Brian Skerry: The Art of Marine Conservation

In the foreword to Brian Skerry's photographic book Ocean Soul, his longtime collaborator Gregory Stone makes reference to what it takes to elevate a photographer to something greater than a mere recorder of images:

Brian is the most talented ocean journalist I know. He gets the story right. I have had the great pleasure and privilege of working with him on a number of projects and several National Geographic magazine stories where I was the writer and he was the photographer (or, in the common parlance of this business, the "shooter"). While "shooter" is clever shorthand for a photographer, it diminishes the complexity of what he does. Months, and sometimes years, before Brian even thinks about picking up a camera or donning his dive gear, he is on the phone, reading books or papers in science journals, scoping out locations, talking to everyone he can find, and studying every aspect of the story's background so that he can plan to make a series of very specific images. Only then will he look to the tools of his trade, what he needs to create images that will tell you the story.… Brian has that rare ability to make pictures that interpret subjects in new ways — pictures that show far more than simply where and what was happening, also including the true nature of the moment, the ethereal, almost spiritual, aspect of his subject.
When it comes to a subject as profound as the fragile state of our oceans, there is a story to tell and an immediate need to tell it to a vast audience. That is what Skerry does so very well. Through his many articles in National Geographic magazine, his books and his lecture series, he has attained a reach far beyond what is possible within the confines of dive industry publications. He has grasped the opportunity to touch those outside the choir of ocean acolytes with a message that celebrates the abundance, diversity and resilience of the sea. With this message he conveys an appropriate measure of alarm, for the marine habitat is on the brink of destruction.

A thresher shark, dead in a gillnet in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez

In a recent TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) talk, Skerry references the diaries of the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620 about a time when it might have been possible to walk across Cape Cod Bay on the backs of right whales. Even allowing for a bit of embellishment, this describes an age we'll never again see on this planet, at least not during the reign of Homo sapiens. Skerry also speaks of a global fish crisis in which 90 percent of the big fish in the ocean have disappeared in just 50 years and where bottom trawling for shrimp can create incidental bycatch with a volume 100 times that of the shrimp harvested. These are huge issues, and those who do not understand the ocean by means of their own immersive diving adventures may never relate, unless people like Skerry make it their lives' work to communicate via mainstream channels. He closes his lecture with the thought that the ocean is resilient and tolerant and that it is not too late to reverse some dire trends. We hope he's right.

A fisherman holds the shrimp he caught in his bottom trawl net after towing it for an hour; the other dead animals are bycatch, thrown back into the sea as trash.

STEPHEN FRINK// In every career there is a point when a person is irrevocably launched a down a particular path. What was yours?

BRIAN SKERRY// I think my epiphany came when I was 15 years old. I was sitting in the audience of the film festival at the Boston Sea Rovers dive show, watching documentary films and slide shows celebrating the beauty of the sea. I knew then I wanted to be an explorer of the ocean. That was a lofty goal for a kid from a blue-collar, working-class town 30 miles from the coast, but I bought myself a Nikonos II and taught myself the fundamentals of underwater photography. By the time I got to college the dream was even more vibrant, so I enrolled in a filmmaking curriculum. I wanted to be like Al Giddings, shooting movies, or like you, shooting stills, but I had no money to travel. So my underwater studio was the offshore reefs and, particularly, the wrecks of New England. I worked on dive boats, and that gave me the time to know the environment and improve my skills.

Yet I knew if I was ever going to make a living at this underwater photography gig I had to be able to tell great stories that had a beginning, a middle and an end. I needed to shoot journalistically rather than pursuing only the magic moment. At the outset I shot only things that interested me, but even then I began to see the degradation. The big schools of pollock and herring I used to swim with were massively diminished, and on dives where I once could expect to see a dozen blue sharks, I usually saw none. I still wanted to do celebratory coverage of the sea, but I saw there were issues that absolutely needed light shed upon them. I wanted that light to be my strobes.

Loligo opalescens squid spawning off California’s Channel Islands. The male’s arms blush red when embracing the female, a warning sign to competing males to back off.

