#TurningTheTide campaign cofounder Cristina Mittermeier’s vivid photographs bring indigenous

By Bliss Bowen

A young Kayapo girl swims in the Xingu River, an Amazon tributary impacted by a controversial dam
Photo by Cristina Mittermeier / National Geographic

Trained as a marine biologist, award-winning National Geographic photographer Cristina Mittermeier laughs when asked if she frames her riveting underwater images of dolphins, jellyfish, sharks and stingrays with an eye for scientific detail. There are so many uncontrollable variables, she points out, that when she does find herself up close with an American crocodile in Cuba or crabeater seals in Antarctica, she’s just hoping she can make a compelling image.

However, Mittermeier does see everything she photographs through the lens of her training: “I’m always thinking, ‘What kind of message can we convey with this image?’ Sometimes it’s just the magic of biodiversity — the miracle that this planet is, that we can share with millions of species.”

Most of her subjects are human — members of indigenous communities who live off the land. They will be prominently featured in her “Standing at the Water’s Edge” presentation for Nat Geo Live at The Broad Stage this Thursday and Friday.

A few may be familiar to followers of Mittermeier’s Instagram (instagram.com/cristinamittermeier) and Twitter (@cmittermeier) accounts. Like her partner and fellow National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen (paulnicklen.com), Mittermeier posts gripping photos to social media to highlight awareness of environmental issues receiving scant news coverage.

“The attention span of people is shorter, but the reach we have is so much larger” with social media, she says, as followers get hooked by images with unpreachy captions that engage them in conversation with people around the world.

Through their photography and recently launched #TurningTheTide campaign for their co-founded nonprofit, Sea Legacy (sealegacy.org), Mittermeier and Nicklen encourage citizen participation in safeguarding the world’s oceans. Marine protected areas like the one Mexico recently created around Revillagigedo Islands represent one of the biggest causes they champion. Mittermeier, who also founded the International League of Conservation Photographers, calls them “the first line of defense” against illegal fishing and commercial over-fishing.

A young girl tiptoes over sharp rocks in a native Hawaiian enclave
on Oahu
Photo by Cristina Mittermeier / National Geographic

THE ARGONAUT: Let’s talk about this concept of “enoughness” you encountered in your work with indigenous communities.

CRISTINA MITTERMEIER: I was visiting with a community of indigenous Hawaiian people, and one of the gentlemen we spent time with said he grew up in Oahu, on one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, speaking his language, surrounded by family, surfing every day with his friends, and he thought he had enough. He never imagined he was missing out on anything — until people from California started arriving to surf, and they were shocked he lived in this shack, at how poverty-stricken he was. In his mind, he had enough.

It got me thinking about the many, many indigenous communities I have visited that seem happy and content, yet we label them as poor and lacking because we see them through the lens of our wealth and abundance, which is exactly what is killing our planet. So I wanted to come up with a way to encapsulate that feeling that you get from the meaningful work that you do, your relationships with family, friends, your spirituality or religion, and use those to fill our souls.

We’re marketed to feel good by buying stuff. That’s so ephemeral. Enoughness is a personal barometer of what makes you feel good. You cannot tell people to do this or stop buying that, but if you can ask, “By purchasing this, am I really going to feel that good?,” then we are all contributing to a more sustainable future.

Conservation photographer Charlie Hamilton James told us last year that indigenous communities are caretakers of the world’s most precious environments, but they aren’t supposed to touch those resources despite living in stark poverty. Have you witnessed similar conflicts?

Absolutely. I call it the ‘Avatar’ syndrome. Everywhere around the world indigenous communities are being faced with eviction from their land. Here in British Columbia … they are putting all this industry in places where these people fish for their survival. So we have salmon farms polluting the waters, oil tankers traversing their waters. It’s a way of getting rid of the indigenous population with industry. It’s happening everywhere around the world, and in places where indigenous people really stand up for themselves and become an obstacle to industry, you often see massacre. It is so sad. But in places where there’s real leadership and where they’ve already gone through the cycle of understanding what this so-called wealth does to their communities, you see new determination from some indigenous communities to remain traditional and go back to the old ways because that’s more sustainable, more fulfilling.

You’ve made stunning photographs of sea wolves that feed on marine life in coastal British Columbia. Will they be featured in “Standing at the Water’s Edge”?

I really try to focus more on the human component and leave the wildlife aspect to the better wildlife photographers, but they will be a small part. The thread of the narrative in British Columbia for me is the salmon, which is this amazing species that returns every year. It’s not just the people who depend on the salmon; it’s the wolf, and the bear, and the forest itself. The salmon is in real great danger, to the point that we may see salmon disappear in the next 10 years.

Talk a little about the Turning the Tide campaign.

It’s Sea Legacy’s online giving community. We just noticed that there’s hundreds of thousands of people out there really worried about the environment, and they don’t know how to participate. They can go with us on virtual expeditions; we stream live and share unique content. By supporting us they are part of a positive movement to change how the story ends for our oceans. #TurningTheTide is the hashtag; the community is called the Tide. People are responding, especially young people. They give $3 a month, $1 a month, but it’s a way of contributing something positive.

Did you attend the Paris climate talks or any similar conferences?

Over the years I’ve attended conferences, [including] Copenhagen and Barcelona. They’re always a shit show [laughs]. Because the official meetings, you’re only allowed to attend if you’re a member of a government delegation; as members of the public or delegations with nonprofits or non-governmental groups, you participate in side events. I’ve never been part of the main discussions themselves.

If you could be at the table with political and military leaders, what would you say to them about what’s happening to the global ecosystem and climate change?

For those of us in the front lines and seeing it every day, in every dive you notice that things are unraveling quickly. Instead of telling them, I would show them. I would bring them beneath the thin blue line to show them what’s at stake, to make sure they know it’s not just the next election at stake, it’s not just a far-off country; it’s all of us.

We’re in a really dangerous moment in the history of our planet. I have nightmares about this, because it’s happening so quickly. I hate to be gloom and doom, but I think that oftentimes the people attending those meetings and making decisions on behalf of all of us have never put their head underneath the water. It’s horrifying to me that they’re making decisions that are globally important based on really myopic and shortsighted metrics.

Your work is very physically challenging, and imposes real emotional weight through bearing continual witness to events like the death of the Baffin Island polar bear that you and Paul Nicklen just documented. What keeps you moving forward?

I’m a positive person by nature, and I tend to see the positive path forward. If I couldn’t do that, I don’t think I would be able do this. We just lost a colleague on the coast, a filmmaker friend of ours; she just jumped into the water and killed herself. It can be horribly depressing to see these precious things you love and you understand are so threatened and the rest of humanity’s so blind and oblivious. It’s a lot to carry, but I’m so confident in the positive impact we can make.

What else can we do? Paul and I talk about this all the time. One choice would be to get on our boat and sail away and enjoy however long we can, spending time in nature, which we love. Or we can stay and fight. We’re both getting to our fifties and we may have another 15, 20 years — you’re right, it’s very physically challenging. But we do it because we love it, and we’re having a great time seeing this global community emerging that really wants to be part of a healthy planet. It’s incredibly inspiring to us. I worry about the future for my children. I have two kids and a stepchild. I don’t want them to live in a post-apocalyptic planet.

Nat Geo Live: presents “Standing at the Water’s Edge” with Cristina Mittermeier at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday (Dec. 14 and 15) at The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. Tickets are $65 to $120. Call (310) 434-3200 or visit cristinamittermeier.com.