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Interview: National Geographic marine life photographer Cristina Mittermeier

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, world-renowned photographer Cristina Mittermeier explains her philosophy behind conservation photography, mentorship, and the increased diversity she would like to see within the environmental movement.

ByKara NortonNOVA EducationNOVA Education
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Cristina Mittermeier on-assignment in the Yucatán Peninsula. Image Credit: Jenny Nichols

Note: The two terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” are respectively used to describe the U.S. population of people who are Spanish-speaking and/or who trace their roots to Latin America. The term “Latinx” is now commonly used to introduce gender neutral and LGBTQ inclusive pronouns. Several of the studies cited within this article exclusively use the term Hispanic, and here is a helpful explainer on the difference and relationship between the terms.

Over the past month we have celebrated the achievements of Hispanic and Latinx scientists and engineers who are responsible for incredible breakthroughs within science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. Hispanic Americans represent an integral part of this country’s demographic story. In fact, 60 million people in the United States identify as Hispanic. Despite the size and impact of this group on this country’s history, economy, and culture, Hispanic Americans continue to be underrepresented in STEM fields. In fact, only six percent of scientists and engineers identify as Hispanic, according to the National Science Foundation. In terms of educational attainment, only 21 percent of Hispanic Americans have graduated from college. National high school dropout rates have indicated that Hispanic Americans have a 300 percent higher chance of dropping out than their white peers at 4 percent.

So what are some of the roadblocks that Hispanic/Latinx students face? Many academic achievement barriers include a lack of cultural competency for school staff working with Hispanic and Latinx populations, segregation of school districts by socioeconomic status, lack of bilingual programs in many areas of the United States, financial stressors, and a perceived lack of parental involvement that contributes to low engagement between schools and the communities that they serve, according to a report published in the Journal of Education and Learning. As we continue to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, it is important to honor the contributions of Hispanic and Latinx people who are changing the world and serving as role models for future generations, but also acknowledge the obstacles and systems in place which continue to limit pathways for Hispanic/Latinx people in the United States.

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"It's shocking just how little engagement on environmental issues we get from Latinx, from Black communities in general, and even from Asian communities, because they haven't been invited," Cristina Mittermeier said. "I have tried to make the price of entry into environmentalism a lot more democratic by using photography as my invitation." Image Credit: Anna Heupel

Cristina Mittermeier is a Mexican-born marine biologist, activist, and National Geographic magazine photographer who pioneered the field of conservation photography. Mittermeier is an advocate for narrowing the achievement gap stating that “our whole society loses out when a significant proportion of the world’s brain power is not engaged in creating solutions.” Mittermeier is changing the world one photograph at a time: she is one of the most influential female photographers in the world. She has traveled to more than 100 countries and worked in remote corners of the planet with Indigenous groups to document the delicate balance between human cultures and biodiverse ecosystems. Known for her inclusive storytelling, Mittermeier is the first female photographer to reach one million followers on Instagram and is the editor of over 25 coffee-table books on conservation. Mittermeier was acknowledged as one of National Geographic’s 2018 Adventurers of the Year along with her partner Paul Nicklen and has been recognized as one of the World’s Top 40 Most Influential Outdoor Photographers by Outdoor Magazine. In 2014, she co-founded SeaLegacy with Nicklen, to educate and inform the world about the incredible beauty of the ocean, and all of the challenges it faces in the wake of the climate crisis.

With just 6.7 percent of female college students in the United States graduating with STEM degrees, Mittermeier advocates for improving representation in STEM. “Girls need to know that there are a lot of women who have blazed a trail for them, and we are just waiting to see what they can do,” Mittermeier said. During our interview, which has been edited and condensed, Mittermeier touched on what mentorship means to her, her philosophy of conservation photography, and the increased diversity she would like to see within the environmental movement.

Q: When you were growing up in central Mexico, your home was far from the ocean, and there were no female scientists around who could offer you guidance, yet you persisted and defied social constructs to pursue your dream. What advice would you give your younger self when you were just embarking on this new career path?

Cristina Mittermeier (CM): Your dreams when you're young are usually the kinds of things that are going to make you happy because that's what you're passionate about. What I remember is I had this whole conversation going on in my mind all the time. The things that my mother expected from me, the things that my girlfriends were interested in doing. There were certain opportunities for girls, you could be a secretary, you could be a nurse, very gender specific. I really had to defy those expectations and defy what society was hoping. I think it really takes courage to say I'm going to go and pursue my dream, and you have to silence the voices in your head that are telling you that this is not for girls, that this is not for you, that this is going to hinder your possibilities of getting married and having children. You just have to go and pursue what you really want to do.