SF// There's a big leap between wanting to be an underwater journalist and actually being one. How did you make your dream a reality?

BS// I'd like to have been able to hang a shingle that said "Underwater Photographer," but I had to make a living. For me that meant working in convenience stores and factories to buy better cameras and strobes. For many years I spent far more money on underwater photography than I ever made. Early on I sold a few natural history stories here and there and got a few stock photos placed. I made a little money working on dive boats, but that certainly didn't turn on the spigot to any big income stream. Today I think there are many outlets for underwater photography, but perhaps less money per project than in years past, given the great democratization and commoditization of photography on the Internet. But some things remain the same. A successful photographer has to have passion and fortitude, and I can't imagine doing anything else with my life. I figured my odds at a billion to one to make it as an underwater journalist, but all I could do was keep plodding along, doing what I could afford to do in the cold, dark and challenging North Atlantic.

Yellowfin tuna in a tuna ranching operation off Baja, Mexico.

SF// One of the first photographs I ever saw of yours was an oarfish. I've never seen one and wouldn't even know they exist without your photograph. Was that a magic moment for you?

BS// Actually, it was quite significant for my career. It was a great moment, but maybe not such a great photograph. I was out at the Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center (AUTEC) submarine buoy with Stuart Cove to photograph silky sharks, and I saw this weird thing in the distance. I wasn't even sure it was a living thing, but as we were in water that was 7,000 feet deep I thought it could be some deep-water creature. I snapped a shot and sent it to National Geographic. They ran it, and now it has been published in 14 or 15 countries.

But there were a couple other stories that were probably of greater significance to my career. One was a lone beluga whale in Nova Scotia that I'd heard was particularly interactive with divers. I traveled there and shot it totally on spec, coming up with a natural history story that I made into a children's book in 2000 called A Whale On Her Own.

Another was the pirate ship Whydah that I photographed off Cape Cod. That was particularly challenging because it was my first assignment for National Geographic, and I knew if I blew it the odds of getting called a second time were infinitesimal. The visibility was horrible — made worse by excavation — and the subjects were low profile and monochromatic. But by using divers holding incandescent lights to reveal the big picture and shooting macro photos of artifacts when they were discovered, I delivered a compelling story. National Geographic was beginning to believe in me. Today, after 20 stories for National Geographic over the past 14 years and five stories in development at the moment, I still approach each of them knowing you're only as good as your last one.

A crabeater seal sleeps on the ice in Antarctica.

SF// I see you as an environmental photographer, and the first story that defined you in that niche was your coverage of harp seals.

BS// Thanks for remembering! That was the 2002-03 season in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and my first big natural-history story. In February and March the seals in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland would court, breed and give birth on transient ice patches. The hunt for these animals represented the largest mass slaughter of marine mammals on the planet, and that was a big part of my story. The vulnerability of these charismatic megafauna was both captivating and so severe it endangered the survival of the species. The other issue I covered in that story was the loss of sea ice due to climate change, a problem that has proven to be a game changer for these animals. Now, just a decade later, the habitat loss turned out to be the much greater hazard. The harp seal needs only 14 days from birth to self-sufficiency, but without stable ice the pups fall into the water and die. I'm told the pup mortality rate for the 2010-11 season is 100 percent. They'll have to evolve and adapt or go extinct. The issues are that frightening, and the changes are happening in our oceans that swiftly.

I pitched the global fish crisis story to National Geographic because I wanted to be a sort of war photographer going after the gritty story of what was happening to marine life on this planet. I wanted people to understand the magnificence of bluefin tuna and what happens when they die for sushi. I wanted people to be aware of the broad swath of damage wrought by nets dragged across the bottom of the sea and to see the cruel efficiency of longlines that capture sharks, mostly to satisfy the market for sharkfin soup; 100 million sharks are killed each year, and it is no longer (if it ever was) sustainable. I wanted to tell the story of the stresses we are placing on the ocean's inhabitants. It was an opportunity for me, but even more so, it was my duty as an observer of the sea. I would like to do only happy stories of the sea, and once in a while I have to shoot those to preserve my sanity, but with National Geographic we have a forum to reach 50 million readers. Some stories deserve a sense of responsibility and urgency.

