Seeing Hope Through a Photographer’s Lens: an Interview with Brian Skerry

By Lauren Giglio.

Brian Skerry may be one of the most successful wildlife photographers of all time – the list of awards for his beautiful images grows with time as he continues to push photographic boundaries. While his images are what initially captured my fascination with Skerry, it was his undeniable dedication to marine conservation that hooked me. To say this interview was a dream come true is an understatement – the chance to listen to such an inspirational conservationist was a moving experience. Today, I want to share that special interview with all of you – from childhood to today, Skerry continues to dedicated his life to making our oceans great.

I want to start off by giving our readers a little bit of background on your life. Growing up in a fairly small town in Massachusetts (USA), how did your passion and interest in our oceans initially begin for you?

I would say that I fell in love with the sea and became fascinated by it when my parents would take me to the beaches of New England. Some of my earliest memories of the summer were going to the beaches and going home at the end of the day all sunburned and salty, and having this great peace within me – it was very calming and satisfying coming from the sea. There was also this great desire to want to explore. Looking out at the dark waves and wondering what was going on beneath. It was also those early ages when I was looking at what Cousteau was doing, looking at National Geographic pictures and really wanting to be an explorer. 

You have been an inspiration to not only me, but to so many others with your photography and lectures. Who was your inspiration as you chose this career of photographic advocacy?

On the still photography front, probably the most inspirational was Bill Curtsinger. He lived in Maine, and worked for National Geographic for over 35 years starting in the late 60’s. I remember he published a book in the late 70’s called “Wake of the Whale” and what spoke to me about his work was that he worked in places where a lot of people didn’t like to be – cold, temperate water, under the ice in Antarctica – and the stories that were related really spoke to me and stirred my soul. You know, I read once that many photographers are greatly influenced by a book they can point to that really made a difference in their life. For me, it was “Wake of the Whale.” To this day I still go back to that this day and revisit it for inspiration. 

Your work has been featured in practically every major media outlet out there – from National Geographic to Sports Illustrated, The Wall Street Journal to the New York Times – What has been your most memorable project to date and why?

You know, when I first began this work as an underwater photographer, I just wanted to make images that were nice and beautiful. I didn’t start out with the notion that I would do conservation photography or to change people’ minds about ocean issues. But along the way with the more time I spent in the ocean, I realized what huge problems there were and that I had this unique platform for people to see this information through the pages of Nat Geo. That’s where I began focusing in on some of those issues.

The first big story that I did where I was able to include environmental issues within my work was a story on harp seals – which became my first cover story back in 2004. I guess for a lot of reasons, this one remains as one of my favorites. This also was, by no coincidence, a story that Bill Curtsinger had done back in the 70’s – he was the first guy to photograph harp seals underwater rather than on the ice, and it hadn’t been done since until I chose this story to focus on. It was sort of an homage to him at first, but the remake allowed me to do it in a way to talk about climate change, how the ice was disappearing each year, to photograph seal pups with umbilical cords still on its belly that had fallen through the thin ice with its mother struggling to get it to solid ice so it could breath – these were important topics that I wanted to illustrate to viewers that hadn’t been done. And for that reason, this harp seal story has risen to the top in my mind as the most memorable project I’ve worked on because the focus was more than just a beautiful picture. It was my first conservation proposal to Nat. Geo., was my first cover story, but mostly it was memorable because it illustrated these environmental issues that needed to be highlighted to the public.

For our readers who might be unaware, the Peter Benchley Award for Excellence in Media is a coveted award given to those who display the challenging ability to communicate ocean issues to the public in order to inform and inspire change. Mr. Skerry, you won that award in 2012 by sharing your photography with the world in a seemingly video-dominated culture. I wonder what emotions that brought out in you being that you were 1 of 2 photographers to ever win this specific award?

It was very emotional for me – it was emotionally important partially due in large part that I also was greatly influenced by Peter Benchley. I started scuba diving in 1977, and that was just 2 years after Benchley’s movie “Jaws” came out – at that time in my life, I remember being in the 6th row on opening night of that movie, I was probably one of the few people drawn to the ocean by his story of Jaws. I got to know Peter Benchley later in his life and we spent time diving together in Cuba on a Nat Geo project where he was doing work on shark advocacy/conservation – so on that level it was incredible for me to get this award named after him because he was a hero of mine. 

As a still photographer in an age where video is so dominant, it was especially rewarding because there is something a little bit quieter in still photography, a little more reflective. It makes the viewer stop and study a photograph as you would a painting in a museum, perhaps. I read once that the human brain works in a way that even when we’re watching video, we file away scenes/still frames in our brain and latch on to those images. We are visual creatures and respond powerfully to photographs, so I think a still photo can stay with you for the rest of your life – it can change your behavior and opinion on many things in order to move them to action!

You’ve been up close and personal with many of the subjects that the rest of the world may only dream to catch a glimpse of. Thinking about your career below the surface over the years, what types of ecological changes have your observed first hand in the ocean environment?

