True To Me Too: I was having a hard time writing a summary for you because you do so many things, you’re a photojournalist, you’ve written several books , you speak at conferences, you helped found the New England Ocean Odyssey. Can you try to sum it up for me?
Brian Skerry: It all generates from the fact that I’m a photojournalist. I’ve been working for National Geographic Magazine for 15 years, I specialize in making pictures and telling stories about ocean wildlife mostly. There’s a blend of celebratory and issue based coverage, a lot of the stuff I do these days has an environmental or conservation theme but generally that’s where everything begins. I go out and do assignments for National Geographic, I tell stories and as a result of that work I do books and speaking engagements and a variety of other things but it’s all born from the original photography.
I picked up your book Ocean Soul, in the introduction you talk about learning to dive and learning to take pictures underwater. How long did it take you to become a confident diver and adapt to the pressure and equipment before you felt comfortable taking pictures?
I was just talking to a young photographer, someone who wants to become an underwater photographer and she hasn’t yet become a scuba diver and I was saying just that. It really is important to become comfortable. Scuba diving is not difficult and it’s not a particularly long learning curve but it does take time to get comfortable with that equipment. I started scuba diving when I was about fifteen years old and it was probably one or two years later that I got into photography. So it was two years before I took a camera underwater and began to make pictures but during those two years I did as much diving as I could and got comfortable with the equipment.
Then again I think that’s a factor of where you live and where you’re diving. If you’re diving in tropical waters where you don’t have to wear a lot of equipment it’s probably easier to get comfortable. If you’re diving in temperate waters, like where I lived in New England, I had to wear heavy wetsuits and if you’re diving in really cold waters you have to dive with dry suits and there’s much more equipment. It’s really up to the individual and where you live, but for me it was probably a couple of years before I started doing photography.
In the book you say your early pictures were terrible, how did you go about developing your photography skills, both in and out of the water? What kind of things did you practice and work on?
In the beginning I jumped in the water and really didn’t know that much about photography. I was learning a lot about diving and the ocean and learning about the animals and ecosystems a little bit but I didn’t know very much about photography. A lot of it was trial and error, in those days I was shooting film so the learning curve was much longer. I would go out and shoot a couple of rolls on the weekend, then I would have to send it out to get it processed and wait a couple of weeks or more before I got that film back. Then I would look at it and see how I did but I didn’t necessarily remember all the things that I did to make those pictures. So it took a long time to sort of figure things out.
I eventually went to college for photography and photojournalism and filmmaking and television production. I thought I might want to do documentary work as well and I’ve done a little of that. I learned a lot of the basic fundamentals of photography, I learned about F-stop, apertures, shutter speeds, composition and light. I tried to apply those principles, those fundamentals to what I was doing underwater and again it took time but over time I began to understand the basic techniques and things that I could do. I also learned about how light works underwater, it’s very different than in air, on land, it was a long process but overtime I figured things out.
From what I understand it’s fairly difficult to get a good photo underwater unless you’re up close with the subject. How do you get so close to your subjects? What is it like being so close?
Underwater photography is quite different than wildlife photography on land. We can’t typically use very long lenses, telephoto lenses, underwater except when we’re doing macro work for the most part. So pretty much everything is wide-angle for the most part, which means that we need to get within a couple of metres in most cases. I really think it’s a testament to the animals, the animals really do allow us into their world. We have to be patient, it doesn’t pay to try to chase or harass an animal. You could never swim faster than even the slowest marine creature down there so it’s generally pretty advantageous to just be patient, be quiet and pick a spot. A lot of times animals are curious and they will come over and check you out or at least allow you a little bit closer. Again there are obstacles with that, we can only stay underwater as long as the air supply on our back will last so you have to really have a good vibe about you and get close.
Being close to these animals is extraordinary. It’s amazing to be in the presence of a big marine mammal or a sea turtle or a shark, any of these creatures. It’s always a high for me, I’ve been diving for 35 years, working for National Geographic for 15, I’ve had some extraordinary encounters underwater and I never lose that magic. Whenever you’re in the presence of a cool animal it’s always really humbling.
