Diving into Secrets of the Whales with Brian Skerry
Famed underwater photographer Brian Skerry has traveled the world to document the culture of whale species. His years of work culminated in a National Geographic book and a Disney+ series titled, Secrets of the Whales.
“How do you photograph whale culture?!”
That's what one very esteemed photo editor asked Brian Skerry when he told her about his project.
It's an important question. Culture difficult enough to photograph well when it comes to humans. And Skerry was floating the concept for not just one, but many species of whale.
But, the goal – what could come of this project – drove Skerry forward to find answers and create spectacularly beautiful images.
He hopes that by seeing whale culture across the planet, we humans will understand whales as our equals and quit destroying the oceans they in habit.
It's a big, audacious goal… the perfect kind of goal for a world-famous, well-loved photographer like Brian Skerry.
He joins us to talk about:
- what it was like to photograph this project
- his process for researching and organizing his shots
- the response he's received since the book hit stands
- how to craft multiple stories on the same topic and keep audience attention
- the trouble with compassion fatigue for conservation visual storytellers
- how to zero in on positive, solutions-driven messages
- where Skerry has failed during his career
- advice he has for aspiring conservation photographers
Episode 078: Diving into Secrets of the Whales with Brian Skerry
(Digitally transcribed, please forgive any typos)
Quite a few years ago, I had the joy of interviewing Brian Skerry. He's an underwater photographer for National Geographic and is just world-renowned for his photography, for the stories that he brings to the pages of National Geographic, and for me, most importantly, the conservation stories that he brings to light. He has for decades brought us stories that have really profound conservation messages. He's illuminating what's really going on in our oceans for so many people, and so it was this kind of a big deal for me to be able to interview him for this profile piece that I was writing.
0:00:40.0 JH: So he hops on a call, we sit down, we have 45 minutes or an hour of conversation, and then away he goes, off to his busy life. Fast forward a couple of years, and I'm at this conference that Brian Skerry is also at, and I see him from across the room. He's chatting with someone, and I turn to my friend and I'm like, "Oh my gosh, that's Brian Skerry. I admire him so much. I interviewed him once a while ago, I would love to say hi, I know that he would never remember me. I don't wanna interrupt the conversation."
0:01:10.0 JH: And you know, you go into that spiral of all the reasons why you're not gonna go and say hello to another normal human being? And my friend just elbows me and says, "Jaymi, go say hi." So I walk across the room and I kind of stand at the edge of the conversation, you know that awkward thing that you do when you're waiting for the people who are talking to each other to kind of turn and acknowledge you, so you have that in? So I'm standing there and they turn to me and I say, "You know, I don't wanna interrupt, but I interviewed you a while back, I just wanted to say hi. I know you'll never remember me, but my name is Jaymi Heimbuch, and he's like, "Jaymi! No, I definitely remember you."
0:01:44.9 JH: And he remembered the interview, he remembered who I was, and it was this amazing moment for me, because not only was it this great opportunity for me to say hello face-to-face to someone who I really admire for just sheer photographic conservation storytelling talent, but it also cemented for me an indisputable fact, and that is that Brian Skerry is hands down the world's nicest world-famous photographer. He is just a wonderful human being to talk to, so I'm overjoyed yet again that he said yes to coming on the podcast to talk about his latest project, Secrets of the Whales.
0:02:26.0 JH: Secrets of the Whales is a three-year endeavor to document the culture of whale species around the globe, it's become a book, a National Geographic cover story, a Disney+ series, and because of all of the time and energy and effort that went into it, it's no wonder that it is changing the way that people think about whales, changing the way that they think about the oceans in which the whales live, and hopefully changing behaviors to help protect whales and the oceans.
0:02:58.0 JH: In this interview we talk with Brian about not only that project, but about his career as a conservation photographer, some of the ups and downs, and of course, some of the insights that he has for the rest of us. So without further ado, let's dive in.
0:03:16.3 JH: Welcome to Impact, the conservation photography podcast. I'm your host, Jaymi Heimbuch. And if you are a visual storyteller with a love for all things wild then you're in the right place. From conservation to creativity, from business to marketing and everything in between, this podcast is for you, the conservation visual storyteller who is ready to make an impact. Let's dive in.
0:03:48.0 JH: Brian, welcome to Impact, the conservation photography podcast. I am absolutely thrilled that you're joining us today.