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This is 18-year-old me, circa 1987, back in my university days when I was studying to become a biochemical engineer in marine sciences. It would take me many years before I ever saw a living whale in the wild, and a couple of decades before I would fulfill the dream of becoming a professional photographer. Image and caption courtesy of Cristina Mittermeier

Q: I would love to hear more about your work as a mentor, and if there was someone in your life who helped nurture your talents to help you become the conservation photographer you are today.

CM: My first real mentor was a photographer. I went to work for Conservation International and we shared an office space in Mexico City with a famous Mexican photographer who happened to work in conservation. It was the first glimpse that I ever had into his work. He was publishing beautiful coffee table books, and he was doing it in partnership with big corporations that even back then already had a corporate social responsibility agenda. His books were about conservation using photography. It was my first glimpse into how that was a possibility. But it was also the first time that I saw that photographs are such a good way of engaging people in conservation. Most people don’t feel capable or competent to understand science, so they reject it. Nobody wants to feel stupid, but photography is different. We all feel comfortable commenting on a beautiful photograph and asking questions. I thought, okay, maybe photography is the way that we open the door for more people to be interested in this.


Reflecting on her mentorship to Danielle Da Silva, Mittermeier describes it as a reciprocal process: “Danielle is an inspiration to me, she is somebody that really defies the expectations of what a young woman should be doing, especially a young woman who's the daughter of immigrants. It's important that we break that standard that has been set for us.” Image Credit: Danielle Da Silva

CM: I am not a photography teacher, to be truthful, because I think that learning photography is just like learning how to drive a car. Anybody can do it. What I really spend my time doing is teaching people how to visualize a career path, how to conquer some of the more practical aspects. Although I don't teach photography per se, what I like teaching the people that I mentor are the aspects of building a career around photography. All the little things that you need to learn and understand in order to support yourself as a photographer because it is difficult to become a photographer, number one. Becoming a conservation photographer is doubly hard because now you need to get yourself to places where things are happening and you need to embed yourself within the conservation community. It’s a journey, and mentorship doesn't have a beginning and an end. These are relationships that you build for years. I maintain relationships with a number of photographers, young people, older people, men, women. I have been lucky because I experienced a lot of things that I can share, and I can save people a lot of the troubles and a lot of the mistakes.

Q: You have traveled to more than 100 countries and worked in some of the most remote corners of the planet, could you tell me about the expedition that has had the greatest impact on you, and your worldview?

CM: I've been to amazing places and I have fond memories of many, but the one that has had the biggest impact on me was an expedition with National Geographic, with my partner Paul, to Greenland. We traversed the sea ice for three weeks on dog sled teams. It's not just beautiful and incredible. It's the reality of climate change and how that's affecting sea ice, how that's affecting the very remote Inuit communities. We don't even think about those people, but their lives are severely impacted by what's happening to our planet. The conditions are very harsh. It was very difficult and dangerous. It was just a revelation to me. When I discovered that the ice sheet in Greenland was melting so fast, it's terrifying.

Q: What is the day to day reality like for the people who live in Greenland that are dealing with these changes?

CM: We spent time in what still today is the northernmost human settlement on the planet. It's a little tiny village called Qaanaaq. Only a few hundred people live in the village. They are so remote, they rely on the ocean and on hunting for survival. The rhythm of their life is tied entirely to the seasons, to the sea ice forming around their community, their village. For their fresh water, they have to wait for big icebergs to float by the village. When the ocean freezes over, these icebergs are made out of fresh water. So then they can mine those icebergs that are frozen in place for their year long fresh water. It's incredible. They also use the sea ice as a platform to travel to the places where they hunt. When the temperatures drop and the ice starts forming, you can sense the excitement in the village because it's like a highway that they take to where the animals are. We went with them and one of our dog sleds fell through the ice. The predictability of the strength of the ice is no longer there, so it's dangerous for them. One of our guides was Aleqatsiaq Peary, who is the great-great-great grandson of Sir Robert Peary, who was considered the first man to reach the North Pole.


