As image makers, we all derive inspiration from differing sources. The abundance of sources from which we can obtain ideas and creative goals has increased exponentially over the last decade. Web sites, such as Wetpixel, provide resources for information about how images are obtained as well as the images themselves, and other online resource and image galleries have a plethora of imagery to peruse and be inspired by. Despite this, I think that most people still have a strong affinity for the printed image.
Hence I, for one, own print publications to which I refer for specific motivation when I feel my creative juices are drying up. Brian Skerry’s recent book “Ocean Soul” is a great resource for such stimulation.
Brian has been a contract photographer for National Geographic Magazine (NGM) since 1998, covering a wide range of stories, from the harp seal’s struggle to survive in frozen waters to the alarming decrease in the world’s fisheries. His current story will be his twentieth for NGM. He has also had images featured by Sports Illustrated, US News and World Report, BBC Wildlife, GEO, Smithsonian, Esquire, Audubon and Men’s Journal.
Ocean Soul is a large hard cover book with 263 pages. The author has divided it into 4 major chapters, namely “Warm Waters”, “Cool Waters”, “Cold Waters” and “Pristine Waters”. Within each chapter is a photo-essay of a major assignment that Brian carried out within the temperature zone, as well as a more general selection of images. The book’s layout and content reflect the author’s profession as a photo journalist. Many of the images are beautiful, but are often also intended to carry a message or tell a story. This not a dumb picture book. A quick scroll through it and a scan of the images will solicit reactions from the reader, from joy to anger.
Whilst many of the images in the book portray the beauty of the underwater world, Skerry has also tackled more difficult subjects like fur seal hunting and over fishing. His final photo-essay tackles the latter, and has evocative pictures and compelling prose as well as a call to action:
“We are all connected to the sea and her fate. The wounds suffered by Earth’s oceans to date are not fatal. We can still turn the tide of past harm into a groundswell of future protection. Scientists have described what is happening to the heart of the sea. Images reveal her soul. With both as our guides, we can serve as vigilant guardians of the sea and she will again thrive.”
For me to return repeatedly to a book, it must have an identity that sets it apart from other similar volumes. Skerry’s story-telling in both images and words gives Ocean Soul an integrity that is lacking from “simple” picture books. The next time you are feeling jaded and are seeking inspiration for an imaging project, this will be a great resource to reach for.
Ocean Soul is published by National Geographic and is available from the National Geographic store, Amazon and many other online and physical bookstores. It is priced at around $50.00.
Wetpixel interviews Brian Skerry.
Brian was able to find time during an assignment to give an exclusive interview to Wetpixel about the book and his approach to underwater imaging. What follows was “from the middle of the North Atlantic, where the weather is terrible and I have a few days to catch-up on work!”
Wetpixel: Apart for the images, Ocean Soul is also about places. How much traveling do you do on average?
I typically travel about 8 or 9 months each year. A normal assignment might last 10-12 weeks and I often divide this up into 2-3 trips if possible.
Wetpixel: Where is you favorite dive site (if you had to choose one)? Why?
This is difficult to answer of course, because I really love so many places for different reasons. The Bahamas are fantastic for sharks, Fiji for corals and New Zealand for diversity and abundance thanks to conservation. I guess if right now you asked me where I wanted to spend a month or two working for my own enjoyment, I’d pick British Columbia. I actually haven’t done a lot of work there, but I am drawn to temperate waters and love the colors and range of subjects there.
Wetpixel: I would describe your style as being more journalistic and story telling, focusing on documenting what is there. Do you see your style in the same way? Is this a conscious decision on your part, or simply how you see scenes?
A successful photojournalist has to be able to tell stories with pictures. They must be able to go into a situation and interpret it photographically. You absolutely must be able to make the eye-catching, beautiful images that make readers stop and want to learn more, but you must also be able to see the bigger picture; the story that you are trying to tell. So it is a conscious decision to look for these additional elements, to really “work” the story, always looking for ways to make pictures that will help readers understand.
Wetpixel: Ocean Soul has been published by National Geographic. What does it mean to be a shooter for an organization like NG? How much control do you have over the editorial process? Stories about photo editors in organizations like NG are legion, how do your approach them?
I’ve been working for National Geographic magazine for 14 years and it has been a wonderful relationship. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from my colleagues there about so many aspects of photography, journalism, editing and designing powerful stories. It’s also the only magazine in the world that I’m aware of, in which the photographer is involved at every level of the process. I propose a story and if it is approved, I head off on assignment. I have to shoot everything in RAW and deliver every frame on hard drives to my editor. I’m not allowed to delete or submit any corrected files; they want to see every, single frame as it was shot. So my editor will review 30,000-40,000 frames that I’ve shot on a typical story. She will make her edits, then we work together to take the edit down to maybe 40 images, which we show to the editor-in-chief and executive staff. Assuming they like what they see, we then go into layout and I work with a layout designer to take those 40 pictures down to the 10-15 that will become the story. But the photographer is involved and does have input throughout the entire process, something I believe is important. And before I ever go into the field, I spend lots of time discussing the coverage with my editor and the story team and stay in touch during the many months or even years that I might be working on the story. Ultimately the photographer must deliver the goods of course, but having this level of support is very helpful.