A Florida manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris) swims in a freshwater spring in Crystal River, Fla. Fish aggregate around the manatee to eat algae growing on its body.

SF// Anyone who achieves a high profile in underwater photography is asked by people of equal passion how they can do it, too. How do you answer?

BS// I say it is OK to follow your dream, but temper it with a dose of reality that leaves food on the table. I see three important considerations:
  • Set a strategy based on where you want to be in a given number of years. This provides an ongoing reality check while allowing you to quantify your progress.
  • Identify your niche within a niche. What are you really passionate about, and what stories can you tell with pictures?
  • Be journalistic in your approach. Work on subjects and stories that exist in your backyard — in water you can reach repeatedly and easily. Spend three months on location and photograph the hell out of it. Embrace local knowledge, and acquire an archive on a particular subject. Then edit relentlessly and unmercifully. Come up with 30 pictures to sell to whatever local media exists in that region. Then pick another story. Maybe you can come up with three topics a year. After five years of working like that you'll have 15 portfolios, which should be enough to launch you on a career in stock, editorial or fine art photography.

It's not a race, so don't be in a hurry. Take your time, for time it will take. Meanwhile, never let the fun go away. Regardless of the pressure to deliver or the rigors of the location, I've never forgotten being an underwater photographer is a privilege I enjoy with all my soul, hence the name of my book: Ocean Soul.
Brian Skerry: On Being a Shooter

A southern right whale (Eubalaena australis) encounters a diver on the sandy, 72-foot-deep seafloor off the Auckland Islands, New Zealand.

As readers of Alert Diver know, underwater photography is an equipment-intensive business. It requires most of the same gear land photographers use plus much, much more. Cameras must be placed in underwater housings, and special strobes, strobe arms, cords, housing ports and extension rings are needed as well. Add to that cases full of lenses and all the diving gear — wetsuits of varying thicknesses, drysuits, masks, snorkels, fins, regulators, BCDs and more. Because I often work in remote locations where I cannot buy specialized items I might need or even get equipment repaired, I must bring backups of everything plus an assortment of tools. In total, I often head off on assignment with 30 cases of equipment in tow.

On many assignments I bring an array of supplemental lights, including movie lights with hundreds of feet of cable to be powered by generators on boats above. I sometimes envy my street-shooting colleagues (who travel with only two or three camera bodies and a handful of lenses) and underwater-photo enthusiasts who get to travel to beautifully exotic destinations with minimal baggage. But then again, they don't get to spend months with sharks or sea turtles.

A female leatherback turtle crawls from the sea under moonlight to nest on Matura Beach in Trinidad.

I have often mused that being a National Geographic magazine photographer is not unlike being a professional athlete in that you are only as good as your last game (or in my case, my last story). The magazine expects results, and a photographer cannot have failures and continue to expect assignments. There are so many things that must go right for success, and some things inevitably go wrong. Learning to overcome problems is key, and problems come in all shapes and sizes — from luggage not arriving to equipment malfunctions. Mother Nature can always be relied on to bring variables you simply can't control, including bad weather, poor visibility and the animals you're there to shoot just not showing up.

Knowing there are so many things I cannot control, I dedicate as much time as possible working on the things I can. Detailed research is crucial, because I need to know as much as possible about my subjects and locations. I want to know where and when they can be found, if the water is clear enough for pictures and what behaviors I might be able to document. Once I have the assignment, I adopt a mindset in which failure is not an option. This job has been called a zero-mistake game: Fail to deliver the goods, and you are done. With this always in mind, I have learned to become good at research and solving problems.

Perhaps the most valuable resource I have, though, is time in the field. With time I can usually overcome whatever challenges or problems occur. Time allows me to learn firsthand about the place in which I am working: what happens at different times of day and how animals behave. Often the best images are made when something unexpected happens, and taking time allows more opportunities to present themselves. But serendipity can be seized only if I am prepared, so while I might be wandering casually through underwater domains, I am always vigilant and ready.

© Alert Diver — Winter 2012
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