Cristina Mittermeier: “my images are inviting new audiences to conservation”

Cristina Mittermeier
Torrents of red and silver fish part to make way for a Galapagos parrotfish (Image credit: Cristina Mittermeier)

Beginning her career as a marine biologist, Cristina Mittermeier turned to photography as a way of increasing awareness of her cause. She has gone on to become an internationally recognised photographer and public speaker. 

Founder of The International League of Conservation Photographers and co-founder of SeaLegacy with her partner, Paul Nicklen, she expanded that work in 2020, with the formation of Only One, a digital action platform built to support and uplift the ocean conservation community while driving action to achieve measurable, sustainable and equitable returns for people and the ocean.

Cristina and SeaLegacy recently joined forces with PADI (the Professional Association of Diving Instructors), the world’s largest purpose-driven diving organisation, to launch the new ‘30x30’ initiative. 

We sat down with Cristina to find out more about this and get a flavor of her Super Stage talk at The Photography Show at the NEC Birmingham, which takes place on Sunday 18 September… 

Timor-Leste: corals are animals that serve a critical function for our ocean’s health. (Image credit: © Cristina Mittermeier/SeaLegacy)

You are a co-founder of SeaLegacy – did its collaboration with PADI come about because of a natural fit between the two organisations? 

In our efforts to support the protection of 30% of the ocean by 2030 we must build a public narrative that frames the ocean as a solution and as an opportunity. We partnered with PADI because it has a vast audience of ocean-loving individuals who are already a natural group of supporters for this ideal. We felt that it would be beneficial to build alignment with our own audience to greatly expand the constituency that supports this lofty goal globally. 

Are you optimistic that we can hit 30x30 by the end of this decade, given that we’re at 5% now? 

The new incentives created by the blue carbon credit exchanges that are cropping up in places like the Bahamas and that are quickly spreading to other countries have the potential of greatly exceeding our hope for 30%. In order to issue carbon credits through the protection of habitats like seagrass beds and mangrove forests, those habitats must be protected. 

As countries cash in on these protections there is a growing amount of revenue that can be dedicated to building blue economies and that will greatly incentivise more protections. It is the perfect mechanism to help coastal countries and especially island nations build their economies through the protection of their blue assets.

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The Galapagos-Cocos swimway connects two important sanctuaries for species such as sharks and provides a safe passage for animals as they migrate. (Image credit: © Cristina Mittermeier/SeaLegacy)

Having studied to become a marine biologist, what led you to taking up photography? 

I became a marine biologist first and it took me another 10 years before I even thought about becoming a photographer. 

I stumbled upon photography as a mechanism to invite new audiences into the conservation narrative because I could see that people felt less intimidated looking at images and asking questions about what they were looking at than being confronted with data points and graphics. 

We need every human on this planet to be engaged and although we must lead with the best science available, there is no doubt in my mind that visual storytelling is the most effective means to communicate both the urgency to act and the opportunity presented by those actions.

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The coastal habitats of the Bahamas include a diverse and dazzling community of marine life, including many underwater creatures. (Image credit: © Cristina Mittermeier/SeaLegacy)

How effective is visual storytelling in moving people from apathy to action? 

Stories, values and culture have the power to move hearts and minds in ways that facts and advocacy alone often cannot. Humans are hardwired to understand the world through stories, and photographs are two-dimensional stories that show us the world around us. 

Stories bypass our cynicism and partisan biases to tap directly into timeless narratives of struggle, power, redemption, and cooperation that have been told and retold since time immemorial. 

Nearly every child is raised to be kind, to share, to look out for others, to forgive and to listen – it is only in adulthood that these earliest lessons somehow become naïve. Photography is a tool that reminds us of what it means to be a good citizen on this planet.

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Seagrass meadows serve as cradles for our planet and nurseries for ocean life; shielding shark pups, countless fish and crustaceans from the hungry jaws of predators. (Image credit: © Cristina Mittermeier/SeaLegacy)

Your book ‘Amaze’ was published in 2018, with its memorable ‘Lady with the Goose’ cover photograph. Is it still one of your favourite images? 

The ‘Lady with the Goose’ still makes me smile, but these days she also is an important part of my business through the sale of fine art. She is my most popular image and one that always starts up the best conversations. 

I will never forget the day I made that image and the surprise I felt when the roll of 120 film I shot her in came back from the lab. I made three frames and only one was in focus. In the other two the goose was panicking and kicking around. I knew she was special from the minute I saw her and I knew that she would mean a lot to my career as an artist.

Conservationist, photographer and co-founder of SeaLegacy Cristina Mittermeier (Image credit: © Cristina Mittermeier/SeaLegacy)

Your talk at The Photography Show will be called ‘Enoughness’, which is the name of one of your photographic series. For anyone not familiar with the term, and without giving too much away, what can the audience expect to see and hear at the talk?

Fuelled by insatiable hunger, we have destroyed entire wildernesses and almost 50% of the biodiversity on our planet. In the pursuit of more, we carry on as if the resources of planet were unlimited, and yet we are still left empty. 

In the meantime, the gap between the haves and have-nots continues to grow as the greed of the few robs and decimates the lives of many. 

However, if we were to measure wealth by the depth of our connection to the natural world or the love we feel from the people around us, the pride we derive from our traditions, our language, our contributions to our communities, what would ‘enough’ look like then? 

This is something for all of us to think about and cultivating a sense of ‘enoughness’ is a beautiful tool to help us cope with the challenges ahead. 

Don’t miss Cristina at The Photography Show

(Image credit: Future)

Cristina is one of the headliners on the Super Stage, which is hosting photography and filmmaking greats from across the spectrum over the three days of The Photography Show & The Video Show 2022 at the NEC Birmingham, which runs on 17, 18 and 20 September. 

As mentioned in her interview, Cristina’s talk is titled ’Enoughness’ and will take place on Sunday 18 September at 13.15. Tickets cost £12 each. 

Click here for more information, and to buy tickets. 

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Niall Hampton

Niall is the editor of Digital Camera Magazine, and has been shooting on interchangeable lens cameras for over 20 years, and on various point-and-shoot models for years before that. 

Working alongside professional photographers for many years as a jobbing journalist gave Niall the curiosity to also start working on the other side of the lens. These days his favored shooting subjects include wildlife, travel and street photography, and he also enjoys dabbling with studio still life. 

On the site you will see him writing photographer profiles, asking questions for Q&As and interviews, reporting on the latest and most noteworthy photography competitions, and sharing his knowledge on website building.