Hope at the Front Lines of Climate Change

With a new exhibit opening at the Paul Nicklen Gallery in New York City, photographers Paul Nicklen and Cristina Mittermeier are sharing the stories of indigenous people and wildlife impacted by climate change. I sat down with Paul and Cristina, co-founders of the nonprofit Sea Legacy, to discuss their experiences working with indigenous communities and marine conservation, and why they are incredibly optimistic about the future in the fight against climate change.

Mittermeier, “Leap of Faith”

Paul Nicklen and Cristina Mittermeier have created some of National Geographic’s most iconic images, revealing a compelling intimacy with both people and nature in some of the world’s last truly remote places.

One of their early collaborations brought them to British Columbia, where Paul was photographing the region’s rare Spirit Bears. Revered by the First Nation people of British Columbia, these pure white bears are a variant of the American black bear, and they live almost exclusively in the Great Bear Rainforest. Together, Paul and Cristina aimed to share a story of the Great Bear Rainforest that included both these bears and the indigenous community. When Paul initially suggested to the First Nations people that Cristina could visit the group for a photography project, they were suspicious. “We brought a white woman here once 10 years ago and we still regret it,” they explained. “She was a nuisance to our culture and our way of life.” Paul said he kept begging, and eventually the tribe allowed Cristina to come for a week. While Paul went out looking for the bears, Cristina went to the tribe alone. “By the time I got back, they were all fighting over her,” he laughed. “They wanted Cristina to stay with them in their camp and their houses. She went from house to house, washing dishes and telling stories and photographing families. To this day, they still beg her to come back.”

“We made friends,” Cristina said simply, smiling.

Where other photographs seek the “tribal” elements in indigenous communities, Cristina focuses on shared human experiences. “I often look for relationships in my pictures — what it means to be a mother, a sister, a friend. The things we have in common — the way we dance, the way we speak, the way we cook, the traditions that we have around birth and death — all of those things are common to humanity.”

Cristina sees photography as a tool to share the stories of indigenous communities by truthfully representing their cultures and the ways their lives are changing in the face of globalization and climate change. Her commitment to realism in how she portrays her subjects — reflecting how they see themselves, rather than how others wish to see them — has carried her from the Arctic to the interior of the Brazilian Amazon.

Mainstream culture often looks for the “noble savage,” or an indigenous person who remains pure and untouched by the effects of industrialization and globalization. This person is fictional, but indigenous communities often act as unwilling canvases for mainstream culture to project ideas upon. The desire to find this fictional person manifests as a refusal to see indigenous cultures as dynamic and evolving. People who differ either in behavior or in appearance are often no longer seen as truly indigenous. Cristina embraces a more realistic approach.

“I’m not here to look at you like an insect in a museum tray, but as a vibrant, living culture,” Cristina said of her personal philosophy. For example, clothing is often a flash point of conflict between indigenous communities, and outside photographers and researchers. The idea that indigenous people dress today how they did 100 years ago remains a stubbornly inaccurate notion, but visitors often want to see indigenous people dressed the same as their ancestors. “Although you can still find people who do dress that way in many parts of the world, the reality is that indigenous people today look very different. I never ask people to dress up or go get their headdress. Just because you are wearing sneakers doesn’t mean that you are not an indigenous person,” Cristina explained.

Mittermeier, Papua New Guinea. “Bubble gum.”

This dedication to realism grounds Cristina’s work, which gives her subjects a degree of control and self-determination over how their community is portrayed. The pace of change in these communities is poised to rapidly accelerate over the next few generations as the effects of climate change and globalization are more acutely felt. The community’s ability to shape its own narrative — to publicly explain where they’ve come from and where they want to go — is crucial in creating equitable development policy in these regions.

Cristina originally learned photography as a tool to create an impact and advocate for indigenous people as well as for conservation. Striking a balance between acting as an advocate for indigenous communities as well as for wildlife, while still avoiding entanglement in local politics, is one of the most challenging aspects of her work. She explained that she is guided by a principle of telling a complete story with her photographs, despite how difficult it feels at the time.

One of her first assignments as a rookie photographer was to create a portrait of indigenous people and their relationship with the Xingu River in Brazil, which was slotted to be dammed by the Brazilian government. She was disappointed when, seeing a mother coming up from the river with a little bundle, she realized that she had missed the birth of a new baby and its first ritual bath in the river. The following day, she learned that the baby had died, and she had missed the burial as well. Then she saw the mother returning again from the river, this time carrying a little bundle of dirt in her arms. “I realized it was her baby. She had gone and dug it out, and she was carrying it around. She was just sobbing. Nobody was going near her. She was walking back and forth with a machete in her hand. She was hitting her forehead, and she was bleeding all over the place — there was blood on her dress, on the baby.”

