The dusky pink trio of feeding flamingos, the ethereal vision of a lonely humpback whale or the current of a colourful shoal of fish are only some of the rich collection of photographs that Cristina “Mitty” Mittermeier has caught and brought back to land from the depths of the natural world. With her talent and profound ecological sensibility, Cristina has become one of the leading nature photographer of our day and has co-founded SeaLegacy, a global agency for the ocean aiming to bring together climate action and sustainable solutions by supporting scientific endeavours and conservation strategies.
In her explorations of both the natural and human realms, Cristina attempts to bridge these worlds through her photography, in an attempt to instil awe and convey the beauty of ecologies that are often distant and unseen. In this interview, she tells us about how her relationship to the natural environment has developed, how her journey as a woman has affected her works, and how we must understand how much is enough in order to find harmony with our wounded and depleted earth. It all starts with a sense of enough.
Cristina, could you tell us how your journey as a photographer began and if this has changed you in any way?
I have always been a very artistic person, but my career actually began in marine sciences. I was not interested in photography at all until after I graduated from university when I started working in conservation and I just happened to share office space with a professional photographer that was doing nature photography in Mexico. I could see how he was using his photographs to try to work with corporations to change their sustainability. This was in the 1980s, before we were even talking about sustainability. And I was just fascinated by how beautiful photography can be a great way of bringing new audiences into this conversation about saving our planet. So I started taking pictures and thank goodness I had some talent for it. Here we are.
Red Curtain: "As I aimed my lens, a flurry of cardinal fish dashed past, evading a playful Galápagos sea lion hovering above. Determined to capture the mesmerizing sight, I struggled to maintain my position against the relentless current. Meanwhile, a powerful wave crashed against the rocks, its hiss echoing in the distance. Balancing amidst the swirling chaos and surrounded by a vibrant swarm of fish, I mustered the focus to press the shutter, capturing the image just in the nick of time."
What are the greatest challenges you have found, and overcome, in this journey?
There is absolutely no question that I've had challenges from being a woman, from being a Mexican, but the biggest challenge I've faced in my career is the resistance of media and the public to actually talk about the issues relating to the future and health of our planet. It's just like everybody wants to talk about pretty pictures, whilst our planet is dying. It is pretty dramatic for those of us who spend time in the front lines. You're trying to shout it out from the rooftops. We have to move faster. We have to do more. And people are in la la land… so that's the most frustrating thing really.
From your experience as founder of Sea Legacy, as well as a photographer, what is the best way you have found to overcome that? What moves people?
Trust me, I've tried it all. When you confront people with the terrible news of what's happening, it's terrifying: most people just recoil. They don't want to hear about it. They have other important things that are more pressing, more immediate, more personal. So I have found that finding a positive outlook is the best way. I always go back to thinking about Martin Luther King and his famous speech: he didn't start because he had a nightmare, he told us what the dream was. I feel that it's very important to articulate for audiences a vision of the planet that we actually want to inhabit and to talk about the possibilities of restoration and conservation and imagine having a planet in 2050 where we still have whales and elephants and that our children can actually enjoy the same beautiful planet that we had. So for me, that's the most important thing I can do in my work: to maintain a positive outlook that is very solutions oriented. That's what works.
Lady with the Goose: "Whim and humor are two of the qualities I look for in an image. In this photograph, I captured a delightful moment of a Lisu woman, belonging to one of China's Tibetan minorities, strolling through a street market in the southwestern corner of China with her companion—a pet goose."
And in your work of documenting this world that is that the dream, what role does creativity play in communicating and affecting people, particularly in times of ecological crisis?
I really feel a big responsibility, being a photographer and having a big microphone. I don't want the story to be about me. I want the story to come through me. I think that for a lot of creators and people in the creative space, it's all about their ego and about who they are. If we're going to win this battle to save our planet, we have to remove ego and we have to make it about the people that are doing the work in the frontlines, about the issues, about the solutions. And just stop talking about ourselves. It's exhausting.
Where do you place humanity within the realm of nature?
I think there's a great lessons to be learned from the indigenous people that lived everywhere on this planet just 200 years ago. Colonisation has pushed a lot of those indigenous nations to the brink of extinction and to very marginalised situations. Many indigenous people knew how to live in harmony with the planet. They had a sense of community and communion with the resources that supported them. Somehow, in the last 200 years, we have really lost sight of the fact that we are on a spaceship carrying us across the universe. And we not only know very little about how it works, we are abusing it: it's like letting a bunch of chimpanzees loose on an international flight. At some point, the thing is going to come crashing down and it's going to take all of humanity with it: not just the ones that are at fault, but all the innocent ones as well. So my view of humanity is that we either get together on a vision to keep our spaceship going into the future and stop being selfish and myopic, or the consequences will come and they're coming already. They're knocking on our doors. These wildfires, these floods, they're closing in on us. They're getting closer and closer to everybody's front door.
