Cristina Mittermeier: How this Conservationist, Photographer, Speaker, and National Geographic 2018 Adventurer of the Year turned her passion for protecting the ocean into an amazing career
“Courage is a recurring theme in my life because it takes a lot of courage to pivot and it takes a lot of courage to go through a door into something unknown. When you have the courage to walk through that door and you don’t know where it’s gonna lead, it leads to amazing places.”
Cristina Mittermeier is an award-winning conservationist and photographer who has seen her work published in respected publications like National Geographic, Smithsonian, and Science throughout her epic career. Starting her life as a scientist, the Mexico City-born photographer began her career evolution later in life, deciding to use her camera to visually capture the changing environment.
As a child growing up in Mexico, Cristina didn’t know what she wanted to do when she grew up. She only knew that she loved nature and playing in the ocean. When a scientist came to Cristina’s school to talk about pursuing a career working on the ocean, a light went on: Cristina pursued a biology degree to work in fisheries and aquaculture. Sadly, for a young woman who dreamed of swimming with dolphins, the reality of that career was spending hours and hours on fishing boats, collecting the dead bodies of dolphins, caught in nets, and bringing them back to a lab for research. “I think when you love animals and you love nature, when you have to do that, it really kills a little bit of your soul.” Cristina graduated, knowing that this was not what she wanted to do; she also knew however, that the ocean was in trouble. “Since then, I’ve dedicated my life to trying to sound the alarm, to tell people there’s a price to all these things we do.”
After graduating university, she was unsure of her next move. “I had a friend in this small mountain town where I grew up and his uncle had a hotel in the Caribbean in a little town called Akumal. He wanted to create a protected area there, but he didn’t know how to go about it. He hired me to go live in this hotel and do a biodiversity assessment.” She didn’t really know what that meant, but she packed up and moved to this remote coastal town without pay for six months, diving and chasing butterflies. “This was the realization of my true calling. This is what I wanted to do. I wanted to understand biodiversity because it’s beautiful, it’s valuable to our existence, and it’s the key to a sustainable existence.”
Her next job was working for Conservation International, a brand new organization at the time, where she worked next to a conservation photographer, Patricio Robles Gil. Here, she saw one of the best photographers in Mexico, using his images to advocate for nature. She became his assistant, and she would join him in the field. “Then I met the man who would become my husband. He was the president of Conservation International, and he came down to sign some papers and we started dating. Six months later I was married and living in the United States. It was with him, because he always carried a camera, that I started experimenting with my own photography. I didn’t know what I was doing, but you start taking pictures and you like what you see.”
Although she was trained as a scientist, she always had an artistic streak and an interest in creating beautiful things. When she first picked up a camera, she was hooked. She loved capturing beautiful images but more than that, she loved that she was able to engage people and tell stories with her photos. “Soon after that I realized that one of the biggest gaps in conservation is just the lack of good visuals. I started taking pictures for the organization that I was working with, and it’s amazing the difference that it made for donors and for followers to all of a sudden visualize this thing that you’re talking about.”
Over the course of her career as a professional photographer, she helped coined the term conservation photographer, spotlighting the important role they play in helping our planet.
Throughout her career, the ocean has always held a special place in Cristina’s heart. “When National Geographic approached me to do a lecture series and I looked at my body of work, I thought, ‘Oh wow. 99% of everything I’ve ever photographed has been on the edge of the water somewhere.’ You don’t know why, but one of my first photography teachers said to me, “The thing that attracts you to a scene is the most important thing. Trust it.’ For me, it’s this relationship between the ocean and humanity and wildlife.”
Today, Cristina is not only a contributing photographer and speaker for National Geographic, but a leading advocate for environmental conservation. In 2014, along with partner and fellow photographer Paul Nicklen, she founded SeaLegacy, a non-profit, using the power of visual storytelling to change the narrative around our world’s oceans.
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