It is no small task to take the good that can come of photography and turn it into a movement. But that's just what Cristina Mittermeier has done with conservation photography. Though photography has been used for decades as a way to influence people to protect and conserve the Earth's creatures and habitats, it wasn't a goal photographers necessarily focused on in their shooting. Mittermeier, however, has been and is a driving force behind building the effects of influencing people with images into a known and respected genre, and conservation photography is attracting more and more wildlife and nature photographers interested in advocating for the preservation of the planet's fragile treasures.

I talked with Mittermeier about her experiences, the sacrifices she has made to pursue her photography and advocacy, and the successes she has seen come from her hard work. Her life and her images are an inspiration. If you need a boost of optimism in your own conservation work, these words and photos will bolster you.

indigenous tribeswoman photo

MNN: You have been at the forefront of the conservation photography movement for years, including founding the International League of Conservation photographers. So, what is conservation photography to you? How do you explain it to folks?

Cristina Mittermeier: When I was starting my career as a nature and cultural photographer I was surprised by how little interest most nature photographers had in conservation and environmental issues. It was almost taboo to speak about the environment. It was perceived as a polarizing issue that was best left alone.

There was a handful, however, who like me, were passionate about making sure the places and species they photographed were protected and they were willing to do whatever it took .... all the tedious, elaborate, boring work, like writing letters to politicians, attending meetings and conferences, speaking to the media, etc., necessary to make sure their images were reaching the right audiences. By coining “conservation photography” as a new discipline, I wanted to elevate the work those photographers were doing.

Today, almost a decade later, the imperative to do everything in my power to make sure my photography makes a positive and real contribution to conservation continues to guide my work.

fishermen photo

Where does your passion lie in conservation photography? What subject do you train your lens on?

I have a degree in marine biology and have always been fascinated by the majesty and the mystery of the natural world. My concern over the destruction of species and landscapes was what ignited my passion for conservation. I thought photography would give me the tool I needed to communicate this fascination but pretty soon I discovered that my real passion lies in the point where nature and traditional cultures intersect. This is the place where sustainability can be seen in action.

Traditional communities and indigenous people have always known how to live within the boundaries of what nature is able to provide and the depth and wealth of their lives has always been a great source of artistic inspiration for me. I train my lens on indigenous people and their relationship to nature to illustrate concepts like community, family, spirituality, art, creativity....all of which contribute to providing indigenous people with a sense of enoughness or material contentment.

Seeing the world through this particular lens has made my own life so much meaningful and rich.

tribesmen with yellow faces photo

Can you share some success stories you've experienced, in how photography has made a real difference?

Running the iLCP gave me access to a great “environmental communications laboratory.” Through the projects that the photographers who were part of the iLCP, our conservation partners and myself conceived and carried out I was able to experiment with ideas to see how photographs could have the biggest impact.

We worked on a methodology known as a RAVE (Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition) which deploys a team of photographers to a site facing some environmental danger to see if images of “what is about to be lost” might change the course of events. I quickly realized that using international photographers to bring an “outsiders perspective” to an issue; bringing members of the media (TV, newspapers, radio); and offering beautiful, professional imagery for free as well as interviews with the photographers as “on the ground witnesses” we were able of creating a ground swell of local interest and we were able to build constituencies of support or opposition amongst grassroots organizations.

The increased media coverage often led to pressure on decision-makers and other influential people. On several of these RAVEs we were able to build enough buzz to tip the scales in favor of conservation. In the Flathead River valley we helped the local NGO community succeed in halting mountain-top removal projects in perpetuity and in La Paz, Mexico we helped create a new protected area in the Bay of Balandra.

In every RAVE we did while I ran the organization we were able to identify specific pieces of the conservation agenda that could be tipped and we were able move the agenda forward.

child with alpaca photo

We've talked together in the past about how conservation has its own environmental cost with all the traveling a photographer does, but that the benefits outweigh the cost if it means saving a species, an ecosystem, an indigenous culture. Can you talk a little more about the costs of being a conservation photographer, the hurdles that you face as part of a bigger goal?

There is no doubt that this is one of the hardest, yet most rewarding jobs I can think of. The sacrifices are tremendous and constant but the rewards are immense as well.

First of all, it is really hard to have financial success or even stability as a nature photographer. I have been lucky to have good skills both as a writer and as a public speaker and to have a background in biology so I can complement my photography. Being passionate about what I do, having a sincere concern over the fate of the natural world is what gives me the impetus to get out of bed every morning with an eagerness to do whatever I can to make a positive contribution.