You mentioned you’ve been doing this for over 30 years, you even co-wrote a book on underwater photography. You started out shooting on film, how did you manage to stay relevant and embrace the many technological changes that have occurred throughout your career?
It’s always a challenge to stay up with technological advances in photography because they do change quite quickly. My main interest is being an ocean explorer but I do love photography. I’m a very visual person and I want to tell stories so I have to stay current. I don’t consider myself an equipment geek, I’m not reading magazines everyday and going on websites looking at stuff, but I do talk to people on a pretty frequent basis, I try to stay as current as I can. I’m always keeping an ear to the community in terms of what’s happening because it’s a very exciting time in terms of photography and these tools that are becoming available allow me to become a better story teller.
I switched from film to digital in 2005 and that was a major change for me. It was the ability to not be limited to 36 frames inside my camera house. I used to go underwater and only take 36 pictures, now I can shoot hundreds of photographs. I can be a lot more loose and creative. The newer cameras these days are so amazing in low light, in the ocean I’m mostly working in dark environments, so I can shoot at higher ISO’s and capture things I never even dreamed of doing before. I just returned from an assignment in Argentina, a new story I’m working on for National Geographic, and I was able to shoot at very high speeds and capture stuff that had never been seen before. I think it behooves me to do that, so I have to stay as current with it as I do with animal science and conservation methods. It’s a non-stop process. I’m pretty much always working but I don’t see it as work because I love what I do. I’m working seven days a week, 365 days a year staying current with all of this stuff.
Do you think shooting with only 36 frames when you first started helped you develop your skills faster because you had to make each shot count?
I do think that you had to be a little bit more cognizant and you had to be more aware of the kinds of pictures you were making. You didn’t take as many chances and you really only went for the moment that seemed perfect. Now again you had to take some chances, you weren’t going to get 36 out of 36, at the end of the day if you got one or two good frames out of a roll you were doing pretty good. I do think that it’s a fine line to say you had to be a better photographer back then. I think digital makes you a better photographer because you can be looser, you can take chances, you can take more risks, and you can experiment more. At the end of the day the learning curve is quicker so you can instantly see how you are doing. I think you become a better photographer using digital; however, you had to be right on back in the day when we were using film, you didn’t have that latitude so you bracketed and you did things that allowed you to make sure you got the picture. You had to be a little more certain.
I noticed a gap between college and when you started working at National Geographic. You talk about it a bit in the book but what kind of work did you do after college? How did you balance making ends meet with working on your passion for underwater photography?
From a very young age I figured out that I wanted to be a National Geographic magazine photographer, that was my dream, but it was a very lofty dream. I came from a working class blue-collar town in New England, it was a mill town and the notion of becoming a National Geographic underwater photographer was about a billion to one chance. When I think back on that the odds were really stacked against me. That being said I had that optimism of a young guy and I just set out to become the best diver and the best photographer that I could. In those days I was working on charter boats in New England. I worked on a wreck diving charter boat and that allowed me access to diving for no cost. I’d work in the winter to help the owner repair the boat, I’d be laying in snow underneath the hull to grind it and paint it and do all these dirty jobs, but come the spring I could go diving for free. I was working a variety of jobs all through college and after college just to make money to buy equipment. I worked at a company that made corrugated packaging, it was a big company in the area. They made corrugated boxes for all kinds of people, whether it was a potato chip company or a diaper company they’d make products and put them in our boxes. In my junior year I got a summer job in the factory to make some money for college.
After I graduated I wanted to go out and be an underwater photographer but you can’t just hang a sign on your door that says you’re an underwater photographer and people will come knocking on your door. You have to really create a world for yourself, you have to create that business, that niche. I always had my photo business on the side, I was working for diving magazines, I was selling stock photography, getting assignments for diving magazines and even other magazines. I remember getting an assignment from a skiing magazine, they wanted me to photograph the Olympic ski team in the water, they were training with all kinds of stuff in the water. I did assignments like that, I did speaking engagements and I wrote books. I was always engaged in my underwater photograph business but it wasn’t enough to pay the bills so I had to do these other jobs. I was quite successful at these other jobs, I went from working in the factory to ultimately being the top sales rep on the road, it was a very good career and it would have been a nice life but it was never what I wanted to do. I always kept the photo business going and always kept trying to make a go with that. Eventually it started to get better and better, I started to work for other magazines and get other assignment work, the stock photo sales began to increase.
