Conservation Photographer Cristina Mittermeier Finds Purpose With Sea Legacy

Harrison Jacobs


“Purpose in photography is important. More important than making money,” explains photographer Cristina Mittermeier. She apologizes if it is hard for me to hear her; the waves are crashing down outside of her window.

Mittermeier is in Hawaii, on the western coast of Oahu, working on an assignment on indigenous Hawaiian surf culture for National Geographic and Sea Legacy, the brainchild of Mittermeier and fellow photographer Paul Nicklen.

Sea Legacy is a marine conservation advocacy group with a goal that is nothing if not ambitious: use photography to save the oceans. Having launched earlier this year, the organization is just now getting its sea legs—figuring out where funding is coming from, what their goals are, and how they will achieve them.

Here it is in short order: The objective is to convince governments that the ocean is in peril and worth saving. The method is to create incredible visual stories that create an emotional connection between the ocean and the movers and shakers of the world.  

“As a marine biologist, there is a lot of data and I think that people don’t understand data. It is very inaccessible,” says Mittermeier. “Photography is a better medium for people to understand conservation and become emotionally connected to the issues that are important.”

Mittermeier is a strong believer in the power of photography. While it doesn’t directly change anything, she calls it “the fuel that propels ideas to action.” She has found that photography can become a rallying point around which to convene important conversations.

“Through exhibits, books, magazines and lectures, you have these social interactions with a photographer and that’s the best way to influence people to action,” says Mittermeier.

Over the next ten years, Sea Legacy, and its partner National Geographic, will release three major books, a film, an ongoing social media effort and a series of lectures to drive the conservation conversation. In addition, Sea Legacy will be putting forward a series called Sea Art, which is comprised of photo exhibits and street art that will bring the beauty of the marine world to the greater public.

It’s all in the effort to create buzz and support for creating more marine-protected areas, areas of the ocean where human activities like fishing are restricted,.

“About 13% of the terrestrial part of the Earth is protected in national parks or by research groups. Less than 1% of the ocean has the same protection,” explains Mittermeier.  “[The creation of marine protected areas] is the one thing that we can push for that would provide immediate protection to ecosystems.”

According to Mittermeier, there is considerable research that shows that when areas of the ocean become marine-protected for as little as 5 years, the biomass (all of the living things in the area) explodes in size by between 100-400 percent. Fish and plants become bigger and more plentiful.

It’s a no brainer for a conservationist, but, for corporations and fishermen, it can be a nonstarter. There isn’t much money in protecting wildlife. Unless you can convince the public that the problem is so dire that it can’t be ignored, corporations will keep on  moving towards their own ends. It’s why Mittermeier, who has spent her life as a photojournalist, has made the conscious slide into, what she calls, “activist-photojournalist,” which she admits is an oxymoron.

“When it comes to the environment, you can’t be unbiased because ecosystems, plants, animals, and indigenous people seldom have somebody doing any advocating on their behalf,” says Mittermeier. “All of these big corporations have huge marketing budgets. Somebody has to [advocate for the environment].”

Luckily, Sea Legacy has been getting a budget of its own, thanks to National Geographic and some wealthy American donors. According to Mittermeier, one of the primary ways that Sea Legacy has gotten funding is by inviting generous donors to join Mittermeier and Nicklen on one of their assignments for National Geographic and Sea Legacy, from watching whales in the fjords of Norway to documenting sea leopards in Antarctica. Not only does bringing donors on assignment add a priceless perk to the donation, but it can also convince donors first-hand how dire our plight with the environment is.

If Sea Legacy’s ability to show decision-makers directly what needs to be fixed isn’t reason enough for it to exist, we’ll have to wait until their barrage of breathtaking visuals of marine life reaches the general public. If photography has taught us anything, it’s that a great photograph can change the world.



PDN August 2016: The Fine-Art Photography Issue



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