Wetpixel: Can you offer any advice for photographers wanting to approach NG or similar with pictures or ideas?
I think that a big part of getting assignments from magazines is having a portfolio that demonstrates that you can deliver what they need. The portfolio should not only have great photographs, but also show that the photographer can shoot journalistically. Many photographers have beautiful pictures, but being able to deliver results consistently, under all types of conditions is key. Underwater photographers must not only be able to produce great underwater images, but should also be able to broaden their coverage with great surface photography as well (landscapes, aerials, people photos, etc). Once you have a solid portfolio, then it’s about ideas. Why is a particular story worth producing, why is it important and why do it now? Large circulation, general interest magazines have finite resources they can put towards each issue. So the editors must determine the proper mix of stories. Within that mix will be a percentage of natural history stories and within that percentage will be a smaller percentage of underwater stories. So to compete, the story must have merit and the editors must have confidence that the photographer can bring back the results they need. My advice then, is to create a strategy for getting from where you are today to where you want to take your career. If you want to be a photojournalist, I recommend working with subjects close to home, where you have repeatability and can, over time, produce images that no one else has. And once that coverage is done, move on to another subject. Over time, you will build the skills and the portfolio that will get you the jobs you want.
Wetpixel: What is your most hair-raising (underwater) event so far? The most difficult shoot technically? And physically..?
Well, .. I’ve had my share of dicey moments. I’ve been lost beneath pack ice and inside deep shipwrecks, drifted for 2 ½ hours off the coast of Ireland when the dive boat didn’t see me and was eventually picked-up by a fishing boat and once surfaced from a dive in Canada, during a blizzard to watch our boat sinking (a commercial fishing boat). Had my share of exciting times with animals too of course. But those handful of dicey moments are far outweighed by the countless fantastic experiences I’ve had in the sea, and it’s those I’d rather remember.
Among the most technically difficult shoots I’ve had are those in which I’ve photographed scenes that had multiple challenges. I have a new story scheduled for the October issue of NGM about the Mesoamerican Reef and one of the photos I wanted to make for this story was a scene that showed spawning fish. This behavior occurs around dusk, when light levels are extremely low and the fish rise up from deep water in a massive column of maybe 10,000 animals. You can’t predict exactly where this will happen, so you’re swimming through the dark water hoping to be in the right place at the right time. Inevitably, it happens a good distance away and you have to swim hard to reach it in time. Because the light levels are low, I was shooting at a high ISO, but also needed a small amount of fill flash for color and detail. But the fish are very shiny and reflective; like shooting 90-pound, fast-swimming mirrors at night. And the event only lasts for a few moments, then its over. Eventually I figured out a way to get the shot, but it was indeed a challenge. NGM’s editor actually allowed me to publish this photo in Ocean Soul ahead of publication in the magazine, so it can be seen in the book now and in the magazine in the upcoming October 2012 issue.
Wetpixel: What do you like to do when you aren’t at work?
Ha, .. Seems that I’m always working! When I’m not in the field, I am working in my office. But I most enjoy spending time with my family.
Wetpixel: How did you manage to make underwater photography your profession? What advice would you give to people wanting to emulate your career now?
I go back to what I mentioned earlier, about having a strategy and following this plan. It rarely happens fast or certainly never as quickly as you might want. I spent years building my career and honing the skills necessary. I also worked many other jobs outside of photography to make a living, but all the while staying focused on my photo business and refused to quit. But I truly believe that creating a plan is key and working on subjects with which you have repeatability to build that portfolio. Once you complete a specific coverage, try selling the story to local or smaller magazines, maybe team up with a writer to make selling the package easier. If you spend a few years doing this, you will sharpen your skills, create images few others have and build a portfolio of diverse and journalistic photography. These are the things that will land you the bigger assignments.
Wetpixel: How has the transition from film to digital affected you? How do you think it has affected underwater photography as a whole? There are a lot more great images out there now; do you think this makes it harder to get exceptional ones published?
The transition from film to digital has been amazing. I used to go out on assignment, shoot 500 rolls of film and not know what I had until after I returned home, sent in the film to The Geographic and received a call from my editor a couple of weeks later. Today, I know what I have instantly. And clearly, digital technology has made photography easier in that the learning curve is immediately. We can make a frame and instantly see how to improve it. For an underwater photographer this is especially crucial, since conditions can vary widely from place to place and even day-to-day. So the bar has definitely been raised. But although the level of quality has increased overall, a great photo is still a great photo and will be published.
Wetpixel: Can you name your favorite underwater photographer? Photographer period?
This is a tough question to answer. I’ve been inspired by so many photographers throughout my life; people like Luis Marden, Bill Curtsinger, David Doubilet and Flip Nicklin. And there are so many folks producing stunning work today. I am hesitant to mention any one in particular for fear of leaving out others that I admire equally! I am also greatly inspired by terrestrial wildlife photographers too. Folks like Jim Brandenburg, Nick Nichols and Chris Johns.