Eventually that dream came true and I got that assignment with National Geographic. That came about through a veteran photographer, I had actually sold some photos to National Geographic, but it was through Bill Curtsinger who had been there over thirty years. He became a friend of mine, he had travelled with me on some of my trips around the world to dive with sharks in different places. Ultimately he called me one day and said “I have two assignments for the magazine, one that I want to do and one that I don’t really want to do”. The one that he didn’t want to do was a shipwreck story. He had been out to the site the year before and he told me the visibility was absolutely horrible, there’s nothing there to photograph, the ship went down in the 1700s, I’m not even sure there’s anything there. He said “I think they’re going to do it even if I don’t do it and if you want I can recommend you but I think you’re going to have about a 98% chance of failure with this story”. With National Geographic you’re only ever going to get one chance, so he told me I might want to wait for a better opportunity.
I thought about it and thought another opportunity may never come. Plus I was doing a lot of shipwreck photography in those days, I had a dozen dives on the Andrea Doria, I had been diving German U-boats, I had written books about wreck diving and shipwreck photography. So I felt pretty confident that if anyone could do it I could do it. With his recommendation and a small portfolio at the time I was given the assignment. Pretty much everything he said was true but I really worked my tail off I figured out some ways to make pictures and they began to find treasure, they found Spanish coins, it was an old pirate shipwreck, they started to uncover sections of the hull and I brought in different kinds of lighting. Anyway I got the pictures and it was at a time when he was moving on in his career and they were looking for another underwater photographer.
You mentioned you had a small shipwreck portfolio that helped land you the assignment with National Geographic. Can you talk about the importance of building a portfolio and what makes a good one?
A portfolio is ultimately the most important thing for a photographer. You can go to the greatest schools and get all this great training but at the end of the day, and I hate to be saying this, but you will be judged on your portfolio. That is what will either get you the assignment or it won’t. So anything that you can do to better prepare you to make great pictures is going to help you, so going to a good school, taking workshops, and trying to analyze the work of other great photographers are all things that you should be doing as a photographer. I believe that if you want to be a photojournalist you need to learn to shoot journalistically. Yes you need to learn to do the beautiful photographs and stunning images that will grab peoples attention and make them want to read that article. But you also need to do the story telling pictures, maybe it’s science pictures, conservation pictures, or other images that help move that story along in terms of the visual narrative. I think training yourself to understand that by looking at magazines like National Geographic is important but also going out and doing those kinds of things.
What I recommend for young photographers and emerging photographers is that unless you’re independently wealthy and money is no object, try to pick projects that are close to home. I think the mistake a lot of young photographers make is they’ll save up some money and buy a good camera and they’ll save up some more money and go on a trip to some exotic place to try to emulate a photographer they admire. They might go to Africa or Australia or some distant location but they mainly only have a week or two in that place so the chances of them producing the kind of coverage in a week or two that a National Geographic photographer is going to produce over many weeks or months is very slim. So what they can do instead is pick a story close to home and work on that maybe over six months or a year. If they want to be a wildlife photographer maybe they find a subject that interests them, it could be a bird species, or foxes, or a squirrel. If they’re an underwater photographer and they live by the ocean pick a subject that interests them but then work on that over a period of time. You might find scientists or researchers who are studying that species, you might find a conservation angle. Overtime you will train yourself to shoot journalistically, you’ll make a series of images, you’ll learn to deal with all kinds of people maybe from PhD researchers to conservation workers to farmers or fisherman. Those are skills that will pay big dividends down the road.
