Cristina Mittermeier’s Sacred Ecology


Cristina Mittermeier was hardly seeking to change the world with photography when starting her career as a marine biologist. Trained as a scientist and armed with a degree in biochemical engineering in the exploitation of marine resources from the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education (ITESM), in Mexico, Mittermeier’s early work consisted largely of scientific papers filled with the hard data of numbers and words. A prime influence in her work was biologist Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book, The Population Bomb, which she read as a teen.

“It terrified me,” Mittermeier says of the book, “because Ehrlich was predicting that planet Earth was going to be overpopulated by the 2000s and we were all going to be starving. So, I went to University to study Marine Biology. Like everybody else, I thought that the ocean was going to feed humanity, and we were going to find out how to do it,” she says.

Yet, in place of such enlightened goals, what she learned was geared more toward how to exploit the ocean. “We’ve done a really good job of it,” she says. “In the past 30 years, we’ve taken out 90 percent of the big fish. When you listen to conversations around fisheries today, they’re figuring out how to sustainably exploit the last ten percent.”

Above photograph: He remembers how, as a five-year-old boy, his entire family was forcefully removed from their ancestral territory in northern Canada and translocated hundreds of miles away, to a land they did not know. His name was taken away and he became “Eskimo 1-602.” After 55 years of hunger, cultural and physical loss, and political struggle, David Serkouak, once known to his kin as “Hiquaq,” is the first Inuit drummer to reach the North Pole. “Tiptoe-dancing over a melting ice-scape, he raised his voice and drummed for joy to be standing at the top of the world,” says Mittermeier. “It was an honor to travel to the northernmost point of our planet with this Inuit elder, and to learn from his own voice how self-determination is the best tool indigenous communities have to face a fast-changing planet.”

Photographs © Cristina Mittermeier

As the foreman loudly directs the action, a group of Indian fishermen pulls a long net in hopes of a good catch. A handful of fish is all they get after a long morning of work, but with a lot of mouths to feed, tomorrow they will be back at it again.

Committing to Conservation

Fresh out of school, Mittermeier was working on a biodiversity assessment in the Yucatan Peninsula when she encountered a team of scientists from the organization Conservation International (CI). Impressed with her knowledge of the site they had come to study, the fledgling organization offered her a job as a scientific associate, based in Mexico City.

Her first encounter with the photography world occurred shortly thereafter. “CI shared office space with a very famous Mexican wildlife photographer, Patricio Robles Gil, who had the office next door,” Mittermeier recalls. “I traveled with him to remote areas in Mexico a couple of times and helped carry his cameras. While I was not really interested in becoming a photographer at that time, he was my first introduction to professional photography.”

In many parts of the world, most of the large fish have already been wiped out and fishermen are now targeting reef fish, like these beautiful parrotfish. Protecting marine landscapes creates “Fish Banks,” places where fish can reproduce and grow. “We need to greatly increase the number of marine protected areas around the world,” says Mittermeier. “It is an investment in our oceans and an investment in our future.”

Another seminal experience was her introduction to CI’s president, the renowned terrestrial biologist Russell Mittermeier, who soon became her husband. After leaving her job and moving to the United States, Mittermeier began accompanying her husband on research expeditions to remote corners of the globe. During one of these journeys to an indigenous region of the Amazon, she borrowed his camera and began making pictures. Upon return from the trip, some of these images were sent to the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences, which had requested materials for a large exhibition of Amazonian art.

When Mittermeier arrived at the museum for the opening, she found an image of an Amazonian tribesman that she had made prominently displayed—credited to her husband.

Making Photography Count

“You know, I felt that little sting of what it feels like to lose your copyright,” she says. “And I decided to take it seriously, so I went back to school for photography and enrolled in the adult education program at the Corcoran College of the Arts.”

“Most of the people fishing on the beaches of Western Madagascar are women and children, as the men often go out to sea in small fishing boats,” explains Mittermeier. Large fishing vessels, most likely illegal Chinese fishing boats, linger on the horizon, and are often reported to pirate the valuable fish stocks on which coastal communities depend. These two young girls from the Vezo tribe caught her attention because they seemed to be playing as much as they were fishing. “At the end of the day, they had caught a handful of small fish for the family's supper,” she says.

For the next couple of years, Mittermeier took night classes while raising a family and continuing travels with her husband. “I really, really enjoyed the wet darkroom, and the magic and mystery of developing film and printing your own photos,” she notes. “When you have three children at home, the opportunity to be in a dark quiet place by yourself for a few hours is really special.”

