How Brian Skerry tells epic ocean stories, one photo at a time
Ocean wildlife photographer Brian Skerry has a thrilling but demanding job: To capture the story of our ocean's creatures and ecosystems in all their spectacular grace, and tragic decline.
Tue, Apr 01, 2014 at 11:26 AM
All photos: Brian Skerry
Brian Skerry is one of the top ocean photographers, and is a regular contributor for National Geographic. His photos of creatures large and small that roam the planet's seas have become popular to the point of iconic, and for a very specific reason: Skerry has a knack for telling entire stories through a single frame. And we want to hear these stories. The grace and delicate curiosity of whales that have never seen humans before, the overfishing of the sea's precious life, the demise of ecosystems through abuse and neglect, and the mystery, awe and beauty that still envelope so much of our ocean. Dive after dive after dive, Skerry comes back to the surface with images that show what most of us would never otherwise see or understand. We talked with Skerry about his amazing job, what his photography means to him as an activist for ocean health, and some of his most memorable experiences to date.
MNN: Do you remember the first time when you realized that ocean photography was what you most wanted to do with your career?
Brian Skerry: I began diving when I was about 15 years old and a year or two later I attended a diving show called the Boston Sea Rovers. As I sat in the audience watching photographers and filmmakers present their work, I had an epiphany; I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I always wanted to be an explorer of the sea and now I realized that I would be an explorer with a camera. I was a very visual person and loved visual storytelling. So being an underwater photographer/photojournalist was the perfect career.
What was the very first story you did for National Geographic?
My first NGM assignment/story was about a pirate shipwreck called the Whydah. I shot the story in 1998 and it was published in 1999.
What does photography mean to you, as an art form and as a tool for activism?
Photography is extremely important to me for both of those reasons. I absolutely love the ability to create images, to capture elusive moments of animal behavior and to reflect on those images forever. I enjoy creating a vision for a story, working on it for a year or two and step by step seeing the results emerge. I became a photographer because I love looking at pictures and because I am passionate about nature. Being able to combine these things means a great deal to me.
I also believe that photography is a very powerful tool and that it can make a tremendous difference. Humans are visual creatures and we respond emotionally to images. I believe that a single photograph can stay with someone for their lifetime. So many of the greatest moments in history (since the advent of photography) have been recorded in a single frame. The good and the bad. Pure photography is absolute proof.
How do you explain conservation photography to other people, and how it differs from simply taking beautiful photographs?
Conservation photography is a form of photojournalism I believe. We need the beautiful images to understand our world and to remember why it needs to be protected. But if we don’t see the troubling images, we might not realize there are indeed problems out there. Conservation photography tells a story about what is beautiful, the problems effecting a particular species or place and when possible, offers solutions as well.
The ocean faces so many issues; warming and acidification, overfishing, dead zones and a loss of apex predators, rising sea levels affecting tidal ecosystems and the bleaching of coral reefs, it seems like the list goes on and on. What issue is closest to your heart, or what do you tend to start talking about when you advocate for our ocean?
All of these issues are critically important and its difficult to select one as the most important. But the one I often talk about first is overfishing. I want folks to understand that when we eat seafood, this is often wildlife that is being caught, and that historically this has been done in especially damaging and unsustainable ways. Things are done in the sea that would never be tolerated on land. And I believe there are solutions. We need far more protected places, no-take zones and we need to encourage environmentally friendly aquaculture. Better regulations for many existing fisheries will help as well.
When you talk with people about your work, are there any particular topics or issues that people tend to say, "Oh, I never knew about that before”?
When I show pictures of by-catch I often hear that; many people have no idea of the incidental catch and waste.
What it is like planning for an assignment? What all goes into getting ready?
Preparing for an assignment can be a year long process or even longer. There are months of research into every aspect of the subject and the logistics. Then there is the prep, lots of time working on equipment and all the details of trips (permits, carnets, etc.). When I finally leave, I often have dozens of cases in tow and a list of things that need to come together. But the nature of travel is that they often do not, so handling problems is a big part of the job.
Who has inspired you over the years? Who has kept you excited about your career?
I am inspired by so many people! Its difficult to list them given that there simply isn’t room for all. as an underwater photographer I was greatly inspired by Bill Curtsinger who produced work that stirred my soul. I was also inspired by Luis Marden and David Doubilet and Flip Nicklin. But I've also been tremendously inspired by terrestrial photographers, many of my colleagues that are producing amazing work worldwide. Over the years its been photographers like Chris Johns, Nick Nichols, Jim Brandenburg, Steve Winter, Tim Laman, Paul Nicklen, Christian Zieglar and so many more. I’m also inspired by filmmakers such as Doug Allan, Rick Rosenthal and Howard Hall. And of course other folks inspire me too, like Sylvia Earle and E.O Wilson. I honestly find inspiration in so many places, from music to art and everything in between.
What is your most memorable adventure in your photography career?
Wow, that’s a tough one, as there have been so many great adventures! One of the best though was working on my NGM story about right whales. I wanted to contrast the beleaguered North Atlantic population with healthier Southern right whales. I ended up making a very speculative trip to the sub-Antarctic of New Zealand in wintertime in hopes of photographing a newly discovered population of these animals. I had no idea if I would find them or if the visibility would be good of if I could get close. But I was absolutely blown away when I arrived. I was alone in the water with whales that had never seen a human before. They were very curious and spent time checking me out. I realized that this is how its supposed to be, animals with no fear of humans.
If there is a single message you want viewers to get from your images and carry with them, what is it?
That our planet is a rare jewel. That nature is extraordinary and should be embraced and protected.
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