At the end of that period of time that photographer should edit down that material to the best images. It might be 30 or 40 pictures and then if they’re a good writer they could try to write a good story to go with it or they could team up with a writer. Then you can try to sell that to a local newspaper or magazine and hopefully there will be some interest. It might take some time, you might have to knock on a lot of doors and get rejected a lot but eventually if it’s any good you will sell it. What you have done over that period of time is many things, you’ve honed your skills, you’ve learned to shoot journalistically, you will have learned to deal with many different kinds of people who have helped you gain access to the kinds of things you wanted to do, you will have edited your work critically, you will have met with publication people, editors or art directors, and you will have eventually sold that work, made a few bucks and got a published credit. All of those things are going to be very valuable and when you’re done that I’d say work on another one. It might be a five year plan.
If the photographer is in college or coming out of college, whatever age they’re at, if they look at the calendar and say this is what I’m going to do over the next several years at the end of that period they can take maybe the best five images from each of those coverages. Say you did one a year for five years you take five pictures from each of those coverages and you put them together in a single portfolio. Now you have a portfolio that consists of about 25 pictures and it shows a range of style, some diversity, hopefully that you can shoot journalistically, and it’s going to be the kind of thing that the director of photography at a bigger magazine is probably going to be looking for. With that you can then begin to ask for assignments, go in with ideas and say I want to do a story on the California Condor and based on the work you have done, an editor, art director, directory of photography will probably be more likely to take a chance with you because they can see what you’ve done. Running around the world and just making pretty pictures is great but not if you want to be a journalist. I do think a portfolio is very important, it can be on an iPad and it looks great or it could just be a book of prints but it should show that you are able to do the kind of job that you would be hired to do.
Do you remember what your first paid assignment was?
Oh boy. My first paid assignment I think was in 1984 and it was for the Boston Globe newspaper. I did three or four stories with the Globe on shipwrecks around New England. I teamed up with a reporter who was interested in diving shipwrecks as well, so we went out and did a story on an old steamship that sank off of Boston harbour. We did another one on a rum runner that sank during prohibition where the captain machine gunned the entire crew and sank the ship and went off into a foggy night with all the money. We dove the ship at about 90 feet off Cape Cod and there were all these beer bottles down there. I did stories on German U-boats off of New England, also for the Boston Globe. Those were my first stories that I got paid for in the mid 1980s. I was very proud of the published credit, I remember the black and white pictures with my name underneath, I’d cut them out and put them in plastic and was quite proud of myself back then.
You mentioned planning and research, what goes into planning an assignment before you feel confident diving to shoot it?
Research is a huge huge part of the equation. It’s what most people don’t see but on a typical assignment for National Geographic wildlife story I will probably do a minimum of six months to a year of research. This involves a beginning process where I’ll go out and try to find information about the animal or location that I’m interested in. I did a story a few years ago about Right Whales so I began researching all that I could find, I’ll go on the Internet, I’ll find books, I’ll try to read and educate myself as much as possible. One of the best resources for really good up to date information is talking to scientists and researchers who work with those animals. I’ll talk to them about their work, what locations we might be able to find Right Whales, is it possible to get close to them, what’s the visibility like, can I shoot arial pictures. In a case like Right Whales there was a lot of restrictions because they’re the most endangered whale in the world and when they’re in United States and Canadian waters you’re not even allowed near them unless you’re with a researcher.
Whether it’s whales or dolphins or sharks researchers are very good sources of info. I try to talk to dive operators if I’m going to a place that has a diver infrastructure, I’ll talk to a dive boat captain or shop owner in the area to find out what the best time of year is, what the visibility is like. Sometimes I might collect information over several years and keep it in a file. I have folders in my office on various things I’m interested in and have been collecting information on for years. Then at some point I’ll sit with my editor Kathy Moran who is the senior editor for natural history at the magazine, she’s the editor I’ve worked with the most over the years. So I’ll tell her what I’m thinking about and then she’ll sort of ask some questions like what’s the story about, is it just going and getting a picture of a Right Whale or is there something else there? So we’ll tease it out and try to find the story. Usually I come with some of that information and then we’ll have a collaborative dialogue to come up with a story idea. When it’s ready I’ll write a proposal, submit it to the magazine story committee and they’ll say yay or nay. But the research process is quite lengthy in my case and it often takes many months or years before I feel I’m ready to jump into it.