Early reinforcement of her creative efforts came from her professor, Paul Kennedy. “At the end of my first course he said to me, ‘you’re going to do something amazing with your photography,’” she recalls. “At that time, I had no idea that I was going to have a successful career, but it was real encouragement.”

As her interest and talents grew, Mittermeier began to discover how to use photography to communicate the issues of conservation that were so close to her heart. She began donating her images to Conservation International and, before long, she had reentered the organization in an official role. But instead of scientific research, she was now in the communications department, where she eventually attained the position of Senior VP of Visual Communications.

To photograph these salmon, Mittermeier lay on an overhanging branch just above the surface of the forest creek. At first the fish were scared and they scattered, but after staying very still for a couple of minutes they came back. “I had fish swimming between my arms and hiding under my belly,” she says. “I was giggling in my snorkel. It was truly one of the best experiences I have ever had.”

“This is where I began exploring the power of imagery,” Mittermeier says. One of her many professional outlets was in book publishing, where she assumed a variety of roles—from copyediting and translating to writing, photo editing and, eventually, serving as editor. To date, Mittermeier has co-authored or edited more than 24 books on conservation issues.

A Platform for Conservation Photographers

When it comes to documenting the natural world, Mittermeier is quick to distinguish between nature photography and conservation work. To add context, she notes, “In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the idea of being an ‘environmentalist’ was very polarizing. I wanted to differentiate between those photographers who simply take pictures and those who are engaged in real conservation efforts. Conservation photography is about the kind of work that needs to happen after the shutter has closed to make sure our stories and images make an impact.”

As an extension of her work with CI, in 2005 Mittermeier convened a meeting at the 8th World Wilderness Congress in Alaska, with a goal to empower other photographers with a passion for this field. “We decided to create an organization that would serve as a platform for conservation photographers, and would also allow us to raise money for conservation projects focused on imagery and storytelling,” she says.

“You need to look at the Spirit bear twice to believe the color of its fur—what a special animal this is!” Mittermeier exclaims. This male, known as “Boss” by the local Gitga'at bear guides, is a superb fisherman and a very cool bear. Tourism based on these bears is fast becoming the main source of income for many in the community, which makes their conservation even more imperative.

Today, the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP), is considered a consortium of some of the world’s best image makers. Mittermeier served as the organization’s executive director and president until 2011, when she moved to Canada and eventually co-founded the nonprofit SeaLegacy in 2014 with her current partner, internationally acclaimed photographer and marine biologist Paul Nicklen.

At the Water’s Edge

With the formation of SeaLegacy, Mittermeier has returned to her roots in the ocean and at the water’s edge. “I wanted to take the lessons I learned from my first organization, about how successful this can be, and to narrow it down and sharply point it toward the oceans,” she explains.

The organization takes full advantage of 21st-century tools and an extensive network of experts, harnessing the power of visual media in gathering stories from the edges of human experience, and communicating them on a global scale. Mittermeier’s own projects focus on coastal communities, where she explores the intersection of people with nature, documenting the delicate balance between human well-being and healthy ecosystems.

“I plunge into the cold, green waters of the British Columbia coast, and the fast currents immediately pick me up and take me on a wild ride,” says Mittermeier about entering the underwater realm. “All of a sudden, I become a member of the vast planktonic community that calls the Salish Sea home.” The NGO @sealegacy that Mittermeier and her partner @paulnicklen formed in 2014 is supporting a current campaign through the United Nations to designate the #SalishSea as a World Heritage Site. Mittermeier says, “We know that to really make a difference, and to create the change that will protect the incredible diversity of life that thrives above and below the water, we need to have checks and balances in place that go beyond voluntary. We need the world to care about what happens to one of the most beautiful places on earth.”

As a Sony Artisan of Imagery since 2008, Mittermeier works with the latest and greatest Sony gear. Currently, she uses the Sony a7R III for much of her scenic and people work, the Sony a9 for wildlife and the Sony a7S II for low-light video. Underwater, she relies on the Sony a7R III with a Sony FE 28mm f/2 or 12-24 mm f/4 G lens, as well as a Nauticam NA-A7III housing, 180-degree or 45-degree enhanced viewfinders, a 250mm Zen dome, and Ikelite DS161 strobes.

Given her background as a marine biologist, Mittermeier has been an accomplished scuba diver since college; however, it was not until much later that she took up underwater photography. “Translating the above water photographic experience to underwater is not a smooth transition,” she points out. “Changes in depth perception and the refraction of light make things work very differently. And a lack of available light underwater means that you must also conquer the artificial lighting part of the equation, by dealing with strobes and learning how to control your lighting output.”

