mittermeier, lady with the goose

Photography with purpose: Meet the biologist using social media to save our oceans

Words: Josh Rakic
Photography: Cristina Mittermeier

Photojournalist Cristina Mittermeier co-created Sea Legacy, a conservation group dedicated to saving our oceans by appealing to today’s youth through premium photography, advocacy and Instagram.

In an age when social media is often derided as the purveyor of narcissism, materialism, exhibitionism and insecurity, biologist and National Geographic photojournalist Cristina Mittermeier sees it from an entirely different angle. She sees it as a means for conservation groups to take their message directly to the people who matter most — the youth.

Mittermeier is a biologist and conservation photographer of two decades, in recent years having applied her scientific background to the lens and the ‘Gram in an effort to include the greater public in the conservation conversation — creating the type of personal engagement she says conservation groups have failed to create throughout history. It brings together artists, donors, celebrities and the public alike, with the photos starting the conversation and the millions of eyeballs helping put pressure on policymakers to protect the ocean

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Officially launched in 2014 by Prince Albert of Monaco, Sea Legacy is a conservation group for a new generation. A generation that demands social awareness from its peers, and a generation that socializes almost exclusively on or via social media, namely Instagram. It’s about raising awareness of the ocean’s demise through images, bridging the gap between scientific research and community action by using the power of social media and photos to activate a new generation of conservationists.

We caught up with Mittermeier at the opening of the Paul Nicklen Gallery in NYC, an event space donated by investors to the Sea Legacy cause to showcase the work of conservation photographers from around the globe and for environmental charities to utilize for free.

Nicklen, Pacific Ocean

© Paul Nicklen

THE RED BULLETIN: There are so many conservation groups out there. Why start a new one?

CRISTINA MITTERMEIER: My background has been in conservation where I’ve worked with organizations like Conservation International and World Wildlife Fund for so many years. When I was a scientist, I spent a lot of time writing scientific papers that were published in very prestigious magazines like Science and Nature. But I started to realize that nobody reads that. It’s such a very small number of people and we’re preaching to the converted. Then, when I started taking photographs I realized when people are looking at photographs they are much more open to asking questions — when there’s not a sense of intellectualism or exclusiveness. But conservation groups seldom have access to high-quality visual materials and they don’t have the budgets to commission or license them. We saw a need. And Sea Legacy is a value-added organization that does something no other NGO does: provide visual assets to partners for free. 

Nicklen, photography

© Paul Nicklen

 You’re effectively making scientific research palatable for the public.

That’s a real barrier for scientists. People aren’t reading studies and papers. People look at photographs and they want to know you were you cold or afraid, what did it feel like to be with a bear. People who are not in science, feel really stupid asking questions of scientists. There’s a real psychological barrier.

Your Instagram account makes clear that the ocean’s in far worse shape than we think it is.

As scientists, we’ve invested so much money into understanding the state of our planet, but we’ve failed to invest at the same level to communicate the urgency with which we need to protect it. This is not just now, this is over the past 40 years. So most of the people don’t understand how dire our situation is. Even today when you go looking for funding for a conservation project, a lot of the time donors see it as entertainment – “we’re gonna make another film.” It’s a real concern that we haven’t created the communication that’s needed to get across the urgency. So in a sense, social media equalizes the platform. We have a huge audience every day, 24 hours a day.

Between yourself, Paul and Sea Legacy, you have in excess of 4 million active Instagram followers. Why do you think the cause resonates with young audiences so much?

Sea Legacy resonates with young people because our photography serves a purpose, first and foremost. We have found that young people today want those they admire to stand for something and help bring about some form of social change. When we started our social media platforms it was way back in 2012 and Sea Legacy wasn’t even an idea. We were working for National Geographic and with access to their account, that was a huge platform. And as soon as we launched Sea Legacy, it became so hugely apparent that it is social media that has given us such unique access to the very audience that we care about — the young people of this land.

© Cristina Mittermeier

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At the ground level, Sea Legacy is about instilling hope in people.

Exactly. At the beginning we all agreed that we were about hope and empowerment. If you foster fear, then you really are discouraging people from participating. So for us, hope is part of the plan. People come here for that. The following we have on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter has grown so organically and people reacting to that.

And you found out early that your audience can be unforgiving if they perceive you haven’t stayed true to your mission.

When we were still working with Nat Geo, Paul was asked to do a commercial for American Express.  And the backlash we got from our social media audience was huge. People were upset that Paul was associating himself with a commercial brand. So we learned that lesson very quickly. And today, when brands approach us because they want to be part of the movement, we always have them make a donation direct to Sea Legacy.

Mittermeier, Antarctica

© Cristina Mittermeier

That must have been heartening in the sense that your audience is that invested …

Yeah! They’re paying attention. It’s unbelievable. And gives us hope that there are so many people out there invested in saving the ocean — or any cause for that matter.

So social media isn’t ruining our lives?

In fact, it’s quite the contrary — it’s opened up so many new channels to talk about important topics. We are having huge conversations on social media with people all around the world all the time. I don’t see it at all as something that’s ruining our lives at all. The first time I realized it’s real potential was during the Arab Spring, where it was Twitter that broke down the regime. I realized: “Wow, we can galvanize a revolution using social media around these other issues.”

Now you want high-profile athletes who call the outdoors home to dedicate themselves to saving the planet too.

It’s about a greater purpose. In the Red Bull community, which is a community of athletes, adventurers, thrill-seekers and people who are outdoors minded, a lot of them have started coming to us — people like Jimmy Chin — looking for ways to get involved. And to me, that says there’s a huge community of outdoors people who are trying to find their purpose. And what I want to say to them, is with all the skiing, biking, racing and amazing feats, they need to declare their purpose for the planet and find a way to make sure that their influence is utilized and their amazing feats are on behalf of the planet. I attend a lot of film festivals, and you can see that people are getting tired with “here we go, climbing Everest again.” Or who can go faster and harder. We’ve seen it. And yes, these are amazing feats but people need to see real purpose. 

Every expedition you go on and photo you take is for the purposes of promoting ocean conservation. And now you’ve created the Paul Nicklen Gallery in NYC to galvanize your audience …

That gallery itself has a mandate — a place to convene, talk about and promote conservation. It’s fine art with purpose. The sale of the art goes to fund Sea Legacy and our expeditions. We’ve opened up the space up for nonprofits to hold their events in the gallery for free. And it’s a space for artists with a conservation mindset to display their work and raise money for Sea Legacy or allied organizations. When we opened the gallery on Earth Day, we had 2000 people come to the gallery. Paul signed something like 500 books. We sold $40k of books. But they weren’t here for that. They were here for hope. They were here because there’s something that’s happening that they wanted to be a part of. And that’s something they can be empowered by.

Applying pressure to policy makers is all part of it.

We don’t appeal to policy makers directly, we do it through social pressure. It’s about letting them know that all that social media following are eyeballs are watching the politicians and policymakers, and making them aware when they’re not making decisions on behalf of our planet in a closed room — we’re all watching.

The Water’s Edge — a retrospective of 20 years of Mittermeier pointing her camera at places, people and animals in the ocean — is currently showing at the Paul Nicklen Gallery.


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