Do you have more leeway with what you get to cover now? Are you able to give input and cover the things you want to cover?
Absolutely. I’m beginning by 21st story assignment for National Geographic I would say probably 18 of them have been my ideas. Occasionally the magazine will come to me and say “this is something we’re interested in doing would you be interested in photographing it?” One of the things the magazine is always interested in is the ideas photographers bring them. They sort of expect their photographers to be experts in whatever genre or specialty they’re involved in. As an ocean photographer and a wildlife guy it’s up to me to be in touch with researchers, to be reading papers and magazines, going to conferences and attending meetings where I’m learning about whatever the latest and greatest science is so I’m able to bring them ideas. The editors at National Geographic are brilliant at editing and the layout people are brilliant at layouts and they know about a lot of things but they are not going to necessarily know everything that photographers are going to know. My colleagues are experts in birds and big cats and South American wildlife, it’s amazing the knowledge that we all collectively bring to the table. They sort of expect us to bring that and propose good story ideas.
It’s not really enough to just be a good photographer. You have to do all this other research too?
I think there was probably a time when just being a good photographer was enough for some. There used to be this general category of photographer and these guys and gals were amazing at what they did. They could be given just about any story idea and they’d go out and get that but from my perspective I think the field has narrowed a little bit these days and it’s more about having a specialty. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be good at everything, even though I’m an underwater photographer I have to be able to shoot ariel pictures, to shoot from helicopters and airplanes, I have to be able to make landscape pictures and make people pictures. Those are kind of insularly to the main core of the ocean work that I do. My colleagues at the magazine have other skills but they really do have a specialty and that’s sort of how they are viewed.
You started out doing shipwrecks then moved to wildlife but your work now really focuses on raising awareness for issues like the impact of climate change, over fishing and pollution. How did you make this transition? Were there any specific things that you saw that made you want to work more on conservation stories?
I didn’t anticipate necessarily the transition and evolution into conservation photography. In the beginning I just wanted to tell stories and make pictures of things that interested me and do beautiful stories. Overtime I began to see a lot of problems occurring in our worlds oceans. I saw a lot of degradation, I saw far fewer fish in the places where I had seen many fish in the early days. I saw far fewer sharks, I saw dead habitats and ecosystems, corals that were dying, things that I didn’t think most people would know about. I felt a real sense of responsibility and a sense of urgency to begin telling these stories as well. So I began to discus these things with my editor Kathy Moran and Chris Johns, the editor in chief, and to their credit they really embraced these ideas and wanted to do these kinds of stories. That sort of developed into where I’m at today. I think it’s important to sort of do a blend of coverage. I want to celebrate the ocean, I love to make those beautiful magical pictures, there is nothing like making images underwater, for me it’s just the best thing in the world but I do think it’s important to tell a complete story.
We need to see these problems and one thing National Geographic is keen on is also telling solutions. When I go to Chris Johns and present a story idea he wants to know what the solution is, what can we do to correct this problem. I think that’s the important thing for people, a lot of these problems are complex and they don’t have easy solutions but at least if we can give some example of things that people are doing in the world that are working then we are giving readers some hope and I think that’s very crucial in the overall equation of storytelling.
It’s about telling other people’s stories. As a journalist I have to try to refrain from being preachy or taking an opinion but we can still see or recognize a problem. I can go into the ocean and recognize that there are far fewer fish in the ocean today from my own personal viewpoint than I used to see when I started. I realize there’s a problem and I read a scientific paper that said that 90% of the big fish in the ocean have vanished in the last 60 years because of commercial industrialized over fishing. So I take this to National Geographic and say “this is a real problem I think we should do a story.” So we sit down and figure out how to tell that story, how we’re going to focus it, what the plan is going to be. Part of that story coverage plan includes solutions that other people are doing.
