Cristina Mittermeier is a biochemical engineer, world traveler, National Geographic photographer and conservationist who dedicates her life to purposely and passionately telling the stories of the world. She founded the International League of Conservation Photographers and SeaLegacy, both organizations that work with photographers dedicated to fostering the conservation of the natural world through the power of photography. In his new eBook, Photographing Wild: Working Techniques of National Geographic Photographer, author Paul Nicklen features her as one of his favourite photographers. One look at her work—and her devotion to it—and it’s easy to see why.
As a biochemical engineer specializing in marine resources, when did you incorporate photography into your career?
After years of trying to communicate the effects of biodiversity loss and the urgency of changing the way we fish our oceans with science, I realized that photography and visual storytelling are a much better way of engaging audiences.
What was it about the medium that drew you in?
People love looking at photographs, and images have a way of becoming imprinted in our memory. When you look at an image, the information you see is internalized in a very powerful way and images do not require translation; they are universally understood.
In addition to conservation, you do a significant amount of work with indigenous cultures. What do you find to be the biggest challenge in accurately portraying these cultures to best connect them with the rest of the world?
Conservation and indigenous cultures are two parts of the same issue. In fact, given that so many of the last wild places on our planet are also the ancestral lands of indigenous people, we really cannot hope to achieve conservation outcomes without including the participation of the communities that are stewards of those resources.
There is such grace and beauty in your photographs. How do you approach your subjects to provide such open and honest emotion?
I approach my subjects with patience, empathy, and respect. I don’t want to romanticize or overdramatize the people I photograph. More than anything, I want to capture their story in a dignified way that highlights the elements of humanity we share, and not the ones that make us different.
You are an incredible storyteller. In a time when traditional media is struggling, what do you believe is the best way to tell meaningful stories?
Storytelling is part and parcel of the fabric of humanity. We are hardwired to learn from the stories we share, and with the internet, we have access to a storytelling platform that is active 24/7 and is shared all around the world.
A still frame has its own strengths and weaknesses. What do you consider to be the most important aspects of visual storytelling?
The most important aspects of visual storytelling are the opportunities you have to create an emotional connection. Images that elicit a question or a feeling are needed to complete the arc of each story. In the end, if your audience reacts with laughter, anger, puzzlement, surprise, or sadness, you have done your job as a storyteller.
For you, what is the hardest thing about being a photographer?
The amount of time I have to spend away from home. When I am working, I dream of simple things, like weeding my garden, making breakfast for my family, or cleaning the closet.
Cristina Mittermeier uses her camera to document the intersection of wild nature and humans. She has published and edited 24 coffee table books on conservation issues and her work has been published in prestigious publications including Science and Nature. Cristina is a Sony Artisan of Imagery, and was recently recognized as one of the World’s top 40 Most Influential Outdoor Photographers by Outdoor Magazine, is a past recipient of the Nature’s Best/Smithsonian Conservation Photographer of the Year award and the North American Nature Photographer’s Association Mission Award. Cristina is the founder and former President of the prestigious International League of Conservation Photographers, a consortium of some of the best photographers on the planet who are actively working for conservation. Today, Cristina is the co-founder and Executive Director of SeaLegacy. See more of Cristina's work at cristinamittermeier.com.