After all these years and after all the loses we have seen, I still cannot imagine doing anything else in life. I suppose I could have gone into a more lucrative career that would have allowed me to have more stability but I was lucky to be married for 22 years to a very supportive man who shared the same concerns and passions. I was lucky to find jobs that allowed me to work from home and raise my children and I was lucky to live in Washington, DC, where the conservation world has an important hub and where things are always happening.

Running an organization and being faced with the challenges of rising funding for projects was more of a challenge that forced me to travel constantly. This took a toll on my marriage and on my children. I was also challenged by organizational politics, which taxed my energy and wasted my time. In the end, all I ever wanted to do is find a job that allows me to be out in nature and perhaps, help others find the magic of the natural world. There is no doubt that the life I have lived as a conservationist and as a photographer has been amazing and exciting but has also required tremendous sacrifice.

woman carrying goose photo

Now I have a new partner, National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen, who also shares the passion for photography and conservation and whose work is perfectly matched to mine. We are able to work together, travel together and raise our voices together on behalf of our planet’s biodiversity. We are launching a new non-for-profit organization called Sea Legacy whose mission is to use the power of photography and story-telling on behalf on marine conservation.

There is no question that this type of commitment demands boundless energy, unflagging enthusiasm, a spirit of adventure, the ability to survive under difficult circumstances and the courage to confront danger. It is all-consuming, which makes for lonely mates and neglected children. It is frenetic, exciting and sometimes dangerous but every minute of it is worth it. Having a partner to share it with, makes it a fun adventure every day.

indiginous tribesman photo

What keeps you going? What makes you continue with conservation photography despite the hardships?

I am shamelessly hopeful and I hold on to the idea that some day soon, all the efforts of all the people around the world who share a passion for the environment, sustainability, biodiversity and a healthy planet, will add up to a movement of such proportions that the world will have no choice but to change its ways. I wake up every morning convinced that my small contributions will add up to this change and I try to make each effort count.

Where have been some of your favorite locations where you've worked?

I have loved the life of travel I have been lucky enough to lead. Over 100 countries and many amazing places ... it is hard to choose. Working in the Amazon was very special but so were the highlands of New Guinea and the forests of Madagascar. Suriname will always have a special place in my heart for its beauty and cultural diversity.

These days I am more aware and more alive to the world around me and I appreciate every minute spent outdoors. I just worked in Hawaii for three months and fell in love with the people. Having an Arctic photographer as a partner, however, has opened up a frozen universe to me, one that is full of magic and poetry.

young person near grazing livestock photo

Who have been your mentors and muses?

My ex-husband, Russ Mittermeier, was a very large influence in my understanding of global conservation issues but photographically, the biggest inspiration by far comes from Paul Nicklen's work, which perfectly exemplifies the marriage of art, conservation and science. His dedication to simplifying complex ideas and messages through beautiful imagery is something I aspire to achieve in my own work. The muses include powerful women like Sylvia Earle and the late Rachel Carson. In the end, the biggest inspiration comes from my children, John, Michael and Juliana, who love nature and who deserve to have a healthy planet.

If you can recommend three things people do today to help our planet, what would that be?

There is only one thing we all need to do and that is to take personal responsibility. There is no “list of 10 things we can do” and no simple shortcut. We are out of easy choices and from now on, every choice we make will be harder, because the impacts, both positive and negative are becoming more obvious. Every consumer choice, every political choice, every investment we make needs to be made with full information.

Where does our food come from? What are the implications of choosing a political candidate? Is there a better choice I can make?

It is a lot of work and I understand that most people don’t want to bother with it, but at this stage of the game, it is the only attitude that can change the course of history.

young girl in river photo

What projects are you currently working on that you're excited about?

I am fully immersed in Sea Legacy and we have our first projects underway. With the help of National Geographic and individual donors we are working on identifying areas where the creation of marine protected areas is needed. We are identifying conservation partners, donors and opportunities and are inviting our donors to join us on our expeditions, the first one currently underway in Norway.

I also have a new book, "Sublime Nature: Photographs that Awe and Inspire," published by National Geographic and sponsored by CEMEX. The book will come out on Earth Day 2014, and we are getting ready for the media tour.

I am also working on creating a large conservation photography photo competition and I hope to have more details soon.

Finally, I just gave my first TEDx talk and I chose as a subject a concept that incorporates the knowledge of indigenous people and which basically translates into developing “an internal yardstick for contentment.” At its core, this concept, called Enoughness is something we each can aspire to as a path towards a more sustainable future.

Jaymi Heimbuch ( @jaymiheimbuch ) focuses on wildlife conservation and animal news from her home base in San Francisco.

Meet the woman who elevated conservation photography to a whole new level
Cristina Mittermeier discusses the modern movement of conservation photography in an interview.