So I ask what are some of the solutions. Well we need more marine protected areas in the world. So I went to New Zealand and did a separate story about the value of marine reserves to show the ocean is resilient, that it can come back. We show what other people have done and that it definitely works, the ocean can heal itself. We also show that aquaculture can work. That if it’s done right and it’s environmentally friendly that farming fish can be a real solution. Again it’s not about me necessarily telling readers this is what’s wrong and this is what you need to do, it’s about trying to have an open mind, go in and show both problems and solutions and let readers draw their own conclusions. Hopefully if we do our job right there will be a lot of information that people can use to increase their own awareness.
Your photo of the by-catch and true cost of a few shrimp was extremely powerful and should have been a big story but unfortunately news cycles move so quickly these days. How do you go about capturing an image that will resonate with the audience and remain relevant for more than a day?
I think that that is one of the things that National Geographic photographers do best is try to produce these rather iconic images that do stay with people and will last a lifetime perhaps. There’s been a lot of great example of this, in any month of the magazine you can probably open it and find an example of a photo like that. For me it’s about digging a little bit deeper, it’s about looking for those special moments and spending as much time as I can not only in the field but in my case in the water or with the subject. If I’m on a three week trip I try to spend as much time in the water as possible and it’s not always possible because the water might be very cold or it might be a little deeper and for decompression issues I can’t stay there. When I can stay with a subject for longer periods of time opportunities will present themselves.
The by-catch picture you mentioned was a global fisheries story I did, it was a cover story in 2007. There was a component to that story I thought was very important, I wanted to talk about shark fishing because we are killing about 100 million sharks every single year and we can’t continue to do that and expect the oceans to be healthy. So I wanted to make a photograph that would resonate with readers and I wrestled with that idea of how to do that, a lot of people think sharks are dangerous or they’re monsters and if they see a dead shark on the deck of a fishing boat they might think that’s okay because they think it’s a dangerous animal. So I wanted to make an image that would make some kind of empathy. I went out for a few weeks and I photographed shark fishing. I took pictures of dead sharks in a lot of different ways. All of which were technically good photographs, they were lit well, they were composed nicely, they had some drama to them, but I didn’t know that we had what we needed. If that’s all I ended up with we might have published one of those in the magazine and it would have been okay. But I kept trying, I wasn’t satisfied with those photos, they were all good photos, but I kept going in the water every day hoping to see something different.
One morning I jumped in and I saw a Thresher Shark that was dead in a gill net, it had just died and it’s eyes were still open. Because it’s a pelagic shark, it lives in open water, it had these big fins that looked like the wings of an aircraft. As I was composing the picture in my viewfinder through my housing it sort of struck me as a crucifixion. It ended up being the lead picture in the story in 2007 and I think it gave some empathy to this issue of 100 million sharks, so in some respects that’s an iconic photo that stays with people. Some of it is serendipity, some of it is happenstance but those sorts of moments happen if you spend more time out there and refuse to give up. Until the last moment you are trying to get those pictures. I think that’s what a National Geographic photographer does, you never give up, you’re never satisfied with good enough. Sometimes it doesn’t happen but when it does it’s worth the effort.
I was wondering what happened on days when you go down and nothing happens. What do you think about and how do you readjust?
It’s very frustrating on those days when nothing happens. You beat yourself up a lot, it’s not helpful to do that, it’s counterproductive but you want so badly to deliver the goods. It’s hard when it’s not going right and there’s a lot of days when it doesn’t go right, probably more days than when it does go right. In the world I operate in I’m dealing with so many variables that I just can’t control there is weather, underwater visibility, the animals maybe don’t show up, equipment problems, bringing electronics into the ocean is never a good recipe, there’s boat problems, there’s people problems.