In Inuit culture, dogs are considered neither pets nor friends; instead they are extremely important working animals. Their obedience is paramount to the vital job of pulling a sled on what often are very dangerous conditions. The sled is used as a means of transportation among villages and for hunting. Image and caption courtesy of Cristina Mittermeier

CM: Aleqatsiaq is half Inuit, half the descendant of an explorer. He was saying that, for his great-great-great grandfather, the biggest challenge was that there was so much ice and that the boulders of frozen ice were so big that the dogs couldn't travel. But today, the most challenging thing is that the ice is so unstable that they fall through the ice. We lost a dog. The dogs are tied to the sled. The sled was sinking. It was just horrible. You realize the predictability of where they get their food is no longer there. People say, well maybe they can just go to the grocery store. Well, guess what? There's no grocery store. This is in the middle of nowhere. So you see how rhythms that have been there for thousands of years are being disrupted so quickly.

Q: Could you tell me more about your philosophy behind conservation photography?

CM: I feel like my role as a photographer, you're almost like a membrane that allows osmosis to happen. On one side you have the subjects that you're photographing, whether they're animals or people. What I'm trying to do is give them back their power. Indigenous people especially, and I recognize it in myself as a Mexican woman, there's this shame in your cultural heritage. You want to be more western, you want to be totally American and hip. By showcasing the beauty and the pride of Indigenous traditions and rituals and culture, it's funny when they see themselves in pictures portrayed in a way that's dignified and powerful. It's like they recognize their own power again. I love that.


Ta’Kaiya Blaney is a singer, song-writer, drummer, and speaker for her people, the Tla’amin First Nation of British Columbia. This image encapsulates my three greatest passions: the natural world, indigenous rights and empowerment of women. Image and caption courtesy of Cristina Mittermeier

CM: On the other side of the membrane are the people that are looking at my pictures. All I'm doing is interpreting a conversation. The idea of photographing Indigenous people as specimens in a museum, as relics of how they should have looked like in the past, to me is so offensive. So I try to photograph them as they look today because so many of us have Indigenous ancestry but we look normal. We look like everybody else. Making sure that the idea that being Indigenous is not the clothes that you wear or the paint on your face, but who you are in your traditions, your culture, your relationship with the Earth and with each other. That is really important. Showing that sense of sameness. We're not that different. We all experience the same things humans have been experiencing throughout our existence on this planet. We are all born, we all have relatives, we all will die one day, we all experience joy and sadness. It is that similarity that hopefully helps us build empathy and understanding.


This was a mischievous moment that stood out from the remarkable celebration of culture during the annual Sing-sing on Mount Hagen; a celebration hailed by some as the single greatest display of tradition and cultural diversity in the world. Image and caption courtesy of Cristina Mittermeier

Q: In the past you have said, “our whole society loses out when a significant proportion of the world’s brain power is not engaged in creating solutions.” Could you tell me more about all the different people and skill sets it takes to make conservation impact happen?

CM: First of all, I fantasize that the person who holds the key to solving all of these issues is already born. Maybe that person was born in Madagascar or in Korea or in Mexico. Maybe that person is a girl. She's already here. How are we going to make sure that she's empowered to do everything she can to win a Nobel Peace Prize, to find the path that takes us out of this mess? When it comes to the skills to do what I do, I think all millennials have this. You just have this array, this skill set that has nothing to do with what you learned in school, but it's what you learn at home or your hobbies that you have been inspired by. For me, it's about my interest in speaking other languages. That's been really helpful. My interest in writing. I learned how to speak English and then I learned how to write proper English, so that's been really helpful. Also, my determination to understand and conquer how a camera works. When I started my career as a photographer, there was this perception that women are not capable of somehow conquering this machine. This is just a machine, and if you read the instructions, and you follow the guides, it's not that hard. I think my biggest skill has been my ability to network and connect to people and be genuinely interested in what they are doing. The big challenges of our planet today, climate change, biodiversity laws, inequality, fascism, can only be solved together.