Wetpixel: If you had to name someone who has inspired you photographically, who would that be?
Please see previous answer.
Wetpixel: Canon or Nikon? Or both?
Nikon, although I have used Canon on specific projects. Both great systems.
Wetpixel: Ocean Soul would suggest that you prefer wide-angle or is that just the pictures that sell ☺ ?
I think that if you look through Ocean Soul you’ll see quite a few macro and close-up images in addition to the wide-angle. I honestly love shooting all kinds of photographs underwater and firmly believe that a perfect story coverage is one that blends many focal lengths for an interesting variety. I suppose that most of my most successful photos have been wide-angle, but I have many close-up images that are very popular too; from a little, yellow goby inside a soda can in Japan to a blenny living in coral in Belize to a shrimp on an anemone in Kingman Reef.
Wetpixel: How much post processing do you do? How much is acceptable?
As I mentioned earlier, NGM requires everything to be photographed and delivered in RAW. So we are not allowed to do any post processing ourselves. At the magazine, I will sit with a technician in the Engraving Department and correct images, but all that is permitted is adjusting color (to some degree) and contrast. And the editors and Director of Photography will review every frame in comparison to the RAW frame before publication to make sure each image has not been taken too far.
Wetpixel: Media rich capture devices are blurring the creative process. How do you see the future with still cameras catching video, cell phones capturing hi res images and video, and people looking at them on tablet computers?
I think it’s a very exciting time for photographers, given the variety of tools we have to make pictures. I love still photography and want to continue to focus primarily in this medium, but I also recognize that some scenes are much better captured with video. For a creative person, being able to have one tool that can do both is incredible. Ultimately, I see myself as a storyteller; I want to bring my experiences in the sea to people worldwide. If I can blend stills, video and sound to create a richer experience, then I am thrilled. I think it was Woody Allen that said “80% of life is just being there.” So get yourself in front of interesting subjects. The other 20% is up to you!
Wetpixel: Following on from the above, does the traditional paper printing process have a future?
Yes, I believe that traditional print media does indeed have a future. Although more eyes are viewing images on digital media and the numbers will continue to increase, there is still something special about holding a book or a magazine. I personally love the physical connection I have to reading a book or looking at a magazine layout on the printed page. Plus, if a wave crashes on to my magazine, it’s not nearly as bad as one soaking my iPad!
Wetpixel: Recently, you were kind enough to give up your time to be a judge of the recent Our World Underwater Competition. Have you ever entered competitions?
There are a few competitions that I’ve entered over the years, and continue to from time to time, but I don’t do this often.
Wetpixel: Do you think that they are a good way to develop photographic technique?
I think photo competitions are fun and are a great way to see interesting work by a range of photographers. And I think this can be useful to other photographers in regards to assessing technique. But I also think we have to keep competitions in perspective; in any given year, a different panel of judges might select other winners.
Wetpixel: What is the greatest threat to the oceans’ health?
Earth’s oceans are dying a death from a million cuts. There are so many problems including over fishing, habitat destruction, pollution and more. Each one of these issues is tremendously important and they must be addressed and fixed. Perhaps the greatest problem however, is climate change. It’s unclear as to exactly what will happen, but we can already see devastating effects including things like sea-level rise, coral bleaching and acidification.
Wetpixel: Is there an environmental cause that you are especially passionate about?
I am passionate about all these issues and trying to use photography to raise awareness. And I do believe that solutions are within our grasp with many of these things. Over fishing for example is solvable. I’d love to see commercial fishing subsidies ended in countries worldwide and that money used to help companies attempting to create environmentally sound aquaculture businesses. And I am passionate about creating more marine protected areas.
Wetpixel: Do you think that photographers can be a force for good or change? Do you think that pro photographers are seeking to engage more with marine issues? The documentation of the shark fin trade for example seems to have raised public awareness, is this a sign of things to come?
Photography can absolutely be a force for positive change! Human beings are visual creatures, our brains process events as still frames that remain in our minds. Stacks of scientific papers might prove that we’re facing a problem, but a single iconic photograph can move people into taking action. Since the advent of photography, most of the world’s historic moments are remembered through a still photo. Environmental conservation needs these types of images to reach people. This is what I’ve tried to do with my work. I would like nothing more than to spend my time making beautiful images in the sea, but I recognize that a blend of celebratory photos along with the harder-hitting conservation photos are what really make an impact. This is especially true in the ocean, since so few people have any idea what’s really happening beneath the waves.
And I do believe there is a growing trend of conservation photography, which is desperately needed.
Wetpixel: What is the best advice to offer an aspiring underwater photographer?
Be practical in regards to business and develop a long-term strategy with shorter-term goals along the way. And don’t give up. It might take a long time, but keep chipping away at it. Do what you love and follow your dreams.
All images ©Brian Skerry except top of page which is @Mauricio Handler.
FTC Disclosure. Ocean Soul was purchased by the reviewer for the review.