I just returned from an assignment in Argentina where I had given myself fifteen days to go out and try to photograph a behaviour that had never been photographed by stills. The weather was so bad while I was there that I only got out five days and those days weren’t going well. On the very last day I almost didn’t go out, the weather was bad. Around noon I looked at the weather forecast and it showed that the wind was going to drop out for a brief window later in the afternoon. I had had no success but part of me said I have to try so at three in the afternoon, when I probably should have been packing, I went out. We went way off shore, at seven o’clock in the evening, in the last moments of light I possibly could have had, I got the pictures. I put a little tank on and dove down thirty feet and I made a picture. Last day in the last ten minutes. There’s an example of just not giving up, there’s a lot of things that go wrong and a lot of frustration and you can’t control so many of those variables but persistence, telling yourself to stick with it and hoping you get the opportunity are a big part of what we do. It doesn’t always work but it certainly isn’t going to work if you give up. You have to try to remain optimistic and just believe that when it happens you’ll be ready.
You’ve worked on some lighter books geared towards kids such as A Whale On Her Own and Face to Face with Manatees, is this a way for you to engage and educate children about marine life from a young age?
It is. I love doing books for children. I think I’ve always had this belief that it’s most prestigious to do these big monographs for adults and have a beautiful fine art book and it is it’s a real privilege to do a book like Ocean Soul, it’s my dream. That being said there is something very special about doing books for children because children really have a thirst for that kind of knowledge. When I do speaking engagements for kids you see that they know so much. They often ask me questions they already know the answer to just to kinda quiz you. But I do believe that providing them with some understand of the problems and solutions out there is a very important tool for conservation going forward. Kids understand, kids get it, kids can have an influence on their families and parents. Giving them good solid information and images from a young age is a great foundation. They are the future, they are the ones who will be making decisions and voting in future. If we can get them started on a good path early with correct information and science then I think we have a shot.
What was the most challenging assignment you’ve had to work on?
There have been challenging assignments from various ways so I can’t really give you a specific example. Some of the most difficult photographs I’ve made have been trying to capture elusive behaviour with difficult animals. In Ocean Soul and in National Geographic in 2012 I did a story on the Mesoamerican Reef, which is the second largest reef system, it runs through Mexico, Belize, Honduras and Guatemala. One of the behaviours I was trying to photograph was a mass spawning behaviour of this fish called Snapper that gather for a few nights a year off the coast of Belize in a very precise place. It happens typically right around sunset so the light levels are extremely low, you’ve got about 10,000 fish rising up from deep water in this mass frenzy of spawning. They are very shinny fish, they are about 80 or 90 pounds, so trying to photograph them with strobe, they are very reflective, like a giant swimming mirror. This is happening so fast and you can’t predict where it’s going to happen so you’re shooting a high ISO, high speeds, which make lighting even more tricky. I ended up getting a picture that I was quite pleased with but it was a very very challenging image to make.
What was the most dangerous scenario you’ve ever been in?
Being under shifting ice, on the Harp Seal story, I looked up and saw the hole I came through had closed and I had to find another way out. That’s very scary and terrifying to see that kind of thing, you have a limited amount of air on your back and if you start to panic it’s going to dissipate very quickly, you have to keep your wits about you and use your experience to get out. There’s a lot of risks that I’ve taken. I came up from a dive with my assistant off the coast of Ireland years ago and got swept out to sea by a swift current, the dive boat never saw us, the sun was at our back, there was a big Atlantic swell, the boat was running so they couldn’t hear us yell or our signalling devices. We drifted for two and a half hours and ended up getting picked up by a fishing boat but in those two hours and twenty-nine minutes you don’t know if you’re going to be picked up so it’s very scary. I’ve been chased by sharks and sperm whales and grabbed by Humboldt Squid at night in the Sea of Cortez. I’ve had a hunk of steal go through my knee on a German U-boat, I’ve been lost inside the Andrea Doria wreck down inside the second class dining area on my way out and had to navigate my way out. There’s been a lot of dicey moments over the years but I have to say there’s a handful of those and there’s hundreds of spectacular experiences that I’ve had in the Ocean and it’s those that I’d rather remember and focus on.
You mention that you have an assistant. How do you pick your assistants and what is required of them?