0:03:56.2 Brian Skerry: So great to be here, Jaymi, a real pleasure, thanks.
0:03:58.4 JH: Awesome. Well, I have to admit that usually when I talk about you I say that you are hands down the number one nicest famous photographer out there, so I really appreciate you taking time to join us, but I know that you've been so busy with Secrets of the Whales.
0:04:13.9 BS: Well, first of all, thank you for the very kind description. But yeah, it has been especially busy. I've commented to family and friends recently that I've been working for National Geographic for about 23 years now, and there were times where I was working on five stories at a time, which was just insane in past years. So working on Secrets of the Whales was wonderful. When I created it, it was the only thing I was working on. That being said, it was a very ambitious project. I sold it to the magazine and then as a fellowship, and then TV and the book, so it grew organically but it did require an intense effort, but it was all fantastic.
0:05:00.0 JH: Wow, wonderful. And it's been a three-year effort. Is that correct?
0:05:04.3 BS: That's right. Yeah, three years. So I actually spent the two previous years, at least two, if not more, doing the research, more intensive research on how the narrative would take shape and what places I wanted to go, sort of the nuts and bolts logistics of it all. But then once we went into the field it was three solid years, and we literally got it in just under the wire before the pandemic struck and we were all locked down. So the timing was good, at least in terms of having all the captured material in the can.
0:05:41.1 JH: So you've been photographing underwater for decades, and then you went into this very specific project, was there a catalyst that made you say, "I really wanna just focus on whales"?
0:05:53.5 BS: Yeah, there was. It's a great question. I would say there was at least a couple of real reasons why I wanted to do this. First of all, for context, I think this, as a storyteller, was a very unique story to me. Over the years the sort of trajectory or the evolution of my own work, my own career, was that in the beginning, like many photographers, I just wanted to make nice pictures, beautiful images of places or animals in which I was interested. And then of course, over the years, I began to see so many problems occurring in the world's oceans that I felt a sense of responsibility and urgency to tell those stories. So, for many years I was focused on habitat loss, endangered species, threats to the ocean from overfishing or climate change, all of those kinds of things. And I think all of that is important, but as you evolve as a storyteller, at least for me, I...
0:06:54.0 BS: Although those things are important, I wanna find new ways of grabbing people's attention. Some people do respond to those war-photography-like images, you know, a dead shark in a net or sharks being finned, or animals in peril.
0:07:10.0 BS: We need to see that. I think that's very important, but I also think we need to be inspired, we need to fall in love, we need to see some really cool things. So that was sort of always in the back of my mind, I'm always looking for new ways to revisit certain stories or come up with new stories. On top of that, I happen to love whales, I really enjoy being in the water with whales and dolphins. I think they're fascinating. My last previous big whale story was in 2008 for National Geographic, it was about the most endangered whale in the world, the North Atlantic right whale, and I compared and contrasted them with their southern cousins, the Southern right whales.
0:07:48.8 BS: And since that time, I was interested in doing a multi-species story about whales, but the challenge was what the narrative would be. In 2015 I did a cover story for National Geographic about dolphin intelligence, and one of the things that I did with that story, one of the cognitive biologists that I worked with at the beginning, I asked him, like many people, I said, "You know, how smart are dolphins?", and he said, "You know, Brian, the truth is we don't know, but maybe a better question is how do we know dolphins are smart?"
0:08:18.5 BS: And he says, because the truth is they have big brains but they're very different than humans, they see their world acoustically and they're voluntary breathers, and they do all these things quite different than us." So he said, "What we do as scientists is we try to measure the ways that we know they're smart." So that included problem solving and social behaviors and feeding strategies, the fact that they're one of the only unique animals that create different feeding strategies, depending where they live.
0:08:45.3 BS: So that's how I approached my coverage, and I was looking at it very clinically, very scientifically. And what I didn't quite realize then, and I learned within a year or so after that, was that what I was really looking at was their culture. One of the scientists that I worked with early on with my whale culture project, and throughout has become a good friend, Dr. Shane Gero, who studies Sperm whales in the Eastern Caribbean near Dominica, and he and his mentor Hal Whitehead and other scientists had been writing about this notion of whale culture.
0:09:17.8 BS: So my evolution was that I wanted to do a whale story with multiple species, wasn't sure of what the narrative would be, I started reading scientific papers, studying research and talking to scientists, and then saw this notion of culture emerging. And as I extrapolated beyond what Shane was doing with Sperm whales and dialects and clans and so forth that isolate by language, I looked at other species and said, "There's a real story here."
