Three renowned photographers who’ve captured nature on every continent over the past thirty years-– Brian Skerry, Frans Lanting, and Joel Sartore – have logged tens of thousands of hours documenting the beautiful, the rarely seen, and the endangered on our planet.
Our three-part series this summer gives you their backstory – and leads you to their videos, TED talks, books, exhibitions and broadcasts. Plus you can review their portfolios and buy prints.
These three occupy a privileged place in our world: they are our eyes in places we cannot or dare not go: deep in the oceans’ water column, in remote locales, behind the scenes, to document firsthand what we are losing and what is at stake. Together, they bear witness to the impacts of the human era (the Anthropocene) on animals, plants, oceans, mountains, forests and savannas.
More than simply witnesses to beauty– and to destructive forces that threaten life in every realm — they see and share with us the interconnectedness of life. Each has a deep passion for animals and the natural world. It allows them, wherever they travel, to connect with their subjects. They are constantly studying and interpreting nature.
This year, all three are engaged in projects — exhibitions, books, public events, broadcasts– that bring their artistic ability and their fierce sense of urgency for conservation to wider audiences.
Come along on this journey with Brian Skerry, one of the world’s great underwater photographers, who spends his life in the watery realm.
BRIAN SKERRY: OCEAN ADVENTURER
“Every other breath we take on Earth is thanks to the oceans.” National Geographic Photography Fellow Brian Skerry is well-schooled in ocean life and lore and the critical role oceans play. He’s spent three decades– over 10,000 hours—underwater, documenting the watery realm.
Deeply troubled by what he has seen–declining conditions and steep marine losses– Skerry adds another dimension to his work as photojournalist, that of a passionate advocate for marine life and for stronger ocean protection.
Brian Skerry’s ocean passion, which started in his teens, says in his book, Ocean Soul, “I often feel a life force emanating from creatures, a tangible energy that defines an individual animal.”
Was Skerry born to it? It’s not clear but at an early age—living in a Massachusetts mill town – he was in the backyard pool with mask and flippers and a great enthusiasm for water. Skerry started in his teens with the desire to be an ocean explorer – inspired in part by Jaws, the classic 1975 horror-thriller. He got hooked up with the Boston Sea Rovers Conference – one of America’s oldest underwater clubs (Titanic explorer Bob Ballard is among its members). He became skilled at shipwreck diving; his first assignment for the National Geographic (1998) was an 18th-century pirate shipwreck called Wydah.
But that wasn’t what stirred his soul, as he tells it in his 2013 book Ocean Soul. His encounter in 1982 with a blue shark off the coast of Rhode Island, only several feet from him, cast a powerful spell that has remained for over 30 years.
The Liquid Realm
Skerry’s gone on to shoot in a multiplicity of marine environments worldwide– documenting both predator and prey in 28 National Geographic stories and four covers. He’s photographed everything from tiny hermit crabs living in coral to President Obama snorkeling off Midway Island in the Pacific. In 2010 National Geographic magazine named one of his images among its 50 Greatest Photographs of All Time.
The stories he proposes and images he captures are timely and troubling. Harp seal season in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence is especially cruel –“it’s the largest slaughter of marine mammals in the world,” he says. Reduced and thin pack ice imperils the newborns who must live on it– sometimes a 100% death rate.
The global fish crisis and burgeoning human consumption (Bluefin tuna, for example) are pinpointed in an entire Geographic issue (2007) he proposed. “It’s more like war photography,” he says. Critically endangered leatherbacks (the largest sea turtles) are sought for eggs and meat.
“The ocean is not a grocery store,” he says in a TED talk. “We cannot keep taking without repercussions.”
Whitetip, Mako, Tiger, Great White
Skerry’s newest book and a just-opened National Geographic exhibition in Washington DC (through October 15, 2017) puts front and center what is probably his greatest passion – Sharks. He’s made hundreds and hundreds of shark dives, from the Bahamas to New Zealand, from nurseries in An Eden for Sharks to newer feeding grounds for great whites off the Cape Cod coast. He loves their beauty, their grace and power—but recognizes life is hard for these apex predators.
Over 100 million a year are killed, either for shark fin soup and steaks or sport fishing contests. “It’s almost impossible to find a shark with no anthropogenic [human] impact,” he says. “A machete slash, a hook in the mouth.”
Celebrating sharks for Skerry means showing them in a new light—their fragility: “We need to move the dial in favor of conservation. We cannot kill that many without repercussions.”
A Place in Trouble: Moving the Dial
When Brian Skerry talks, his love of marine life morphs into a bigger message – that of the oceans in crisis. “There’s been a seismic shift, a dramatic loss of marine life in the years since I began diving….From the water’s surface, you don’t see it.” “I’m an artistic interpreter of all that I see,” but there’s more. “The oceans are screaming at us to pay attention.”
And that is what he’s doing.
Skerry is a leading voice for ocean conservation. He teamed up with renowned oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle (nicknamed “her deepness”) in the National Geographic’s 2017 Sea of Hope documentary. He snorkeled with President Barack Obama off Midway’s Sand Island in the Pacific after the President designated Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in Fall 2016, the world’s largest protected area, twice the size of France.
He’s on the board of the Great White Atlantic Conservancy to keep exploring the mysterious great white’s shift to feeding off Cape Cod, at Chatham, Massachusetts, where there’s an abundant seal population.
And he’ll keep telling the story in photographs – optimistic that his images may get people’s attention in a way that words do not. “I think of what Jacques Cousteau said, ‘You protect what you love.’ That’s why I am doing this.”
Brian Skerry’s web site, portfolio and access to prints
Ocean Soul, Brian Skerry’s 2013 book. An oversized book filled with photographs and his beautifully written essays Read an excerpt
Slideshow of images from Ocean Soul
Thinking Like a Dolphin. Interview with Skerry 2015 on WGBH Boston (NPR)
Brian Skerry’s reminder: “The scariest ocean is the one without sharks.”