Cristina felt paralyzed. “I just couldn’t take her picture,” she said. She thought of her own children, and how photography would be the last thing she would want in this situation as a mother. “Later, when they approved the dam, I thought those pictures would have been incredibly important and dramatic, and maybe they could’ve made an impact. I don’t know, because I didn’t take them.”

Now, she embraces the situations that make her uncomfortable. Reflecting on her career, she only regrets the photographs that she did not take because they could have told a crucial story to help protect people and their environment.

This principle is why, years later, she advised Paul to photograph a declining population of narwhals off the coast of Canada, despite the outrage of local Inuit. Paul worked undercover, hiding his coverage of the narwhals from the local Inuit community in order to avoid being expelled from the area. At the time, Inuit were hunting narwhals at levels that many conservationists felt was unsustainable. A “you’re with us, or you’re against us” mentality pervaded the community when it came to hunting. They felt that anyone questioning the hunts was fundamentally against them and their culture. Meanwhile, Paul was photographing groups of narwhals where approximately 80 percent of all the individuals had visible bullet wounds. Biologists warned that the hunts were endangering a population of animals already under stress from longer summers and less ice cover throughout the year.

“I was vomiting at night, I was sick, I was crying,” Paul recounted. “I was depressed about it. You love these people, but you realize that the species does not have a voice.”

Cristina encouraged Paul to tell the story.

The issue continues to divide the Inuit community to this day. Paul received death threats for his coverage of the narwhals, which many indigenous people feared would result in increased restrictions or a complete ban on their traditional hunts. Later, Cristina was traveling by dogsled in Greenland, and happened to work with an Inuit guide who knew of Paul. “You can come [to Greenland] any time,” he assured her matter-of-factly. “But him, if he comes, a bullet is going to find him.”

This story speaks to the nexus of wildlife, indigenous communities, and policy makers, as well as to the way that climate change is exacerbating these existing tensions. Cristina sees photography as the crucial vehicle for understanding complex stories like these.

She founded the League of Conservation Photographers in 2005, bringing together wildlife photographers from around the world and focusing their efforts on advocacy and conservation. Conservation photography bridges the gap between scientific data and collective action to protect the planet’s resources. Photography creates an impact and can energize the public to take action in a way that peer-reviewed articles cannot.

“We’ve invested money and resources into understanding the problem of climate change, but we never invested the same amount in communicating the issues to the public,” Cristina explained. “Conservation 2.0, as we are entering the 6th extinction and climate change is in our backyard, has to be about story telling. If we are going to galvanize action around this, it is going to be because we having funding for story-telling.”

Nicklen, “Propulsion.”

Cristina and Paul co-founded Sea Legacy in 2014 to tell the story of how the world’s oceans are changing as a result of climate change. The organization aims to give voice to complicated issues of marine conservation by leveraging visual story-telling, scientific research, and advocacy.

Despite the challenges Cristina and Paul face at the front lines of this work, they are incredibly optimistic about the future. Paul remembers traveling through the Northwest Passage on assignment 17 years ago, and the scientists accompanying him on the trip were afraid to go on record to discuss climate change. Both Paul and Cristina experienced struggles with public and publishers that often only wanted to see beautiful or adorable photos of animals in the wild, rather than exploring a more complex relationship with the issues.

While these challenges still persist, they are finding that people are now increasingly taking the fight against climate change to heart with a new seriousness and intensity. “Everywhere we go, we meet amazing people who are doing little things and big things to fight climate change. So many people are doing their part, from people who are trying to eat less meat to people who are donating their entire fortunes to conservation and research,” Cristina said.

They explained that President Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate accord has jolted the world into fresh action. “Everybody has been waiting for the government to do something about climate change, and now we see that they are really not. It’s up to all of us to find solutions,” Paul said. Paul and Cristina’s hope for the future is both palpable and powerful.

“Hope is a real empowering feeling, where as fear is a defeating emotion,” Cristina said. “We have embraced hope as the guiding principle for Sea Legacy. Hope is empowerment — it is not just a pretty word.”

“At the Water’s Edge,” Paul and Cristina’s exhibit discussed in this article, is currently on view at the Paul Nicklen Gallery at 347 West Broadway in New York City.

Mittermeir, “Egg Yolk”
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