"The minute I slipped into the water, I was greeted by the soulful timbre of this lone humpback whale. He belted out his love song to the abyss, alternating between dark rumbles and piercing high notes. While all humpbacks call to one another in their own special languages, only the males will sing like this. Each male has his own unique melody, and their underwater concerts can last up to 20 minutes. The reason why males sing is still somewhat mysterious. Most people assume they are serenading nearby females in hopes of attracting a mate. But more recent studies have suggested their songs may actually help them find female whales by creating a kind of map of their surroundings. In any case, I felt honored to listen to such a wonderful performance."
What is enoughness, to you? This will be the theme of the solo exhibition that you'll soon be presenting in Turin, could you please expand on this and what it means to you?
Sure. It’s a concept that came to me while spending time with indigenous people and realising their sense of contentment, despite the fact that they don't live like we do. They are so happy and so content because they know how much is enough. Enough to feed your family, enough to have a roof over your head. Enough is different for everybody, but you can only achieve happiness when you know how much is enough for you. The pursuit of achieving more, more, more is what leads us to depression and anxiety and over-consumerism and living shallow lives. So enoughness is about knowing how much is enough and when you have enough, knowing how to give back enough, how to support your community, how to support your planet. That's what enoughness is. A sense of enough.
When you're looking for something to photograph, when you're immersing yourself in nature, how does imagination play in that relationship between you and nature?
I see myself as an interpreter, as me standing with my camera in the middle of a bridge. It's almost like a like a semi-permeable membrane: on one side you have your subject and on the other side of the membrane you have your audience. And you're just the conduit for a conversation between what's happening in front of the camera, which most people will never get to see in person, and the people that are looking at an exhibit or a magazine. You're just facilitating this conversation, trying to build a bridge of empathy and hoping that your photographs will allow people to imagine themselves in this place in nature, as part of the spaceship with our fellow travellers, all the animals that are going with us.
Pink Dancers: "As the sun set, casting a gentle haze over the horizon, I ventured into Mexico's Ría Lagartos, immersing myself in its tranquil waters. I focused my camera on a trio of flamingos, gracefully bending their long necks to peer into the pink-stained shallows. They diligently sought out the brine shrimp, responsible for their vibrant coral plumage. Ría Lagartos, known as the Alligator River, despite its name, is not a river and lacks any alligators. Instead, it encompasses a vast coastal wetland teeming with crocodiles and vibrant flocks of flamingos."
You started out as a as a scientist, as a marine biologist, and then became a photographer. How has your relationship to nature itself transformed throughout your career?
I grew up in Mexico, in a small city where there was a lot of outdoors opportunity for me. So I grew up with cows and running amongst fields and that was nature. I remember the wonder of finding a little nest with an egg and just watching that thing for days. I became a scientist because curiosity is such an important quality that we can instil in children, and I was curious. There was talk in the 1980s about whether or not the ocean could feed humanity, and we didn’t know. We thought that it was infinite. We thought that the fish would never run out. I learned a lot as a scientist and I spent four years looking at the ocean with a microscope and understanding the complexity of this ecosystem we know nothing about. Did you know that last month they discovered 5000 new species at the bottom of the ocean? We honestly don't know how it works. So my relationship with nature has changed from a mere curiosity to a truly active engagement: I love feeling like a very small part of a very big ecosystem. We are so arrogant as humans, we look at nature and at other animals through the lens of our own arrogance and we deem them to be incomplete and inferior. And that is, I think, a very myopic and defeating way of living on a planet that supports us just because there is nature.
In times of such ecological struggle, what gives you hope?
I really love knowing that there's so many people out there that care and are doing their part. The people in my team are so committed and so passionate and everybody's doing their piece to advance the solutions. Everywhere I go, I meet hundreds, thousands of people that are doing their part. Some of them are doing it with financial instruments, others are doing it with innovation. Others are doing it within their corporate structures. We all can play a role. You, interviewing me and trying to give me a microphone to a new audience, are doing your part as well, and that gives me hope.
"A Suri mother with her child, both decorated with the makeup of their tribe. She passes down the traditions of her culture to her children, cherishing their heritage, instilling an understanding that their cultural richness is invaluable to their way of life."
What is womanhood, to you?
First of all, I'm a mother, so being a mother is the biggest responsibility of my life. I am very, very driven by this need to show my children that I'm doing my part and also hoping that they have a better planet to live in. But being a woman has its challenges, especially in photography. Nature photography is very male dominated. I remember the beginning of my career was very challenging: you get all these big macho alpha men, they come in and they know everything better and they're stronger and they have the bigger lenses. So I asked myself, what's my superpower? And it is being a woman. It is being able to see the world in a more feminine way. It is being part of a very large sisterhood all around the planet that lifts each other up because we are all part of a marginalised gender. I love being part of that. When I go to work in indigenous communities, it is the women that bring me in and it's the women that defend me and the women that give me access to all of that. I want to be a role model. I want young women to be able to imagine themselves being scientists and being at the top of the photography world, and you don't have to do it by putting on a tiny bathing suit and showing everybody your body. You can do it by showing everybody your skills, which is a more durable way of being a woman.
All images courtesy of Cristina Mittermeier and her team