A Conversation with Kurt Amsler

Kurt was inspired to dive and photograph underwater by Hans Hass. In 1984 worked with Hans Hass (above, right) making the film The Maldives – Paradise Transformed.

Alex: In the last part of the interview I would to talk about conservation. I think that one of the reasons you are held in such high regard in the underwater photography community is not just your images, but also that you give time to other photographers when you meet them. And perhaps more than that, is the huge amount of environmental work that you have done, particularly because to but it bluntly, you have put your balls on the line to fight for marine life. We all share the sentiments, but not many of us get as actively involved, what drove you to make a difference and fight?
Kurt: My father was a professional sport and action photographer and at the same time a mountaineer; he did lots in the Himalaya and all over. And he was shocked by the human impact, even in these remote places. And he started the campaign Keep Our Swiss Mountains Clean. I was a child at the time, but I certainly got inspiration and a respect for nature and animals from that.
Then when I started diving, it was immediately clear to me that what divers were doing at the time was not fair to the marine environment. And also, thanks to photography I have had and still have a very good life. I don’t just want to profit from the underwater world, I want to give something back. I started more than 30 years ago now, with the sea turtles, and after this shark conservation and fighting to free dolphins from captivity.
Many photographers seem to only think about themselves, making money from pictures of sharks and turtles without considering putting something back. And simply, I think this is wrong, not to say pure egoism.
Alex: So with the turtles, how did it start?
Kurt: At the start it was one third of my earnings funding the project. In those days I didn’t have sponsors, now we have Nikon, Seacam, Tour Operators, Scubapro and many others supporting it. But in the beginning I just printed the brochures, went to Hurghada and distributed them. I talked to responsible people and got them to stop the turtle business in Hurghada. Before that in the 1980s the shops there were full of turtle shells.


Kurt Amsler with a handful of trophies at the CMAS World Championship 1987, which he won. But these days he is perhaps best known for his conservation work. He has used his fame as a photographer to fight for the rights of marine life. Kurt Amsler: “Thanks to photography I have had and still have a very good life. I don’t just want to profit from the underwater world, I want to give something back.”

Alex: But fighting for the rights of animals doesn’t always win you friends. I think some photographers can be afraid to stick their head above the parapet.
Kurt: Of course, not everyone likes me. I have had threats on my life in certain parts of the world, but I was in the special forces in the Swiss army, I know how to defend myself! Ha ha ha.
Alex: Ha ha ha.
Kurt: Also some photographers don’t like me because I’ve said to them “you’re a great photographer, you’ve made good money from your pictures, but I never see your name associated with protecting the marine life, working with a conservation organisation”.
Well-known photographers should use their popularity, their voice to get these messages out to the diving community and the public. It is wrong just to show the beauty of the oceans, otherwise people leave lectures thinking “Why should I give money to GreenPeace or Sea Shepard? Everything is OK in the ocean, the dolphins are smiling, the coral is growing…”
Alex: So photographers should be shooting more than just the beauty shots?
Kurt: They should be photojournalists, showing both sides, make people care with beautiful pictures and then bring in the other side, the shadow-side of the story. Many photographers do this already, but more should.
Alex: Finally then, given your long experience in the oceans, you must have seen a lot of these changes first hand. But I know already this week, we have talked about some positive stories, which show good conservation projects really work.
Kurt: At the end of the 70s, beginning of the 80s, the ocean was just a big garbage place and thanks to all the films and pictures, by Hass, by Cousteau, by everyone. The public began to care and things changed. When I first started talking about sharks being in danger from fishing, people thought I was crazy. Now people know the truth. It has changed a lot.
Marine parks can make a big difference. Near my home on the south coast of France, 25 years ago it was very hard to find a grouper. The big ones were hidden, the small ones were not there anymore. Then they ban grouper fishing and introduced marine parks and for the last 15 years, each year there are more groupers. Now there are lots of dive sites with 20 or 30 groupers.


A photographer and grouper on one of Kurt’s workshops in the Mediterranean. The groupers are a real conservation success story, a rare sight 20 years ago, many dives sites now are home to more than 20 of these beautiful fish.

Alex: If you give nature a chance, take our foot of its neck, recovery can really happen. That is why it is so important to get involved in conservation projects, they do work, they can make a massive difference.
Kurt: It is important to remember it is never too late. Saying it is too late or that I am just one person are excuses.
Alex: We are the ones who go underwater and see these things – this is not a problem that someone is going to solve. We have to get the message out, because we are seeing it with our own eyes. If you are an underwater photographer you have tell these stories.
Kurt: But you have to do it. You.
Alex: I think that is a good message to finish on. Thank you very much Kurt.


Kurt Amsler