Cristina Mittermeier is a photographer and conservationist. She uses her camera as her passport to document the complex issues where conservation of wild nature and human needs intersect.
Describe your Mission. What’s it all about for you? What is the impact you are looking to make?
Inspired by the power of imagery to inform, educate and coerce action, my mission is to use my creative power to protect nature.
What motivates me is that our oceans are in trouble, and people do not know it or do not feel it. Less than 2 percent of our oceans—the world’s largest source of life—is protected. If we allow the oceans to deteriorate much longer, we will lose our life support system. Think about this: every other breath we take comes from the sea (the plankton in the ocean produces 50% of the oxygen on Earth); more than 1 billion people depend on food from the ocean to survive. And perhaps most importantly, the ocean regulates our weather and climate patterns. It is imperative that we maintain the ecological integrity of this vast ecosystem. People must realize that we live on an ocean planet, and given its enormous influence on life on earth, we all are ocean creatures.
Through images, I want to bring this story to all the people who might not otherwise have a chance to experience and understand the oceans.
How old were you when you knew what you were destined to do? How did it unfold?
By my last year of university as a fisheries and aquaculture biologist, I had come to realize that what should be solutions to feed billions of people, have become new threats for our planet. The wasteful, shortsighted and greedy exploitation of marine resources by modern fishing fleets has already depleted 90% of the fish in the ocean in less than a 100 years! What will humanity eat the next 1,000 years? As a solution, aquaculture has all the potential to become a vital source of both food and employment but not the way it is carried out in so many places, especially here in British Columbia.
I was 19 years old when I knew I wanted to save our planet’s precious resources. It took me another ten years to discover photography as my medium to communicate the urgency. Since then, my camera and my pen, as I too love to write, have become my tools of choice.
Biggest highlight in your career/journey thus far?
Launching two successful conservation organizations based on photography and having seen the victories that can be won by engaging audiences through visual communications are high on my list. Perhaps my biggest achievement was to coin the term “conservation photography”. By defining and giving it meaning, I gave power and platform to thousands of photographers who today assign the mission of conserving nature to their photography.
When you look back on your incredible career (and it is incredible!), what would you say the Top 3 lessons are that you have learned from others that you’d like to pass on?
- The most important lesson I have learned is that when the tide rises, all the boats float. Being generous with my time and knowledge to help lift others as I climb empowers us all to achieve our goals.
- Mentoring and teaching are the best ways to learn and helping younger female photographers find their confidence has been immensely rewarding.
- I love empowering those around me to be more effective in achieving our like-minded mission of protecting nature.
What is your ultimate dream for your mission and where you’d like to take it? What is the legacy you’d like to leave?
When I find myself on my deathbed, I would like to look back at my life and be able to measure my legacy in tens of thousands of hectares of oceans protected. I would like to know that thanks to my efforts, we were able to protect precious species and landscapes so that our children don’t have to struggle in an impoverished planet.
What’s next? What’s on the horizon?
SeaLegacy is poised to become a very high profile player in the conservation world. We are planning 50 expeditions in the next ten years to the farthest corners of our oceans, and we plan to “bring” with us millions of young people that engage with us every day on social media. This is their planet, and they are scared and angry at the way it has been abused. Young people want to be part of the journey and part of the solution.
In the next year, we will be working on the coast of British Columbia to highlight areas that should be protected as part of Canada’s commitment to the Convention on Biological Diversity of protecting 10% of our oceans by 2020. We will also travel to Antarctica to help promote the creation of a large marine protected area on the Antarctic Peninsula, and we will continue working in Northern Norway documenting orca and humpback populations as part of our North Atlantic conservation plan.
How would you describe what brings you the greatest joy in your current role? How do you cultivate or encapsulate joy on a daily basis?
I suppose my biggest joy is to realize that my work actually does inspire others. Every day I get messages and emails from people all around the world who have found the inspiration they needed to give purpose to their own work. I also find immense joy in nature. There is no feeling like the feeling of plunging into the ocean and experiencing what it feels like to be a tiny speck in a vast blue wilderness. I love the smell of salt, the feel of cold sea water, and more than anything, I love being in the company of great creatures. Swimming with sharks, whales, orcas and big schools of fish is an experience reserved for just a few. I know I am privileged to be one of those people, and it gives me joy to live up to the responsibility to share both the beauty and the urgency to protect it.
What would you like women to most understand or consider – on a higher level – with regards to your role and your mission. Can you tell us more about SeaLegacy?
My partner, National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen and I founded SeaLegacy, a nonprofit organization, to use our abilities as visual storytellers to protect the world’s oceans. At its core, Sea Legacy has as its mission to open the world’s eyes to the sea to help protect 20 percent of the world’s oceans by 2020.
Read SeaLegacy’s vision here.
What lies beneath the thin blue line at the surface of the ocean? This is the story that SeaLegacy tells. This is the story that sparks a global conversation, and the story that inspires people to act. SeaLegacy creates powerful media to change the narrative around our world’s oceans and to encourage the world community to protect them. Photography, film, and storytelling provide us with a sense of immediacy; they allow us to experience the world as it is being perceived in real time. Working within the confluence of conservation, science and art, SeaLegacy acts as a connector. It empowers all partners, on the ground and online, by harnessing the power of visual media and storytelling to achieve one goal: protect our world’s largest source of life—our oceans.
Best advice you ever received?
“Be kind to everyone on your way up because you will meet them again on the way down.” I have learned that from my mother-in-law, Louise Roy, who is a very thoughtful and generous woman. She has made a very successful business in real estate here on the Vancouver Island by being kind to everyone around her.
