tells parts of her life story

Are you still working with the Kayapo people in the Amazon? What have you learned from them over your time capturing their lives and work? 

I have not been back to the Kayapo villages for [six or seven] years, and since I last visited, the Belo Monte dam has been built. I evolved my interests to my original passion, which has always been the ocean and have shifted focus to photograph coastal communities. That said, I intend to visit them again. I try to use different tribes and first people to build a larger narrative about what is happening to indigenous cultures worldwide. I call it the “Avatar Syndrome” in which indigenous people are doing battle with power corporate and government forces who want access to their lands for profit. Industrial expansion is a global threat and a real danger to the integrity of traditional knowledge and languages.


1st photo, Paul Nicklen of Ms. Mittermeier; All others, courtesy Ms. Mittermeier

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