0:09:45.8 BS: And without overtly being about conservation, it was really about the latest and greatest science that was revealing these human-like traits in these charismatic ocean animals. I felt that we could maybe have the most powerful conservation story, because if people could see the ocean in a new way through the lens of culture with these families and animals that have rich ancestral traditions, then that could be a game changer. So that was... That's a very long answer to your question, but that was sort of the evolution of how that project came to be.
0:10:19.1 JH: Wow, that broke open so many follow-up questions, because one of the big questions that I have for you is, you talked so much about basically having a topic that you really wanted to address and having to find a story. Is that a really common process for you in terms of digging into the research and trying to figure out, "How do I move from topic into story, I'm gonna look for a nugget in the research", or are there other strategies that you use?
0:10:46.9 BS: It's really a great question. I would say that it is a way that I approach stories sometimes, but they can manifest themselves in a variety of ways. Often times I start out wanting to do a story about a given animal, let's say that I'm just interested in, but I realize that I can't... You know, the days at a magazine like National Geographic of just doing a story on an animal because it's cool, because we haven't seen a story in the magazine on that before or something, those days are over. You really have to have relevance these days. If you're doing a story you have to compete with not only other wildlife photographers but other photographers who are doing really important stories about social documentary issues or conflict or many other subjects, archaeology, history.
0:11:34.8 BS: So you have to pitch a story that matters, that has relevance. So a lot of times I'll say, "Look, I wanna do a story on great white sharks, I love sharks", but what's new and interesting about great white sharks? What's the science showing us? So that is one way I'll do it, and I'll go in and it might take years, sometimes many years to have a little folder of material that I'm collecting, and I'm teasing it out and I realize it's not ready for prime time yet. It's not there. I haven't got it shaped perfectly.
0:12:10.8 BS: Other times I just hear about an issue, there's this thing going on, and I say that that needs to be covered. And then you drill down on that and say, whatever it might be, "There's an ecosystem problem or there's some environmental threat." Well then it's about, "What are the photographic elements to it? How can I make pictures of that? Where do I have to go, what do I have to do, who do I have to work with with?" Those are common issues in any story, but sometimes you hear about a thing and you just wanna go for that, other times I start with I love a certain animal, I love Sperm whales or Beluga whales or whatever, so I wanna do a story on that. And that was how it was with whales, but the stories can come from different places, I guess.
0:12:58.8 JH: Wow. Such a great answer to that 'cause there's so many... One of the big topics that I talk about a lot with the people that I work with, with my students for conservation photography, is how do you take a concept and really zero in on the storyline that draws people in and, like you said, makes it really relevant. And one of the things that you said that I find really interesting is that you're competing with so many other things that are important for everybody to know about, and knowing that you've had to shift the way that you think about and pitch stories in order to pursue them, has that changed your thoughts about you and your role as a photographer? Has it changed the way that you view your importance in bringing these stories to light?
0:13:46.3 BS: Yes. I mean, I don't think about my importance, but I do think about how to get people's attention as a storyteller. I like to think that I have evolved, that the stories that I'm doing today are different in some respect. Obviously there's common threads: I'm working in the ocean, I'm working with wildlife, there's a lot of commonality. But I'm very interested in... I don't know if I wanna say "more complex storytelling", but I'm interested in the things that will motivate people. I'm very interested in a whole range of things. What I look to in the future for myself is how to really blend many issues.
0:14:39.1 BS: These are wildlife issues, these are conservation issues, these are things that I ultimately would like to see happen, I would like people to change their behavior because they know that these whales have rich cultures, and that they say, "Oh my goodness, now I care." One of the things I wrote in my proposal was that there's a multi-billion dollar whale-watching industry on planet Earth, where people get on boats all over the world, they go out and they see a whale breach or a tail slap and then they eat a hamburger and they go home, and they don't really know. But there's a desire, people care about whales, they have for centuries, for eons, but we don't really know much about their lives. And now I was seeing that the science was showing these amazing things, that it was revealing that they have really complex social structures and things that matter to them, that identity mattered to whales, that their children matter to them, that they invest, that their teaching...
