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Why Cristina Mittermeier dares to dream

The renowned conservation photographer shows a vision of Earth beyond environmental crisis. She explains why

‘French Polynesia, 2023’ by Cristina Mittermeier/SeaLegacy

“I’m sometimes criticised because I don’t photograph enough of the destruction in the world,” says Mexican photographer Cristina Mittermeier.

“I do a lot of beautiful photography. I focus on the dream of where we need to take our planet, painting a vision of where we should be going.”

As the co-founder of marine conservation organisation SeaLegacy – working alongside her partner and National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen – Mittermeier uses photography and film to help protect the world’s oceans and marine creatures. Their ‘visual storytelling’ work, social media reach and research projects are part of a wider conservation picture. This involves supporting the creation of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), drawing public attention to at-risk environments, and promoting solutions and behaviour change.

As well as partnering with charity organisations, scientists, conservationists and governments, SeaLegacy often collaborates with coastal communities and Indigenous peoples. “I try to exalt the knowledge of Indigenous people and to elevate their voice,” Mittermeier explains. “They’re not ‘hokey’. They know how to bring harmony back to the Earth.”

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‘Bahamas, 2021’ by Cristina Mittermeier/SeaLegacy

Mittermeier’s photography, focusing on the beauty of marine creatures – manta rays, sharks, turtles, whales – and their habitats is powerful. She has, though, also experienced the impact a shocking picture can have, including her 2017 photo of an emaciated polar bear. The image was seen and shared around the world, initially presented by National Geographic as an example of ‘what climate change looks like’, though the reason for the bear’s near-death state was unknown.

“It was a new kind of image,” Mittermeier, also known as Mitty, says. “Paul and I knew it was impossible, without forensics, to determine why this animal was dying. My guess is that the animal had been shot, possibly by trophy hunters, who are pretty shitty shots.

“People reacted to the photo in many ways. That photograph showed me that, as a photographer, you can focus on the ugly or the beautiful. You have to find an ebb and flow to the narrative, to remind people what we want to achieve with all this – the beauty and health of nature.”

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‘Humpback whale, Silver Bank, Dominican Republic, 2020’ by Cristina Mittermeier/SeaLegacy

In 2024, the SeaLegacy 1 expedition catamaran will visit New Zealand, Australia, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, drawing attention to the over-exploitation of ocean species, such as scallops, studying coral reefs that are being harmed by the sugar industry, and looking to work with governments in Indonesia, Australia and Timor-Leste with the hope of creating a massive, interconnected MPA.

WATCH: Cristina Mittermeier discusses her journey to becoming a conservation photographer

Mittermeier and Nicklen will also be focusing on plastics. “You go to the most remote corners of the Arctic or Antarctica, and you find plastic bottles,” says Mittermeier. “No matter where you dive, it’s everywhere. We see dead creatures tangled in plastic, such as manta rays with their horns entangled, or creatures who’ve swallowed plastic. Most often, you see sea lions and seals wrapped up in fishing lines, because they’re very curious. We see all sorts of construction materials made of plastic floating in the ocean. You see fish trapped in plastic bottles or plastic bags. The worst thing is the abandoned fishing nets, which are made of very resistant plastic. You see entire reefs covered in ‘ghost nets’, and it’s impossible to remove them.”

She adds, “The big issue with plastics is that it’s a gateway for fossil fuels. The vast majority of fossil fuels go to plastic production these days. It’s an invisible thing that we’re not talking about enough. We’ll focus on that issue, finding alternatives, but also looking to turn the tap off – 2024 will be a massive year for the conversation on plastics.”

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'Emaciated polar bear, 2017' by Cristina Mittermeier for National Geographic

You can see more work by Cristina Mittermeier in the next issue of the RPS Journal, published on 20 June.

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