Framing Hope Through A Photographer’s Lens

Following the 2020 Earth Optimism Digital Summit, photographer Cristina Mittermeier tells us how she is able to portray optimism in her images.

© Cristina Mittermeier
© Cristina Mittermeier

One of the most influential female photographers in the world is Cristina Mittermeier. But before she became one of the strongest voices in conservation photography, she worked in her native Mexico as a Marine Biologist. She discovered that visual storytelling, rather than data sets, allowed her to be a better advocate for the ocean.

Mittermeier was one of the speakers involved in the Smithsonian's 2020 Digital Earth Optimism Summit, during which she shared how she is able to capture optimism and shift the way we view conservation issues with her camera. Following the Summit, Earth Optimism's Cat Kutz asked Mittermeier to share a few of her inspiring photos and tell us how she sees Earth Optimism shaping the conservation narrative moving forward.

Cristina Mittermeier is one of the most influential female photographers in the world. © Anna Heupel

First of all, I want to thank you for being a part of the Earth Optimism Digital Summit last week. During your session, Telling the Story, you said, “A beautiful photograph is an open door into which people can enter this conversation.” How are you able to convey Earth Optimism in your photographs?

I learned storytelling by studying how some of the best storytellers in history frame their stories. Dr Martin Luther King didn’t start his famous speech by saying “I have a nightmare”.
Framing the issue at hand with a positive attitude has the wonderful effect of making the price of entry into the conversation accessible. We are currently engaged in the most important conversations of our lives; we need to make it accessible and democratic. Photography allows us to do that.

"I was really awakened by the commitment of young Titouan Bernicot, a young conservationist and artist, whom I met recently in French Polynesia. In his own words, Titouan says that he was, “born on a pearl farm lost in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.” At the age of 16 he realized that the coral reefs in French Polynesia were dying and resolved to do something to help. He founded The Coral Gardeners, a non-profit that educates the public about the importance of coral reefs. They believe, correctly, that the children are our future and that awareness should be brought to them as well as to adults. Now 20 years old, Titouan and the other coral Gardners work to restore the reef on the island that is also their home, Mo’orea." Cristina Mittermeier

Do you have a favorite photo of yours that has been particularly effective at portraying a sense of hope for our planet?

I love the images I have been able to make with young indigenous activists. Indigenous people are the last people on this planet that remain connected to the operating system of Earth; we need to empower those young indigenous people who are interested in downloading that knowledge from their elders.

"I first met Ta'kaiya Blaney, photographed here in her home waters in the Salish Sea, after hearing her speak for what she calls an "Earth Revolution. Ta'kaiya is an environmentalist and a First Nations activist from the Tla A'min Nation in British Columbia, Canada - and she lives not far from where I have made my home on Vancouver Island. She is an inspiring, passionate speaker; a force of nature in her own right, who first started expressing her concerns about the environment in songs when she was just ten years old. Today she is a singer, a drummer, and a speaker on behalf of the rights of indigenous people." Cristina Mittermeier

How do you see the idea of Earth Optimism continuing to shape the way we frame conservation?

Optimism is the key to our survival. If we can frame the challenges ahead with an air of positivity and hope, we will stand a chance of galvanizing action for our planet.

Can you tell us more about the mission of SeaLegacy and what inspired you to start this organization?

Our mission is simple; we are using the power of visual storytelling to change the story of our oceans. As we grow our following and galvanize action on key issues, we build a sense of community and positivity. In June, we are launching Only.One, one of the most exciting things Paul Nicklen and I have ever been a part of. We want everyone to join in our sense of optimism and hope, so come join us as and let’s change the story.

"For most of us, it is hard to even know what a healthy coral looks like anymore. I was surprised to find one last survivor in this stretch of coastline off the island of Mo’orea. There is no question that both the ocean and the cryosphere (a fancy word to describe the frozen portions of our planet) are crucial for mitigating the climate crisis. For years, the ocean has absorbed massive amounts of heat created by human carbon emissions, keeping our earth cooler, but at a great cost. Carbon absorption has increased the acidity of our ocean, which not only makes it more difficult for our coral reefs to recover from bleaching events, but it also inhibits their ability to survive. This has dangerous implications for the future of marine diversity and coastal community protection. Healthy reefs act as a buffer between shorelines and storms, shielding communities and saving lives and property from damage of waves and floods." Cristina Mittermeier