"From the time they are born until they become independent, baby humpbacks depend on their mothers not just for food and protection, but also for the experience of how to survive. Mothers and calves spend several months in the warm waters of the Silver Bank, off the coast of the Dominican Republic, the babies can gain the coordination and strength needed for the enormous migrations they must make to their summer feeding grounds. “As mom ‘trains’ baby on how to swim, float, and fend for itself, the two often touch, and snuggle, and when baby gets tired, it sits on its mother’s back to rest on the surface,” Mittermeier explains. “It is hard to articulate what a privilege it is to be in the water with a massive humpback mom, and for her to feel confident enough to let us swim so close to her calf. There is so much we can learn from nature!"

For anyone seeking to add this specialty to their skill set, Mittermeier recommends not dabbling with underwater photo gear until first becoming an accomplished swimmer and diver. She says, “It’s a lot of equipment—the camera itself, the strobes and all the underwater paraphernalia that goes with it.”

She also cautions about issues of buoyancy, water pressure, and ocean currents, which can have unforeseen and dangerous consequences for those caught unaware. “If you lose your attention because you’re looking in the viewfinder, you may look up again to find the ocean has taken you 100 feet deeper, or farther away from where you are supposed to be,” she says. “So, the first job is not drowning.”

Embracing Enoughness

Mittermeier has always taken such challenges in stride, welcoming risk, and embracing the unknown. “Whenever I feel a little fear, then I know I’m in the right place,” she says. “You often have to step out of your comfort zone, and feel a little uncomfortable to know that you’re creating an image that’s a different perspective or a new way of seeing things—something that maybe other people haven’t looked at yet.”

A leopard seal patrols an iceberg on which a group of fledging penguins have become stranded on their first swim out to sea. As the standoff between “predator and prey” played out, Mittermeier found herself cheering at times for the cute penguins, and at times for the hungry seal. “All life here is tied to healthy ice,” she explains. “We must do everything we can to stop the effects of climate change in places like this.”

Through her extensive travels to more than 100 countries on every continent, and her close bonds with the indigenous peoples whose lives she has documented, Mittermeier has come to realize that the predictions of Paul Ehrlich’s book were only halfway accurate. “We do have an overpopulated planet, but our problem is not starvation. It’s that we’ve all become super-consumers,” she says. “The problem is consumerism.”

She goes on to suggest, “Maybe it is how we label poverty and wealth that’s causing so many of our problems. And I started thinking about the idea of being happy with just enough—this idea of enoughness—because it’s not something that anybody tells you to do, it’s a personal metric.”

She advocates shifting our focus from a life of material goods, and embracing ideals such as meaningful work, culture, faith, friendship, family, and language as drivers of happiness. “I think if we turn to that personal metric, we’re going to have a much more sustainable planet. It’s a matter of changing the narrative, so we can change how the story ends.”

In summary, Mittermeier remarks, “Conservation is a puzzle, where many pieces have to fit together to make things work. For me, the choice of being a photographer is just to become a piece of the puzzle. And that piece, of course, is the visual communications. In the absence of that, for me, photography means nothing.”

Naimangitsoq Kristiansen is an Inuit hunter and dog musher from the Thule area of western Greenland. Mittermeier had a chance to travel with him and several other hunters from Qaanaaq as part of #TheLastIce expedition for @natgeo. “A careful hunter, he never shoots unless he is certain, and he only hunts to feed himself, his family, and his dogs,” she says. “He is a proud man truly living in harmony with his environment.”

Mittermeier was previously featured in B&H’s Video Series, Women of Influence. Follow the link to watch this interview, and learn more about Cristina Mittermeier here:

For more wildlife-related news and tips, be sure to check out the rest of Wildlife Week on B&H Explora!

Do you have feedback on this story that you’d like to share? If so, please let us know in the Comments section, below


Thank you for this insightful piece about Cristina's ethos in visual communications.  Her contributions are impactful, remarkable, and a source of inspiration!

Hi Brian, thank's so much for taking the time to comment on this story as well as for reading the Explora blog!

Jill - I just love the way you have written this article about Cristina. You capture her passion, her journey and the power of her images. You make her real and personable and a source of inspiration to all of us. Thank you!  

Thanks so much for the compliment Cheryl! It was so inspiring to get to immerse myself in Cristina's work and career. I hope you also had a chance to listen to her feature as part of our Women of Influence video series and her lecture for the 2017 B&H Optic conference, both of which are linked at the bottom of my story. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts, and for reading the Explora blog!