Thank you for your continued support and interest in my work. Due to many requests and massive pressure on my time, I have set up a Q&A below. These are based on the valuable questions that I receive via email and on social media. I hope that you are inspired and find the answers you are looking for.
I wish you all the best in your pursuits.
What was the main reason for making the switch from marine biology to photojournalism?
Photography has been a passion for as long as I can remember, but I actually studied marine biology, intent on contributing to ocean conservation through scientific research. From the coral reefs of northern Mozambique to the seagrass beds of Central America, I was fortunate to lead an adventurous life as a field biologist. Yet after a decade I discovered that even the most overwhelming scientific evidence doesn’t necessarily lead to acts of conservation. For instance, as a graduate student I researched the impacts of South African abalone poaching, fuelled by the demand from international crime syndicates. I discovered that the scientific data showing decimated abalone populations were not being considered in protection measures. On the other hand, the response to the photographs I took during the course of my research, which showed poaching and seascapes devoid of life, was much more visceral and immediate. I quickly realized that I could help further conservation efforts more through my photographs than through statistics. So I left behind a fledgling scientific career for the nomadic life of a photojournalist.
What preparation goes into “getting the shot”?
For every day in the field I spent at least two days behind the computer, on the phone, writing emails. For every assignment I read hundreds and hundreds of scientific reports and research paper and spend ours on the phone talking to people who are much more knowledgeable in the subject the me. My research also extends to visuals and I try and find and look at whatever anybody else might have ever photographed. You have to build a photographic vocabulary in your head before you can start creating new exciting photographs. So I take every opportunity I can to look at images be it in books and magazine or online. The key to great photography is to be original and it helps to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of what has come before. Otherwise you are likely to re-invent the wheel and think you have just blazed a new path, when in fact is has been well trodden already.
I also visualize many of the images I want to take. There are endless lists in my notebooks and many very bad sketches. To most they probably looks like the scribbles but they keep me on track and act as an anchor on assignments. Long before I get on a plane I already have pretty much mapped out exactly what photographs I will need to take, how I will take them, where, when, etc… Some of this might sound constricting, yet this is what gives me confidence, peace of mind and freedom to be creative and shoot the best images that I am capable of when in the field.
When did the passion for the ocean and underwater photography begin?
My love affair with the ocean began the moment I put my head under the water. I started snorkelling at the age of six and began diving at twelve. At the same time I immersed myself in the work of Jacques Cousteau and the early underwater stories by David Doubilet in National Geographic Magazine. The ocean was this irresistible lure that would just not go away and I wanted to experience for myself what I was experiencing on TV or on the printed page. I took my first underwater photographs at age 12 with a bright yellow Minolta Weathermatic and I got my first serious underwater camera at age 16. My parents gave me a Nikonos V for my birthday and that day changed my life.
Why are sharks the main focus of the photography and work?
The articles and films that I remember most vividly from my childhood were those featuring white sharks, tiger sharks, whale sharks, and bull sharks. The ocean, especially its large predators, was a persistent force that lured me along my life’s path. In fact one of the first photographic subjects I really sunk my teeth into were sharks, and living along the South African coast allowed me direct access to the realm of the most reviled and misunderstood shark of them all, the great white. Rather than adding to the growing stock of menacing, toothy white shark photographs, I was driven to capture the more serene behaviour and prehistoric perfection of these creatures. But I also became aware of the darker side of our relationship with sharks when, for example a shark with its fins cut off washed up in a bay near my house and teeth from protected white sharks appeared on the shelves of a local curio shop. Increasingly, I realized I wanted to go beyond creating beautiful images and capture as complete a story as possible through conservation photojournalism.
Why is photography important for conservation?
