Cristina Mittermeier has a fascination with water and the natural and human life that it supports. She writes about it, talks about it, and photographs it. Beautifully. While her underwater photographs of corals, schools of fish and a hoard of sea creatures are stunning, it is how she communicates about the relationships between people, nature and the challenges to sustainable development that is the most persuasive, impactful part of her brand and identity.
Her original training (she graduated from the ITESM University in Mexico with a degree in Biochemical Engineering in Marine Sciences) gave her the scientific discipline to write, research and explore the marine environment and understand the costs and benefits of aquaculture and commercial fishing. But she came around to thinking that a career as a scientist would not be enough to pursue her passion since she was a child and protect the ocean.
From working as an intern with Conservation International, Cristina progressed to leading visual communications with that Washington DC-based NGO then later co-founded her own organization, Sea Legacy with her partner, Canadian photographer Paul Nicklen.
Along the way, she also founded the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP), where she was Executive Director and President until 2010. Two big milestones in a career that has focused on visual storytelling to promote action on globally important sustainability themes that include climate change, marine biodiversity protection, cultural diversity and retention, and women’s empowerment.
Standing at the Water’s Edge
Cristina Mittermeier, a National Geographic Explorer, stood and talked on stage at the Jack Singer Concert Hall, Calgary in front of a huge screen that projected her photographs and filmic messages from assignments around the world. These included stunning images from China, Madagascar, and the Amazon basin in Brazil where she was embedded with the Kayapo People living along the Xingu River in Pará State. Their traditional way of life has been impacted by the construction of the Belo Monte dam project which, although it may never be completed to full operation has significantly changed the river flow, as shown in NASA satellite images, and will have long-term environmental and social impacts. (In 2018, Brazil’s policy on building mega-dams in the Amazon basin appeared to have been reversed, although it is unclear as to the future of the Belo Monte project which was making its way towards completion by 2019.)
Climate change and a poorly looking polar bear in the Arctic
Mittermeier’s stage performance in Calgary, Standing at the Water’s Edge, brought by Arts Commons Presents also featured photographs and film clips from the Canadian Arctic. Mittermeier’s partner, Paul Nicklen, who is also a National Geographic photographer and filmmaker, lived on Baffin Island as a young boy and so intimately understands how the Inuit People’s way of life is fundamentally tied with nature. A harrowing film of a very poorly looking polar bear made by Nicklen went viral in 2017 and came under criticism from the media, notably Canada’s National Post for connecting this individual bear’s poor health with climate change.
Mittermeier responded to the criticism in an article in National Geographic in December 2017, saying “Although I cannot say with certainty that this bear was starving because of climate change, I do know for sure that polar bears rely on a platform of sea ice from which to hunt. A fast-warming Arctic means that sea ice is disappearing for extended periods of time each year. That means many bears get stranded on land, where they can’t pursue their prey, which consists of seals, walrus, and whales, so they slowly starve to death.”
She was reminded of the media backlash in the Q&A at the end of her National Geographic Live presentation when a member of the audience stood at the microphone and recounted how she had been devastated when watching the film of the starving polar bear. She asked what Cristina would change if she was to do that kind of thing again?
“We learned a lot”, said Mittermeier. “We should probably have told the whole story from the start (but) we told the story in little pieces and we didn’t really think it through. We didn’t know that it was going to go viral like that”, she explained, “but after we posted the video and photograph, the magazine (National Geographic) wrote and asked “could you give us some of the footage and we will rebrand and share on our own social media sites” The raw footage was edited and there was a comment about this polar bear being the face of climate change. “We never said that you know”, Mittermeier said on stage.
In responding to the question, Mittermeier commented that she wasn’t averted from continuing to communicate on climate change: “If I ever did it again I would probably be more careful. I would want people to talk about climate change. It became the most widely shared climate change story of 2017 so for better or for worse people were talking about the right thing.”
Mittermeier has written a new feature story that will be published by National Geographic later this year that will tell the whole story of what happened during this Sea Legacy expedition which, she emphasized, was not connected with National Geographic.
An important point to make here, one that is often mixed up in the media, is that climate change is having a systemic effect on the rate at which polar ice is receding and this change in habitat will likely influence the distribution and size of populations of species like polar bears.
Mittermeier writes on her website “As a community, we have not yet made the appropriate investments in communications at the same level as we have the science”.
She explored this theme further during the question session at the end of her National Geographic Live presentation: “What I realized was that the reason we are losing the (conservation) battle is that we’ve failed to invest in communications at the appropriate scale. When you look at the budgets of the big NGOs, they spend about 4 percent of their budget on communications and 90 percent of that goes towards fundraising. So the message has been completely lost.”
Sea Legacy’s story has a clear and strong positive perspective. In their mission statement, Mittermeier and Nicklen’s organization believes that “producing powerful media and art that gives people hope is imperative. Hope is empowerment. Hope is a solution. Hope is a game changer.”
Of course, hope in itself is not a strategy, but getting impactful images in front of decision-makers is a vital contributor to “spark a global conversation and the story that inspires people to act.”
Images for sustainability
Cristina Mittermeier is not a firebrand environmental campaigner. Rather, she cajoles and caresses through her ethnographic journey, using humour and hope where it fits, dropping in ideas about conservation such as “enoughness” and even an acronym, SELFIE (Someone Else is Likely Fixing It, Eh?), to make a little fun of herself as a Mexican living in Canada and using Canadian phrases and to suggest personal actions to her audience about selfishness, greed, and wastefulness.
Her performance at the Jack Singer Concert Hall worked at many levels. Yes, these are superb images, but they came packaged with stories of sustainability that made sense to children who turned up in their hundreds from schools across Calgary for the Monday morning Education Show. They also had the energy to resonate with influencers and decision-makers, consumers and community members in the audience during her matinee show on Sunday and the evening show on Monday. A visual map of sorts that hopefully encourages others to explore and find better ways to reconcile the economic, social and environmental needs that are at least enough for our planet.
Arts Commons presented National Geographic Live Standing at the Water’s Edge by Cristina Mittermeier on April 22 & 23, 2018 at the Jack Singer Concert Hall, Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
For more sustainability images please visit J. Ashley Nixon Photography