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There have been a comparatively small number of images over the course of history that have gone beyond just showing people something to change the way they see it.
On a journey to the Canadian Arctic with her husband and fellow photographer Paul Nicklen, National Geographic photographer Cristina Mittermeier helped capture one such image, of a skeletal polar bear, unable to feed itself due to the disappearance of sea ice. The video of the bear reached some 2.5 billion people – some one-third of the world’s population at the time.
Originally from Mexico and trained as a marine biologist, Mittermeier is considered a pioneer in conservation photography, practicing environmental photojournalism in such a way that it has capacity to affect the intellect and reach the heart. She’s shot everything from hammerhead sharks deep in the ocean to Kayapo children swimming in the Amazon, and from polar glaciers to centuries-old pathways of baobab trees – and in the process, she’s adventured into the most difficult-to-reach parts of the planet that few people have ever gone and most would never dare to go.
“For me, art and science very much go hand in hand,” she says. “I work hard to ensure my images are artistic and beautiful, and I use my scientific knowledge to inform how they are presented to my audience.”
Her work has been published not only by a host of the world’s foremost newspapers and magazines, but also as fine art prints and gathered together with her descriptive writing in coffee-table tomes. It’s clear, throughout all, that the way she operates a camera also gives glimpses into the way she operates her own life – the empathy and wonder shown for the animals, landscapes and cultures she photographs reflected in her core values of curiosity, gratitude and “enoughness,” which she defines as “sense of fulfillment that comes from within and through our natural environment, rather than through material things; a sense of connectedness to our friends and family, to our spirituality, to our traditions and to our culture.”
In 2014, Mittermeier and Nicklen founded SeaLegacy, a charity organization for ocean conservation. SeaLegacy’s approach to its cause is singular: taking the world’s best visual storytellers to oceanic regions affected by climate change, disseminating their outputs through global and social media to reach the general public, and funding and campaigning for other projects seeking to achieve similar goals. Today, she also serves as president of the Only One Collective, a digital technology product that amplifies stories, campaigns, and solutions that sit at the intersection of ocean health and social justice.
“I want to be part of the generation that creates the paradigm shift I have dreamt of for so long. At the end of my life, I want to know that my contributions helped move humanity towards a better understanding of how to live within our planet’s natural boundaries.”
Considering the estimation that only 5 percent of the Earth’s oceans have been charted or explored, who more courageous, curious and capable of helping save them than Mittermeier?