When I started out decades ago, issues like climate change wasn’t even on my radar. You couldn’t have imagined the kind of change we have seen over the past decade. Sylvia Earle is a good friend of mine and she often says, “I grew up on a completely different planet.” It’s truly become a different planet in her lifetime. When I first started diving in New England, I can remember seeing big schools of bait fish (herring, pollock, cod) on shipwrecks and on rocky ledges, and unfortunately, I just don’t see that anymore. What do you see instead? Invasives. So many algae/seaweeds and different species that didn’t exist in this area years ago, and they are having a dominance over the native species who use to thrive here. 

I never use to think that the plastic problem rose to the level of climate change or overfishing… but I do today. When you look at the numbers of 18 billion pounds of plastic being dumped into the ocean each year and you physically SEE it everywhere – it takes a little while to gain traction in my brain that plastic is literally everywhere. It permeates every corner of the ocean. I travel 8-10 months a year, and there is not a place in the ocean that I can go around the world where I don’t see plastic. I’m seeing in tropical environments, polar environments, the deepest and most shallow parts – it is literally everywhere. All of these things I’ve been seeing have been just over the past few decades – the ocean is dying a death through a thousand cuts. These are things over 20 years ago I couldn’t have imagined being as big an issue as they are. 

It is far too often we hear about the doom and gloom of the marine environment – and I know we share this idea in common – there can still be a change made to improve ocean health as a whole. Where do you see that change being started?

I think I’ve come to the realization that If we are going to effect change, it’s going to happen with this first step – the first step to any 12 step recovery program – is to admit that we have a problem! So how do we get the world to admit that we have a problem? There has to be really good science, and there has to be really good images. There has to be a visual storytelling that gives visual context to the science that researches have been preaching about for a long time. The problem is, people have busy lives with personal struggles of their own! Your bandwidth for taking in news is small at times, especially when there is a lot of noise and misinformation being pumped through the media. It’s easy to tune out! 

Where possible, we have to use that bandwidth to talk about truth. Human beings are visual creatures, having a single photograph will catch their attention. I’m trying to get the guy or gal sitting at the dentist office glancing at Nat Geo to take a second look at the words in the article based off of the pictures that I make! I want to make them stop and say “Wow, what is that? A great white swimming through a forest?” and read a little bit more to gain information to start that initial conversation. But after that initial hook, we have to offer solutions. People will tune out without these feasible solutions and ways forward! 

A little bit goes a long way, so we need to give people easy ways to choose the right options. A lot of these options are going to come from companies that support the science and the goal of a more sustainable world. We have to have solutions created by businesses who are creating/leading companies to move into sustainable directions, and lastly we need government officials who will provide tax breaks, subsidies, or leadership in helping those sustainable companies thrive! These issues aren’t someone else’s problem, we have to take ownership on these issues and make the choice to change for the better. It becomes confusing though when people don’t know what to buy, what to eat, what to do. That’s where a strong government and companies step in to make these changes based on research so the public doesn’t have to feel guilty about making the wrong choice. We have to work together to see this big change that the environment needs.

Before we say our goodbyes, I am so curious to know –  What’s next for you? Big projects, pieces, trips, or maybe time away from the camera?

Right now, I can tell you a bit (not everything!) on my latest project for National Geographic, it is my most ambitious project to date. It’s a project about whale culture – this is a narrative on a multispecies story based on the discussion of culture in whales that is very similar to how humans interact with each other. For example, sperm whales have multiple family units, belong to a clan based on the dialect that each clan has based on where they are from. Humpback whales sing songs that may be linked to their ancestors, like stories through generations.

Humpback whale mom’s whisper to their babies when predators may be around to keep them safe. It becomes so similar to how humans have pride in their cultures, and to these whales alike, their identity becomes crucial in their lives. How amazing is that, that these whales have cultures similar to our own?! This is a chance to get folks to see the ocean through the lens of culture and family, and to have a real connection to the ocean in this way. This really is going to be the cutting edge of diversity being seen among human cultures as well as whale cultures. So this story is going to be a big story in National Geographic magazine, it will have 4 one hour specials on Nat. Geo. channel, as well as have a book, a museum exhibit, and hopefully more! So I hope to have you folks tune in to what this will show the world.

Photo by Steve De Neef

It was an absolute pleasure being able to get into the brain of this creative conservationist. His images are memorizing, but the stories he tells with those images using science as a basis of information is what makes Brian Skerry stand out to us all. Skerry shares parts of the world with us that need our help – and all hope is not lost. We can have such a positive impact on our oceans by staying curious, educated, and ambitious. 

“At the end of the day we will all be forgotten as time goes on, but if we can look back knowing that what we did made the world a little better – that is the most satisfying part about life.” – Brian Skerry

Follow Brian Skerry’s work:

Copyright of all pictures by Brian Skerry.

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