EMERGING PHOTOGRAPHERS

Photographer Cristina Mittermeier Explains How To Enter Worlds That Are Not Your Own

Harrison Jacobs


© CRISTINA MITTERMEIER


Last week, Sony Artisan of Imagery Cristina Mittermeier talked with Emerging Photographer about her and photographer Paul Nicklen’s exciting new venture, Sea Legacy. It is the culmination of her career to this point, an effort that combines her beautiful photography with her passion for conservation and protecting the voiceless. When we spoke with Mittermeier, she also gave us some extra tips on starting out and photographing world’s that are not your own:

What would you tell a photographer that is just starting out?

You have to study social change … You have to infuse your photography with purpose. I find that young people that want to start a career in photography often find that it is very competitive. It also can be very shallow. After a couple of years of being rejected and facing so much competition, you can get discouraged. If you infuse your photography with a purpose —and it doesn’t have to be the environment, it can be poverty or war or women’s rights or gay rights or anything—you will find the motivation to get out of bed in the morning and do the best work you can. Purpose is important. More important than making money.



How did growing up in Mexico affect your outlook on life and photography?

Mexico is one of the most bio-diverse countries on the planet. It also has the largest diversity of indigenous cultures that are still traditional and speaking their indigenous languages. That was part of growing up for me. Because I grew up seeing poverty and need around me, it has always been so clear that when you lose natural resources and creeks and rivers become polluted, the people that suffer the most are the poor people. They’re the ones that feel the impact first. If we care about eradicating poverty, if we care about women’s rights and children’s health, we have to care about the environment. All of that I learned in Mexico.



How do you go about entering the world of indigenous cultures to photograph them?

Most of the work that I have done has been through conservation organizations. Access has been granted to me because I had those relationships with conservation groups and social scientists that are already working in these places. It’s a lot easier when you have somebody to introduce you. It can convey trust a lot faster.



[Currently, Mittermeier and Nicklen are shooting a story on traditional Hawaiian surf culture for Sea Legacy and National Geographic] For the story that we are doing in Hawaii, we’re doing where the most traditional Hawaiians still live. Of course, there are Americans and the military but there is a real revival of Hawaiian culture. They speak their traditional language and surfing is a huge part of who they are. This particular community is strongly against the invasion of white Western values. It is difficult to gain access.

Here’s how Mittermeier and Nicklen did it:

1. Make friends
We came and we spent two weeks with them, respectfully making friends and being very honest about what we are doing and explaining that we are here to tell their story. It takes a lot of time [to gain people’s trust]. The people who think that they can go to a village, spend a couple of days, and take meaningful portraits or pictures, it doesn’t work like that.

2. Keep the camera away
You can never show up blazing cameras. Once people reject you and say they don’t want pictures, it is very difficult to recover from that. You want to come and first make all the introductions and explanations and gestures of goodwill that you can. Be very honest about what you are doing and then you ask for permission to take pictures. For the most part, it works really well.

3. Once you are granted access, disappear
 Once you’ve been introduced to a community and accepted, then you want to disappear into the background and let people forget that you are there.

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© Discovery Communications/Photo by David Yellin
PDN October 2014

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