Another great piece of advice is to not count other people’s blessings. Focus on the ones you have and be happy in the success of others.
What would be your #1 tip for women regarding finding the courage to take inspired action on what is most important to them?
Silence your “peanut gallery”… all those small voices in our head that have been taught to us since we were little girls. The voices that make you doubt yourself, question your strength and abilities, compel you to surrender your ambitions and instead be demure and submissive. It is our peanut gallery that makes us fearful of adventure, risk-taking, exploration. We must imagine ourselves in the roles we wish to play not the ones we have been allowed to play. For myself, I want to explore the world as a photographer. I want to challenge my physical endurance. I want to conquer my own insecurities. I do it by forcing myself to dive head-first into every terrifying opportunity that life presents to me from speaking in public to diving with orcas. I worry that every time I surrender to my peanut gallery, I become a little older, so instead, I plunge with all my passion into everything I do.
How do you balance between being a gifted photographer, conservationist, an avid traveler, a busy Mom, leader and so much more without dodging your own self-care?
Maybe I realized at an early stage that there is no right way of balancing motherhood, career and personal ambition. There simply are no recipes for how to do this. Because of my upbringing in Mexican culture, I felt pressured to marry young. By the time I was 24, I had a stepson and a baby. I had finished my studies as a biochemical engineer but had dreamed of pursuing a Ph.D. just like my mom had. The demands of wanting to be a good mother prevailed, and for a couple of years I mourned the death of my scientific and academic ambitions. I believe that a huge part of finding success is taking the next opportunity and attacking it with passion. Around the time my daughter was born, I was asked to contribute to the publishing of a conservation book series. Being a full-time mother, I worked from my basement as a writer, translator, editor and eventually as a photographer. I also supported my then-husband in his work on conservation. It was in that role, as a mother and partner, that I began traveling to more remote corners of the world to visit conservation projects. It was also how I began taking photographs. When I look back, I realize how lucky I was. I was given amazing opportunities that allowed me to create a new career for myself, and I was able to do it all because I fearlessly embraced new challenges and learned from my many mistakes.
You must have some pretty long days. How do you keep your energy up and your focus consistent? How you stay PowHERful and on the top of your game?
I like being a very active person and I have a healthy mix of activities that keep me fit, including running, biking, yoga and pilates. I also eat very little red meat and consume large amounts of vegetables. Sleep is very important, and I try to get at least 7 hours a night. I have a positive outlook on life and I embrace my work with as much energy and enthusiasm as I can muster. I love my life and I laugh often.
Describe collaboration and what the looks like/feels like on the ground – how does it show up in your life?
Team work is paramount to the success of what I do, so although photography tends to be a solo activity, it requires the collaboration of many others to achieve conservation results. A large part of my job is to craft partnerships with other photographers and organizations and find creative ways of working together towards a common goal. I also work with field assistants whose contribution to my work is part and parcel of the process of creating images.
Collaboration comes naturally to me, so I almost don’t have to think about it.
Describe a favourite hobby or adventure.
I collect beads from my travels and then combine them to make unique jewelry. In terms of adventure, I just love traveling and being in nature. When we get to be on assignment for extended periods of time, there is a peacefulness that overtakes me after a few weeks without internet or office work. My senses become more aware of minute details, and I get completely absorbed into the photographic process. I am super lucky to have a job that feels like a holiday most of the time.
Favourite energy meal or snack (healthy).
I love to cook and I am a very healthy cook, so lots of vegetables and flavors that come from great spices. Asian fusion, Mexican food, Mediterranean flavors are all part of my kitchen.
Favourite indulgence or treat.
I have a weakness for good cheeses and potato chips.
Top 3 things (still) on your Bucket List.
I have been so lucky to check most of the items on my list, but there are a few things still I want to accomplish. More than anything, I would love to spend the next ten years exploring coastal communities around the world and learning how people interact with the ocean. My bucket list includes visiting the Bajau people of Sulawesi, exploring Burma, and spending time in coastal areas of the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, and Indonesia.
My biggest bucket list item, however, is to photograph the Indigenous people of my own country. I feel like I have not spent enough time in Mexico, and I would love the opportunity to create a body of work on the cultures and traditions of some of the more remote Mexican communities.
I never leave home without…
My camera, of course. I have lots of cameras, but my favorite one is one that can fit in my purse, like my Sony A6000.
Your thoughts on mentoring young women? What do you feel your most valuable lessons to pass on are?
I have been incredibly lucky to have worked with many amazing women both in photography and in conservation. I truly appreciate the wisdom shared with me by both peers and elders, so I feel a great responsibility to pass it on. I consistently work with younger photographers and filmmakers who are looking for a way to launch their careers, and the most important lesson I can share is to not be afraid to lead and to lead with passion and compassion as these truly are the two key ingredients for a successful career. Most importantly, I subscribe to the discipline of writing goals. I encourage the women I mentor to write 100 goals every year. The first 20 goals are easy, but it is the next 80 goals that tell you who you really are, what you really want to accomplish and what truly makes you passionate. It is a great exercise!
Where do we go from here in terms of supporting and inspiring women to make an impact, to step-up and continue moving forward with their missions… regardless of how hard it may feel at times. #confidence #courage #connections #capital
In my late 40’s, I find myself stronger and more inspired than ever. I look forward to the next ten years in my career, and I can’t wait to meet other women along the way.
If I inspire a single girl to pick up a camera to make a difference, I feel like my job has been worthwhile.