The legendary conservationist George Schaller wrote, “Pen and camera are weapons against oblivion, they can create awareness for that which may soon be lost forever.” Schaller’s words are my mantra and inspire me to keep working for change. Photographs, I believe, are one of the most powerful weapons in the marine conservation arsenal, and it has become my life’s work to create images that inspire people to act. I spend upward of 250 days a year shooting all over the world. For half of that time I visit beautiful places and take photographs that celebrate the ocean. I commit the other half to documenting the effects of our growing demand on the sea. I take a “carrot-and-stick” approach to conservation photojournalism. I walk a fine line between disturbance and inspiration. My aim is to tell balanced and honest photo stories that encourage people to revel in the beauty of the ocean but also to understand how human actions affect its health. I am a Senior Fellow and board member of the International League of Conservation Photographers, a collective of some of the best wildlife and environmental photographers who together tackle some of worlds most important conservation issues. The greatest conservation victories occur when photographers team up with each other and with the scientists and NGOs. A lone wolf at best can tackle rabbits or small deer, but a wolf pack can take down a 1300-pound moose. It’s the same with conservation photography.
How can people most effectively support conservation efforts to protect sharks and marine wildlife?
I realize that many people feel that they don’t have the power and necessarily influence to make a difference in shark or marine conservation. Nothing could be further from the truth. Obviously if you regularly consume shark fin soup then curtailing that behaviour would be a critical step but even those who don’t eat shark can have detrimental impacts. Many of fish we regularly eat, like some species of tuna come from fisheries that catch and kill a large number of sharks. You can educate yourself and become more intentional about the kind of fish you order at a restaurant or put on your dinner table. Ask questions, think, and be selective. It’s difficult to turn down certain seafood dishes, especially if it is a habit. But as a consumer you have massive power to change the way markets and restaurants do business and make it ripple all the way up the supply chain and straight back to the fishermen. Most critical however I feel is to try and gain a truthful and balanced insight into the shark and people relationship, you are able to pass on this knowledge to your friends and family.
Which methods do you use?
On most assignments I take more than half of my underwater photographs while free diving. The two critical factors in getting great images are TIME and PROXIMITY. Free diving allows me to spend up to eight hours a day in the ocean and without the noisy bubbles and vibrations of SCUBA I find that most marine life is less disturbed by my alien presence. The only way to shoot powerful imagery underwater is to get close and most of my work is wide angle where my subject is less than half a meter away. So I have to gain my subject’s trust and find ways for it to allow me to enter its personal space without radically altering its behavior. I find this very difficult to do on a short scuba dive or while wearing cumbersome equipment.
How are conservation messages best conveyed?
I believe in finding a balance between the carrot and the stick approaches. You can do conservation photography in two ways. One way is to show people the beauty and the biodiversity that remains. You can say, ‘this is what is at stake and what we still have to protect.’ To do this you have to create a character around the animal by describing behaviours that endear themselves to the audience. It’s about nurturing a connection between the audience and the species. The risk with this approach is that you can create the impression that everything is okay, which makes people complacent. The other approach focuses on the problem. The truth is that the wonderful Edens of biodiversity that appear in wildlife documentaries are a fraction of our planet. They are a splice in time. The reality is that our exploitation of the planet is having an incredibly detrimental and destructive impact. We’re at a point where our actions have shaped the planet as much as geological processes. This is not something people want to face and they try to avoid images that portray this reality. It’s a challenge, but just because they’re hard-edged and hard to look at does not mean these photographs cannot be beautiful. As a conservation photographer, I had to learn to create engaging imagery on the darker side of things.
To the general public, conservation can be a pain in the butt, because it means actually having to get up and do something. Whether it’s to boycott a certain fish, write a letter to your congressman or drive you car less, it’s very inconvenient. As the public, you actually have to change your lifestyle and you’re only going to do that if you’re sufficiently motivated. Conservation photography is a means of providing that motivation.
What advice do you have for any budding conservation photographers?
To be successful as a conservation photographer, you have to be obsessed with creating images and telling stories that matter. It’s also essential to try to make original and memorable photographs. My editor at National Geographic Magazine, Kathy Moran, regularly encourages me with the following words, “Show me something that the world has never seen before or something that everybody is familiar with but in a way so different that people will be convinced they’ve never seen it before.” Conservation photography can be an emotional roller coaster. It can be socially isolating, logistically exhausting, and physically demanding, yet it is also the most emotionally and professionally rewarding pursuit that I can imagine. To survive and thrive in this profession you have to be a hopeless optimist, believing that the next great picture is just around the corner, behind the next coral head, or mangrove root or…. just behind the one after that. It’s not just the photography. It’s the drive. It’s the commitment. It’s the obsession with the subject. You have to be certifiably insane to make it in this game. That’s the reality. You have to want it so badly and you have to be in love with the process, with the research and with the science. You have to be hungry. It’s an ideas game these days. You have to have a great story.
