Shifting perspectives with underwater photography

Photojournalist Brian Skerry brings back snapshots of the oceans that help shift our perspective on the underwater world.
04 April 2011

Interview with 

Brian Skerry


Encounter with a Southern right whale, by Brian Skerry (c)


Photojournalist Brian Skerry has been a contract photographer for National Geographic since 1998 and specialises in capturing images of the underwater world that portray not only the beauty of the oceans but also the problems they are facing.

Gobi in a can by Brian SkerryBrian - I've been diving for a little over 30 years and making pictures in the ocean for most of that time and throughout most of my career I have seen essentially what I would call celebratory pictures of the ocean. You know, some wonderful pictures that show the majesty and beauty in the ocean, but very little had been done along the lines of the problems in the ocean. 

So, my work has had this somewhat of an evolution, I guess, in my career, in the sense that I too want to make beautiful, celebratory pictures, and in the early days that mostly what I did. But these days I try to balance the happy pictures with some the other side of the story kind of pictures, the pictures that show some of the problems.

I'd like to think that my images and my stories are helping people to get a better grasp of these sometimes complex issues that occur in the ocean.

Helen - And you mention the complexity when it comes to problems in the oceans. There must be some things that are really difficult to find images to portray what's going on?

Brian - One of the first rather large stories that I proposed to National Geographic about issues in the oceans, it was a story that was published in 2007 about the global fish crisis - the problems of overfishing worldwide - and I had been researching and talking to the editors about this for the better part of two years.

It was a difficult thing to get your head around. It was something that we knew was happening, we'd read a lot of scientific papers, there was a great paper that was published in the British journal Nature, that has stated 90% of the big fish in the ocean had disappeared in the last 50 or 60 years. But to many, it was a difficult thing to photograph. How do we translate photojournalistically these things that have disappeared.

So, ultimately over a bit of time I came up with a 4 tier plan. The first part of the story Thresher%20shark%20by%20Brian%20Skerryfor me was about making pictures that would get people to appreciate the animal. They may never warm up to a fish the way they do a polar bear, or some fuzzy, cute mammal on land, but at least they could appreciate it. And I wanted them to see these animals in a wildlife way.

The second step was to then show some of the horrific problems that are occurring, the ways that fish are harvested and caught in the ocean, things like sharks in gill nets and bycatch from shrimp trawlers and longlines with illegal fish being caught, and these kinds of things.

Another step was to show how it's affecting humans, places in West Africa that have lost their only source of protein because first world nations have come in with factory trawlers and taken away all of their fish.

And the last step of the story to me was about hope. If it's all over then what's the point? Showing at least some of the solutions, places where they're creating marine protected areas. With less than a fraction of 1% of the world's oceans that have truly been protected from commercial fisheries we need to do a better job of creating places where marine life can thrive.

I think my work helps to allow readers to digest this quickly and easily. They can see the photographs, they might be sitting at a dentist's office of the doctor's and they pick up the magazine, see a photo that engages them and they want to read the caption and then hopefully read the story and learn a little bit more. So, I'd like to think that those kind of issues can be treated photographically in a way that makes people learn more and want to know even more.

Southern%20right%20whale%20by%20Brian%20SkerryHelen - Is there any way that you've been able to gauge or get a feeling for how your images and your work is maybe even helping to change people's behaviour in terms of the decisions their making about what they eat. Do you have any way of tapping into that?

Brian - Yes, I mean it's not anything that I can quantitatively say Yes, I can give you these facts and figures. But I get a sense from a couple of different things and they're by no means scientific. There's been some evidence that things have progressed.

For example, after a story that I did on right whales a couple of years ago, I did a story on the most endangered species of large whale in the world, the North Atlantic right whale and the southern right whale.

There had been legislation languishing in Congress here in the US to slow the speed of shipping traffic coming into critical habitat for right whales where moms and calf's often live during parts of the year. And that legislation had never been passed but after my story came out, according to the scientist who'd been working on this for many years, the Congress did act and were able to pass this legislation. So, I don't know if we can draw a direct result, but they seemed to think it certainly helped.

Sea%20pup%20by%20Brian%20SkerryThere was another example, in the final days of the Bush Administration here in the US where they enacted some marine protection for a number of places in the Pacific, a place called Kingman Reef, and some other places. And I had just published a story in National Geographic about Kingman Reef about it's magnificence and how relatively pristine it was compared to many other coral reefs because of its remote location.

It's certainly isn't just because of those stories, and I could never claim that, nor would I want to. But I do think the combination of great science along with those kind of images can have an impact.

The other thing is just talking to people and getting messages. I literally get dozens of messages every month and literally say, "I had no idea that for every pound of shrimp that I eat, there's 6 or 10 pounds of other animals that die in the process from bycatch. I didn't know about that".

And now they have changed their behaviour. And there' s no way for me to measure that but I'd certainly like to think that that's the approach, if we can work from the grass root level up by educating and bringing awareness to people, and from the political, legislative level down, that we have a chance.

Helen - It seems to me that spending my time taking pictures of beautiful underwater life, just sounds perfect. What is the reality of being an underwater photographer?

Brian - Well, that is a big part of the reality is that it is wonderful but, like any job I Hammerhead%20shark%20by%20Brian%20Skerrysuppose there are up sides and downsides. And certainly the good outweigh the bad. Some days the weather is just terrible and you sit for weeks waiting for the weather to stop being windy or the visibility to clear up. Sometimes the animals don't show up. You go to do a story about tiger sharks, and there's no tiger sharks there. Equipment sometimes breaks, you know, we're dealing with taking electronics into salt water.

There's all these things that can go wrong and as I often tell people, your success I suppose in anything in life but certainly in this business will be determined by how well you overcome problems.

And I don't want to appear like this is a terrible job, because it's fantastic. I love what I do, I meet great researchers, and boat drivers, and dive guides, and all these great people that I've learned so much from.

And I get to make photographs. I get to preserve an instant in the ocean. It's a moment in time. You're trying to capture this blend of gesture and grace with an animal, and light and motion all in still frame and sometimes it works, it all comes together and you get this truly magical moment that's preserved forever.

Find out more

Brian Skerry's website

Watch Brian's
TED talk

International League of Conservation Photographers

Find out more about Brian's work in his new book Ocean Soul, due out November 2011

Ocean Soul by Brian Skerry


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