Through the photographer’s lens, hope for humanity and conservation emerge. Cristina Mittermeier steadies her camera on people, wildlife, and landscapes in some of the most remote and majestic parts of the world, from Africa and Madagascar to Suriname and Mexico, and places in between. Her aim as a photographer is to show not only how the world is, but how it can be for people and the environment when action is taken to protect natural resources through conservation and education.
Mittermeier is Executive Director of the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP), an important CI partner. She grew up just outside of Mexico City, becoming interested in conservation after she read The Population Bomb by Paul R. Ehrlich, which depicts a world of starvation and despair resulting from overpopulation.
Looking to the oceans as a means to help feed and sustain the world’s growing population, Mittermeier earned her degree in Marine Biology in Sonora, Mexico, in 1989. But during her studies, she realized that relying on the ocean to feed the world was unsustainable, and that conservation was the key to saving humanity. “If you live on this planet, you should be interested in conservation,” she says.
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Mittermeier began working for CI in 1990 as a technical consultant for programs in Mexico and later married CI President Dr. Russell Mittermeier. She also studied photography at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. “Now I run an organization (iLCP) that is not part of CI,” she relates, “but empowers CI.”
Advancing CI’s Mission through Photography
iLCP specializes in the production and dissemination of conservation messages through photography.
“CI is one of our greatest partners, because CI tends to be very visceral and image-based in the delivery of its conservation messages,” she says. “We are perfectly positioned to be one of the strongest partners to deliver that message, with 120 of the best photographers in the world providing a broad array of unique skills in telling the story of our planet from the perspectives of wildlife, the landscape, the cultural communities, and sustainability.”
When the iLCP’s incredible imagery is combined with CI’s conservation message, the natural result is compelling communications that promote conservation action.
One of iLCP’s signature actions are RAVE (Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition) projects, born in 2007 out of CI’s Rapid Assessment Program (RAP). Instead of sending scientists into remote areas for biodiversity assessments, as RAP does, RAVEs put photographers on the ground to document themes like deforestation, biodiversity, freshwater, wildlife trade, rural communities, tourism development, and climate change.
Hot Pink + Climate Change
Photography “shows the story of humans and nature and what happens when you lose biodiversity—the violent conflict that results,” Mittermeier says. Displaying this “collision” of humanity and the environment is one of her main photographic goals. One outlet is through her new “Hot Pink” project, which showcases how the empowerment of women provides lasting benefits.
For example, women who receive microloans can start their own businesses and become financially independent. Many who had previously resorted to wood-collecting and burning to provide for their families are able to adopt more sustainable ways of living. When they do, trees are left standing and less burning occurs, helping to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. It also frees up time for women to pursue an education.
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“By empowering women, you are making real changes in communities and ultimately the environment,” she relates. The Hot Pink project captures these individual journeys. “This is journalistic photography giving a voice to women that are trapped in this situation and also the women who have found a way.”
With a science background and artistic talent, Mittermeier skillfully weaves together her knowledge and art for the purpose of conservation. She believes that everyone can contribute in his or her own way. “Everybody has their own talent to contribute to a better planet. Everybody has the ability to influence others.”
However, the intermingling of these two characteristics sometimes creates conflict within. “It’s very hard to be a journalist and a conservationist at times. As a journalist, you come in as an observer, use the camera to tell a story, and then remove yourself. It’s very difficult when you are also a conservationist. I struggle a lot when I ask myself, ‘How can I help these people while trying to maintain my journalistic integrity?’
“That’s why it’s wonderful to have partners like CI, because I know my photos will empower CI to do what needs to be done to help those people.”
For A Hopeful Future
As the mother of three, helping people and striving to maintain a healthy planet for her own and other children is one of the strongest motivations for Mittermeier’s work. “I am deeply saddened by the suffering and poverty that I encounter in parts of the world,” she says. “To see mothers in such poverty and watching their children die, knowing nothing can be done, makes me deeply sad.”
However, her dominant feeling—and what she expresses to the world through her work—is hope. “I see a lot of misery and poverty, devastation, when I travel,” says Mittermeier. “Yet I also see a common vein among people: the simple wish to find some happiness in life.
“As a photographer, you can make a choice to be dramatic and show people in their despair, but I refuse to fulfill the prophecy of a doomed planet,” she says. “Instead, I try to find moments of humanity when people are happy, especially children, and try to convey a sense of hope. If we can portray that hope, then we can fulfill that prophecy.”
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