Media production budgets are also shrinking, especially in the magazine world. It’s becoming harder and harder to tell stories with real conservation value. I think we’re losing a lot of great young photographers to other careers, which are perhaps more reliable. Working with the Save our Seas Foundation we have created a new photography grant for emerging conservation photographers. The grant will assist and mentor younger photographers to tell honest, truthful and engaging marine conservation stories in a balanced way. So check out: www.saveourseas.com/photogrant
What was your most memorable shoot? Why?
Hands down the 2008 shoot for my National Geographic Magazine story on Manta Rays. I worked with my friend and marine biologist Guy Stevens to document a unique feeding aggregation of manta rays in the Maldives. During the monsoon season currents wash swarms of krill into Hanifaru bay, a cull de sac in the reef setting the stage is set for a feast that attracts up to 250 manta rays into a area the size of a basket ball court. Sometimes it is a highly choreographed ballet of hundreds of manta rays feeding elegantly in a tornado like vortex, but it can quickly turn into the ultimate manta train wreck, with rays crashing into each other left, right and center. Now mantas are placid non-aggressive creatures, but in that context they, especially when hungry seem to temporarily loose all coordination and become a bit frisky. To get the images for this story I had to get right into the middle of a chaos-feeding group and the thought of being knocked unconscious by these 1-ton giants did cross my mind. However much to the manta rays credit, I only had one minor collision and a few near misses. This was my first story for National Geographic Magazine and launched my career as an assignment photographer for them. Five years down the line I am working on my 6th and 7th story for the magazine and it was Hanifaru’s manta rays that gave me my big break.
What is the story behind your famous shark /kayak image?
When I began work ten years ago on a book about white sharks, I had no idea that this project would yield my most well known image to date. For more than ten months I worked together with Michael Scholl and scientists at the White Shark Trust to create novel images of white sharks in South Africa that would illustrate current scientific research. The team observed large numbers of white sharks venturing into extremely shallow water during the summer months. In order to figure out why, the researchers tracked and observed the sharks’ movements but were regularly thwarted for two reasons. The inshore realm was treacherous, humped by rocky reefs and sandbanks, which heaved the research boat precariously during an onslaught of large swells. Secondly, the sharks’ behavior seemed to be affected by the electrical fields from the boat’s engine.
I suggested using a kayak as both a photographic platform and a less obtrusive way to track white sharks. I was met with what I would call cautious enthusiasm, so I was voted to be the one to test the waters. Even though we repeatedly tested the sharks’ reactions to an empty kayak, the first few attempts were a little nerve-wracking. It’s hard to describe what goes through one’s mind when, sitting in a “yum-yum” yellow plastic sea kayak, a 15-foot (4.5m) great white shark heads toward you. But white sharks, despite their bad reputation, are much more cautious and inquisitive than aggressive and unpredictable. And this proved true with our experiment; at no time did the sharks show any aggression toward our little yellow craft.
The story of this particular photograph began on a perfectly calm and glassy sea. I tied myself to the tower of the White Shark Trust research boat and leaned into the void, precariously hanging over the ocean while waiting patiently. The first shark came across our sea kayak, dove to the seabed, and inspected it from below. I trained my camera on the nebulous shadow as it slowly transformed into the sleek silhouette of a large great white. When the shark’s dorsal fin emerged, I thought I had the shot but hesitated a fraction of a second. In that moment, the research assistant in the kayak, Trey Snow, turned to look behind him, and I took the shot. Throughout the day I shot many more similar images, but all lacked the connection of first image.
I knew the image was iconic, but I was not prepared for the public response. When the photograph was first published many thought the photo was a digital fake, and to date there are still hundreds of websites that debate its authenticity. Not only is the image real, it was one of the last images I took using slide film before transitioning to digital.