It’s very important that my assistants swim much slower than me so if we’re ever in a dangerous situation I can get away (laughs). Most of my assistants have picked me and sought me out, they often send me emails or call me or somehow meet me at an event or conference and express an interest in working with me. Sometimes it takes a year or two before there’s an opportunity but if they stay with me and they’re patient a lot of times there will be an opportunity for us to work together. I’ve been very blessed and very very lucky to have great assistants. They don’t get enough credit, they really deserve a boatload of credit because they’re the ones who are the unsung heroes. They’re making me look good, taking care of all the equipment, helping schlep everything, they’re out there in the hot sun and rough conditions, cold and everything else. They’re doing it because of their love of journalism or love of the ocean. The credentials of these people are impeccable, they’re great divers first and foremost, they’re very comfortable in the water. They’re good in different environments, whether we’re diving in cold water or warm water. They understand photography and what it takes, they often anticipate my needs before I even need them, they can see a situation is developing so they are there with a different camera housing that has a different lens or whatever lighting I might need. They’re great at repairing equipment when things break, they get out the soldering iron and they’re working on stuff. They’re basically a partner with me, they have to be a great companion to me, I’m spending many months a year in the field, I’m with these people more than I’m with my wife or my family. I have to be able to get along and have a good rapport. I have a great gratitude for all that they’ve done to help me get those pictures and tell those stories. But at the end of the day it’s about having many skills, being able to wear many hats and being able to go with the flow.
Would you recommend seeking out an established photographer like yourself to try to gain experience as their assistant?
Being an assistant to a professional photographer or photojournalist is a great way to gain insight into that world. I never assisted a professional photographer I sort of had to learn on my own but I think that if I had I probably would have learned a lot of the things that took me decades to learn much quicker. There is a lot of other things you learn as well, you learn how to operate in the field, how to prioritize, you learn the business end of things like dealing with contracts and invoicing, all the practical things we need to do to live. I think it is an advantageous situation if you can partner with an established photographer. If you can’t do that you can still do it on your own as I did.
You work with a lot of different people on your assignments. Are there any other jobs in the marine conservation field that are important but people might now know exist?
I probably won’t name even a fraction of them. I do work with many different people at all kinds of institutions. There’s many great Non-governmental Organizations (NGO) out there that do fantastic conservation work like Conservation International, World Wildlife Fund, Nature Conservancy, all these companies that have entire marine divisions. So if you’re interested in marine conservation there might be positions for you in any of those. Or smaller NGO’s that are regional and work on local problems and issues. There’s aquariums that do great research, I’m the explorer in residence at the New England Aquarium and they have a fantastic facility there with brilliant researchers who are doing everything from Lobster research to Whale research to conservation studies about plastics in the Ocean. There are positions for people at these aquariums and zoos around the world that are doing captive breeding programs and research on a host of animals. There are marine sanctuaries around the world, orchid estuaries, there are positions in the oceans as well as on land. Wherever an individual lives, if they look within that region for organizations that are doing conservation work they can probably find a position that will suit them, if not for the longterm maybe for the short term until they can do something else. You could make a helluva career, a lifetime career working for anyone of those organizations that would be magnificent. I have the greatest respect for these people and I work with them often and they help me tell these stories.
Do you have any final advice for someone looking to get into underwater photography?
My advice is to follow that dream. It’s not easy. It’s hard to make a living at any of this stuff. It takes a lot of persistence but if I can do it you can do it. If you’ve got that dream and that passion I would say don’t give up. It would have been very easy along the way to just quit. There were many days when things weren’t going right, I wasn’t making much money, I was doing other jobs and excelling in those jobs, I’d go out in the ocean and shoot a roll of film and it wasn’t looking good. I’d say “why am I doing this”? But I just couldn’t let go and I couldn’t quit because I loved it so much. For other emerging photographers if they have that same desire and that same passion and that same dream they can do it too. Don’t give up, find a strategy, find a plan that will work for you, execute that plan and I believe that dream will come true for anyone that is diligent and patient.
Main image: Brian Skerry up close with a Tiger Shark. (Photo Mark Conlin)