Monday, June 15, 2009

The Power of Photography

This is a transcript of a lecture I gave at the National Geographic Society for their Explorers Symposium.

It certainly is an honor to be asked to speak about photography and the Image at National Geographic, especially while surrounded by people who I have considered mentors who are in the audience right as I speak.

There is a certain lineage in photography, all photographers have photographers that we look up to, or try to emulate, and understanding this lineage is also to understand the respect that those pioneers of photography deserve. They have broken a trail for the rest of us to follow.

Photographs are a way to break free of the barriers that we have in language, and we use them when words simply cannot convey our thoughts, Ideas, or the events which can define us.

Seeing the images that Nick Nichols took during Mike Fay’s mega transect not only stirs a somewhat jealous craving for adventure in me, it has also become the standard that I hope to achieve at some point in my own life and career. Seeing what they have accomplished with those images! Those photographs where used to persuade the president of Gabon to set aside 11% of the area of his country and to create 13 brand new National parks. This land could otherwise have been lost to logging and poaching.

In this instance however, photographs have captured more than just a moment in time, they have captured a part of our world and preserved it for future generations to admire, and someday visit for themselves.

Photography when used this way is no longer just a way to hold on to a memory, like the photos we take of friends and parties and children before they grow up, but a tool that we can use to accomplish our goals, goals like conservation, exploration, and education.

I can’t say that my photography has had the effect that Nick Nichols has yet, but in the expeditions that I have done for National Geographic, Just the potential that it could create change is constantly pushing me to find and capture that perfect moment that could sum up our cause in one image. One image that not just captures a single moment, but has compressed both the adventure and the cause into one definable image.

I’m sure we all have photographs that have been etched into our memories. Images that we’ll never forget. Either for tragic reasons, reasons of hope, or others because they changed our view of what is possible.

My first expedition for National Geographic was a huge learning experience for me. I was given a young explorers grant and sent on my way to document shark poaching on Cocos Island. Cocos is an Island 300 miles off of Costa Rica where the major oceanic conservation issues have all been condensed into one small marine reserve. I can’t say I wasn’t quite intimidated by the task at hand, which was to document and expose the Illegal poaching of sharks and other endangered species which on Cocos Island is a daily occurrence.

Cocos Island is one of the densest shark populations on the planet. Schools consisting of hundreds of hammerhead shark congregate on the various seamounts that surround Cocos, and smaller fish abound because of the Nutrient rich deep-water currents which are forced upward along the steep sides of Cocos Island. It appears to be one of the last strongholds that nature has in the ocean, but many of the important species that you see in Cocos Island are pelagic species, so they use Cocos like a waypoint on their migrations through the pacific.

The fishermen know this, and even though the waters are protected, they travel from all over the world to fill their holds with everything from tuna, to thousands of shark fins to be sold in Fish Markets like this one in Hong Kong. It’s easy to see why people will travel so far for shark fins, they sell for hundred of dollars a pound, and the more rare the shark, the higher the price. When you think of what a few thousand pounds of shark fins will sell for compared to the drastically cheaper meat, you can see why a fisherman will take their chances with the coast guard, and become poachers.

For every single poacher we caught in our patrols of the Island, at least 20 went unnoticed and unimpeded. Sometimes the boats were too big for us to run down in our little patrol boats, and other times the culprit happened to be the father in law of the captain of our patrol boat.

When the boats saw us coming, they would ditch their long lines which were miles long, with hooks placed every 50 feet or so, and we would return to pull the lines out by hand, freeing whatever was hooked. Every day, we would pull between 16 and 20 miles of line out of the water, more than enough to completely wrap around the island.

While I was out there, I was reminded of something that Wade Davis told me before I left. He said, “These things have a way of becoming much bigger than you originally planned.” He told me I was going to have to decide wether I would stick with the original focussed project, or if I would branch out and try to cover all of the issues which would inevitably come out of my research.

Thanks to Wade I didn’t lose my mind, and decided to focus on the issue of shark poaching and finning, using it as a metaphor for the rest of the ways we have been mistreating the ocean. I didn’t need photos of the massive Japanese tuna boats, which occasionally stop by Cocos Island, or the government officials that had been paid off to ignore certain boats, though I certainly tried. I just needed one picture that would show the inhumanity of it all. Just one picture to inspire those people who are actually in a position to make a difference. I know very well that I’m not going to sit down with the president of Costa Rica and discuss a plan I have to save the ocean, I’ll leave that to those more knowledgeable and better connected. But perhaps it will be my photography that will inspire them to do so.

The Cocos Island expedition led to my getting invited to join the legendary arctic explorer Will Steger on an expedition to document the effects of global warming in the high arctic. Another daunting task as far as photography goes. How do we make people care about global warming, or global weirding as I’ve heard it called, when the affects aren’t in our back yard yet? The Arctic seems like such an uninviting place, and people tend to have a difficult time visualizing it as a resource or even an heirloom worth preserving. What we need to change before we can change the world, is peoples perspective.

Will taught me a lot about how we can affect people’s perspective by bringing them with us to the arctic through our stories, and the photographs we posted along the way. While on the expedition we could only attach small images to our blog posts which we sent out via satellite uplink, like Toby is doing in this photo. Those pictures reached thousands of school children and unknown numbers of other people interested in following the teams adventures. On days when we saw wildlife, the followers got to see what we saw. When we finally had encounters with Wolves, after seeing tracks and keeping our eyes peeled for weeks, the followers got to share in our excitement.

This kind of use of photography while on an expedition isn’t new, but it is rare, and the
ability of a daily photograph to keep thousands of peoples interest tuned to our cause made it an invaluable part of our expedition, and something that I plan on implementing in my future expeditions. It humanizes the explorer, and gives people a personal experience. It allows people to imagine themselves as being a part of the expedition.

This is where I think photography really shines. A good photograph is not just one that shows a place, but something that can show people how we see the world, essentially it’s like looking through the eyes of the photographer, and seeing their vision. Really we all see things in our own way, with our culture, our experiences and our perspective shaping how we look at our surroundings. That’s why I love using it, it’s a way to show people what the world looks like to me.

There’s a drive inside of most of the people in this room to make a difference, and we each do it in our individual ways, some through scientific research, others through writing or film. My medium is photography. I can’t say that my photos have changed the world yet, but I can say that they have inspired some people to make changes in their own lives or to take up a new cause, and I consider this a good start. We’ve been educated our whole lives about global issues which need addressing, but to get people to stand up and take charge it takes inspiration.