I was ill the day I made this photograph, so I sought shelter in a hut from the relentless sun of the Madagascar Spiny Desert. There, I shared a tight space with this beautiful woman, who was wearing a traditional mask made of powdered bark. Women use this as a natural sunblock and mosquito repellent. We sat quietly in the smoldering heat and I was grateful for her humble hospitality. Her portrait has become one of my favorite shots because in the brief moments I spent with her, I felt a deep kinship to someone who showed me real kindness. Her tribe, the Antandroy, or "People of the Thorn" are a semi nomadic people that survive in a real harsh environment. Image and caption courtesy of Cristina Mittermeier

CM: If you're in a boat that's sinking and you really need to rescue that boat, you need everybody to be bailing water, not just the boys, not just the people that are privileged not to be oppressed. We need everybody. We cannot pick one or the other. If we want more minorities, more women in STEM, you have to make sure that they're seen as equals in society. When I was born, there were probably 6000 languages spoken around the world. Today, fewer than half are still taught to children. We've lost half of the languages on the planet. Every language and every culture are like opening a window into our common past. The things that your grandmother knew about this planet and about the cycles of life that allow humans to live here, are probably really different from the things that my grandmother in Mexico experienced, but they're equally valuable and important. We are losing touch with how to live on this planet. The operating system on planet Earth is only connected to the last people that still have that knowledge, Indigenous people and our elders. I think returning the pride of our origins and our traditions and our culture and our rituals, and sharing them with others, is a great way to learn resilience and build this fabric of support for each other. I think there's so much brain power in people that look different then us, but we're leaving a lot of the potential solutions on the table because we are not empowering everybody to be putting forth their best ideas.

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Q: This summer a new branch of environmentalism emerged. A form of climate justice that promotes inclusivity, advocating for both the protection of people and the planet, while also dismantling systems of oppression that exist in the environmental movement. What are your thoughts on intersectional environmentalism?

CM: I love it because it's all about identities. All of us have more than one identity. Where the intersection of gender and race collide with environmentalism, there's a whole series of blind spots that we haven't been paying attention to. I think the biggest lesson of intersectional environmentalism is that we cannot solve one without the other. We're not going to solve climate change until we create racial and economic justice for all. It's as simple as that. So, that's going to demand that we rethink our economic systems. Capitalism as we practice it today has left behind people and the planet and we can no longer have that. It’s going to take a lot of courage to give up some of the ideas and some of the dogmas that we've been living with to reinvent capitalism as a greener, kinder and more equitable economic system. Driving across the United States over the last couple of weeks, you see that in the middle of the country there is a fear of everything that a minority represents. The competition for jobs, the competition for ideas, the having to give up some of the privileges so that others can be included. It really comes from this white male supremacy. As minorities, we are coming together and intersectional environmentalism is also about that, about intersecting with each other. So hopefully pretty soon we're going to be the majority with new ideas that give us a kinder, gentler, more inclusive planet for all.


Three young Hawaiian women stand with their feet planted in the shifting sands and gaze out at the great swells rising on the same ocean their families have surfed for generations. Our youth are the future stewards of the ocean and it’s up to us to fight today for a brighter tomorrow; one where the voices of Black, Indigenous, and people of color are finally heard and we can all stand united to meet the challenges of a shifting climate. Image and caption courtesy of Cristina Mittermeier

Q: For students out there who are finding their way and looking to make a difference in their communities, what advice do you have for them?

CM: There are all sorts of ways of being creative and engaged with science that are not necessarily attached to a PhD. You can totally be into STEM without getting a master’s degree. We're leaving a lot of creativity on the table by forcing everybody through this funnel. There are so many ways to contribute. I think when you're a young person, the power comes from the relationship with your peers, with the young people around you. Having those conversations, our parents were having them around the Vietnam War. For your generation, it's going to be the climate change conversation that you're going to have with your peers and you're going to have to rise together. But if you don't feel like you have the skills, the money, the relationships to make a contribution, gang up with your peers. Your small community of friends will give you everything you need to rise up.

CM: I love sharing with young people that the skills you already have are a great way to start, because you know what everybody wants? Everybody wants a purpose in life. The Japanese have a saying called “ikigai” which means one’s reason for being, or your sense of purpose in life. There's lots of writing in Japan about this, but it's the confluence of four things: what you love and are really passionate about, what you're good at, what you can get paid for, not with the idea that I'm going to make myself rich, but I'm going to make myself a living. Finally, it's what the world needs, your mission. When you find the confluence of those four things, you find the purpose in your life. Every day I get up and go to work to do all these things that I love and that are changing the world, and that allow me to pay my rent. It's great. I think they should teach that at school.


Over 100 million sharks are killed each year by people, giving Queen far more reason to fear Logan than Logan or any of us should fear her. Yet the pair swim quietly and comfortably through the warm waters together, like old companions who fall into contented silence and just enjoy each other's company. Image and caption courtesy of Cristina Mittermeier

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