PhotoPlus Expo: Nicklen, Mittermeier on the Urgent Role of Conservation Photography

Posted by on Monday October 24, 2016 | Photojournalism

Photographers Paul Nicklen and Cristina Mittermeier, who were the keynote speakers at PhotoPlus Expo on Saturday, delivered an urgent message to the audience: Time is running out to save marine ecosystems and wildlife, and photography is vital for raising the alarm and changing the course of natural history.

Nicklen and Mittermeier told captivating stories about their adventures in the field, including stories about close encounters with wildlife. Nicklen has photographed polar bears and other arctic wildlife for years, and said: “I need to connect people, and tell them and show them, if we lose the ice, we stand to lose an entire ecosystem…There’s no more charismatic, sexy species to connect people than the polar bear.”

Because of climate change, some polar bear habitats are now without ice for six or seven months of the year, he said. So the bears are unable to hunt for food and some are starving to death, Nicklen explained, while showing tragic images of dead bear cubs. Other species such as bowhead whales are also in danger because the loss of ice has threatened their food sources, Nicklen added, while projecting his close-up, underwater images of the whales.

Nicklen and Mittermeier spoke passionately about the power of photography to stir people to action. They showed dramatic images from projects they’ve shot for National Geographic and other publications that have galvanized public opinion and influenced local and regional conservation policy. For instance, they talked about their work with a team of conservation photographers and filmmakers on a 2011 story about the environmental threat of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline to the Great Bear Rainforest in northern British Columbia.

National Geographic gave more than three dozen pages to the story, which included Nicklen’s close-up photographs of the elusive white Kermode bear, also known as the “spirit bear.” The coverage catapulted the proposed pipeline from a local story to an international one. Six years later, the battle over the pipeline continues. But Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently imposed a moratorium on pipelines in northern British Columbia, according to Mittermeier.

“That’s an incredible win,” she said. “We can never say as photographers that it was because of the work we did, but I think that photography and visuals are really truly the glue that galvanizes and catalyzes action around conservation issues.”

To step up their efforts to make a difference with photography, Nicklen and Mittermeier have launched Sea Legacy, a non-profit dedicated to showing the effects of pollution, overfishing and habitat loss beneath the “thin blue line” of the ocean’s surface, where those threats are invisible to most people.

“The biggest threat to our oceans right now is apathy,” Nicklen said in a short film called The Thin Blue Line that he and Mittermeier showed during their talk. Changing people’s perceptions and behaviors, he explained, is “only going to start with an emotional connection, and that’s going to happen through photography.”

Mittermeier, who has worked in conservation photography for 30 years, says a “much bigger investment” must be made to get the message out about environmental degradation and the urgent need to do something about it. “That’s what we’re trying to do with Sea Legacy,” she said.

Mittermeier compared the mission of conservation photographers to that of war photographers: Pictures raise awareness and make people care, she said. “There’s a war going on against nature and that’s what we’re trying to address with these photographs,” she said, explaining that Sea Legacy will focus on reversing climate change, reforming fisheries, and establishing ocean sanctuaries for species restoration. “We have about ten years to define what the rest of the history of our planet it going to look like,” she concluded.

Related Articles:
Photo of the Day: Paul Nicklen’s “Polar Obsession”

Celebrating International Polar Bear Day with a Look at Conservation Photography


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