Interview of the Week: Brian Skerry, National Geographic Photojournalist

Brian Skerry is the 2019 NOGI Award Winner (“The Underwater Oscar”), the author of numerous beautiful photo books, and a fantastic Friend of the Planet.  Here are some of the highlights of our talk with him.

ODP:  Tell us about how you view your work as a photojournalist and storyteller?

BS:  I have always viewed myself as a photojournalist…Human beings are especially visual creatures — we respond emotionally, sometimes viscerally to powerful pictures…There are great scientific papers out there that probably go largely go unread by the population of the world but a single photograph can communicate those issues very effectively. I need to understand the science, that’s essential.  I have to get it right. But, what I am trying to capture is that poetry, that essence that will make people remember it forever.

ODP: Why do you love telling stories about the ocean in particular?  What drew you there?

BS:  I grew up in a mill town….My parents took me to the beaches of Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Cape Cod as a child.  And my earliest memories are falling in love with the sea.  I would drive home in the back seat of the car all sunburned and salty.  And there was this great sense of peace and relaxation inside of me. But also this great desire to explore.  The ocean to me always represented a place with infinite potential for discovery….

ODP:   You talked about how a photo can capture a moment and really crystallize an idea.  What’s the one that gets to you the most?

BS:  ….I always go to a photo called Earth Rise, which was made by the Apollo astronauts on Christmas Eve in 1968, a time when there was so much tumultuous upheaval in our nation in the U.S. with race riots not unlike what we are seeing today and assassinations.  It had been a very troubling year.  On Christmas Eve from the Apollo spacecraft, the astronaut made this picture of the Earth rising with the moon in the foreground….I think we saw how beautiful our planet is in the loneliness of space…we also instantly saw that we live on a water planet….if for no other reason than for our own self-interest, we need to explore and protect this planet as science tells us and we have not done a very good job of that……

ODP:  What are you seeing in the ocean that concerns you now?

BS:  …Science tells us that we need to protect about 40% of Earth’s ocean to have a healthy future going forward and today…most statistics would say that we are at about 2% or 3% now so we have a long way to go….In 2016, I was doing a story for National Geographic about saving our ocean…looking at the celebration around the centennial anniversary of the National Park Service…and using that as a way to look to the future and protecting America’s oceans where we have not done quite as good a job. … [President] Obama understood that and embraced it and wanted to protect places in the ocean, expand existing protections which he did in the NW Hawaiian islands [National Monument] and I was privileged to be there when he marked that occasion….

Thank you, Brian, and congrats on the fantastic NOGI award win!  

To Go Deeper: For the full interview, click here. And watch this National Geographic Live program, and this video of him describing photographing President Obama snorkeling!

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