0:15:36.2 BS: It's generational learning, grandmothers are teaching the grandchildren, and that they live longer because there's a grandmother in the family unit, and these kinds of things. And I felt... So that gets at your question, in the sense that for me the importance of a story is up to the individual, but I like to try to relate it to us, because ultimately we are the ones that are creating these anthropogenic stresses that are hurting the planet. So if I can get people to care a little bit differently, and maybe that's appealing to the family aspect, or maybe it's spirituality, or maybe it's...
0:16:15.6 BS: These are the themes that I'm interested in exploring as a storyteller as I go forward. It's gotta be rooted in science, it has to be based on a foundation that is solid and can be provable. But beyond that, I think we can dig a little deeper to see how it connects to us, because ultimately what I've learned after 40 years of exploring the sea is that everything is connected. So if I can bring it back home, then that's where I feel I'm doing some good.
0:16:45.5 JH: Yeah. And you mentioned that Secrets of the Whales is not overtly a conservation story, but ultimately you could have conservation goals. Was that really important to you, to sort of like... I don't wanna say "hide the message", but not hammer people over the head with that coming out of the gate?
0:17:03.8 BS: It was very important, yeah. I feared, even a decade ago or more, that I was becoming the baron of doom at National Geographic, I was doing all these stories about dead sharks and dead turtles, and all I was doing was preaching doom and gloom. Now, to be fair, there was always a solution component, if I did a story I didn't just say these things were terrible and it's over, I would always say "This is what we need to do, we need more marine-protected areas, we need to manage fisheries more efficiently, we need to reduce carbon. And these are the ways that we can do it as individuals, as societies, as countries."
0:17:45.1 BS: So there's always a solution, but still at this point in my life I am looking for positive stories, but I don't wanna be Pollyanna about it. I don't wanna be all rosy, because it's not. We are in serious trouble, I believe that there's a very small window of opportunity where we can get this right, and if we don't it could be devastating. But you have to understand human psychology, and I'm no psychologist, but it has been shown that people do, as Cousteau said, protect what we love.
0:18:19.1 BS: So if we can get them to love these things, or at least respect them. When I did... I did four consecutive shark stories for National Geographic in 2016-2017. We did four in a row, which was unprecedented at the magazine to dedicate that much real estate in the magazine, that many pages, to a genre of animals. But it was important because we really wanted to shine a bright light on giving these animals a makeover. I wanted to show some of the most "dangerous" species, but give them importance.
0:18:51.1 BS: I had no illusion that people would ever feel the same way about a fish as they do a furry mammal in the forest perhaps, but if they could see the magnificence, the evolutionary biology, and how wonderful they are and how they play an important role in the ecosystem, then that was good. So those four stories were not showing much in the way of shark finning or dead sharks or anything, it was just celebrating sharks. But the message was that "The reason we're showing you this is because we want to stop killing 100 million sharks every year." But it was getting people to care, or fall in love, for lack of a better way of saying it.
0:19:25.0 BS: And that was a derivative of what I did with Secrets of the Whales, it was more about showing some really cool science that was revealing these things that are very human-like, that they grieve, that they celebrate joy. So I think if we can get people to see things that way, it might change our behavior, particularly if we give them solutions and say, "Stop maybe doing this, or if there's a better way to do this, or eat different foods", or give them choices. So, yeah.
0:19:54.2 JH: So, Secrets of the Whales has been out... It sort of broke open into the world on Earth Day, and it's been a few weeks now, or I guess, what, six, seven weeks? What response have you seen from this massive effort so far, especially in terms of people having the kind of epiphany reactions that you were hoping for?
0:20:15.8 BS: It's really been interesting, Jaymi. The reaction has been overwhelming, very, very positive, even more than I could have anticipated. There's been great media interest in it, but there's been great individual interest in it. My website contact form has been very busy. And the interesting thing is it's from people of all walks of life. I've gotten a bunch in just the last week from parents writing about their kids, their eight-year-old little boy or six-year-old little daughter, who just loves Secrets of the Whales and they're watching it all the time, and they wanna know more about it, and they want me to write back to them, and I do, whenever I have time.
0:20:58.8 BS: And I had a guy come by my house yesterday, I live in Maine, and he drove up from Massachusetts. He used to work at a camera store and I'd met him years ago, decades ago, I hadn't seen him, but he came up and wanted me to sign a few books for him, and he was saying how much he's enjoyed it. And he's got a mother, his mom is 89 years old, and she lost her husband, his dad, earlier this year, so he now, the son, has been going over to do movie nights once a week with his mom, and they've been watching Secrets of the Whales the last few weeks, they watch one episode a week, 'cause his 89-year-old mother, he said, just absolutely loves it.
0:21:37.3 BS: I also, I had a guy come by, a guy who does some work for me here at the house, we had some repairs that needed to be done, this guy's a real craftsman, and he came over yesterday, I hadn't seen him in several months, and he walked in the door, we always banter about different things and what he's up to, he likes to go fishing and do stuff, but he came in and he shook my hand and he said, "Jeez, Brian, you're changing the world with Secrets of the Whales." He said, "It's getting people to see things in a new way." Now, I'd never talked to him about that. He didn't hear any of the stuff that I'd said about that, he's not tuned into this world necessarily, but he said those very words, which was what I just said to you, that's what I hoped we could get people to do, is see things a little bit differently.
0:22:17.9 BS: So those anecdotal reports that I get from people, whether it's an email from a website contact form or somebody coming to my house... And of course, they're gonna say nice things, I suppose, but they didn't have to say that. And then I was on with Anderson Cooper a couple weeks ago, and he was just all jazzed up about it, or ABC's Nightline. I'm going out with CBS News tomorrow to do some stuff with whales, and they wanna feature it because they're buzzed about it.
0:22:43.8 BS: So, I think at multiple levels it has touched a nerve in a good way. I remember years ago I spent a month with Peter Benchley in Cuba, diving every day, and we were talking about Jaws, when he wrote Jaws, and he mentioned to me that inadvertently he had touched a nerve, a primal thing inside people about this fear of being eaten by a monster that they couldn't see in the ocean. And he couldn't have known that that was gonna react that way. And I'd like to think in a small way maybe Secrets of the Whales is reaching people in a good way, that it's showing them something positive.
0:23:21.0 JH: I wonder... So a book that I love is Frans de Waal's "Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?", and one of the things that I think resonates so much with people is that you've given us a way to see ourselves in other species, these things that are really deep and profound to us, which is family, culture, tradition, and that I don't think has been something that we've been able to feel safe about doing, because of the rigidity of science over time, and the evolution of science being something that we don't anthropomorphise, we don't project ourselves into something else.
0:24:01.3 JH: But I feel like we're watching an evolution of science by saying "We're not trying to project ourselves or anthropomorphise, but we are trying to recognize similarities that do exist", as you said, are provable. Things like family life and culture and knowledge passed down. I'm so curious to ask you about your thought process in feeling comfortable in showing this side, this very human-like side of a mammal species that we're not that distantly far from, really, when we talk about the evolutionary tree. What is it like to pry into something that is so familiar, so human-like, even though over time that maybe wasn't something that could have been safe to do forty years ago?
0:24:51.4 BS: You nailed it, Jaymi, that is right on the money. For so many years, when I was doing this kind of work, scientists were absolutely resistant to giving any credence or credibility to animals having personality or, God forbid, culture. They were just animals. At best you would give them a number, if you were studying animals that you saw repeatedly, and you didn't wanna anthropomorphise at all. There has been a change in science, at least... Again, I'm just going by my experience, but I, over the years, when I had the opportunity to spend time with a given population of animals, like let's say sharks, I would work with Tiger sharks in the Bahamas, for even 10 days or something, and you would see the same animals over and over again. And that's a very small sample size and it's a very small amount of time, but I felt as though I was seeing personality, that certain sharks were a little bit more bold, others were a little bit more shy, some... I don't know if I'd say "playful", but there seemed to be, to some degree, personality traits that we could attribute to them. But way back when scientists would never ever go out on a lemon, say that.
0:26:08.1 BS: And again, I'm generalizing, there were probably those who did, but not that many. But that has definitely changed. Even the most dyed-in-the-wool scientist that I used to work with, guys that I did shark diving with back in the early 1980s who are very noted scientists today, shark biologists, will admit that these animals do have what we could call personality, for lack of a better word.
0:26:31.8 BS: And I think... So, my hesitance or reluctance or willingness to go into those kinds of themes as a photographer, as a storyteller, as a journalist, are completely dictated, or 90% dictated, by the science. So I wouldn't have felt comfortable doing a project about whale culture if it was just me and some crystal-hugging buddies of mine or something. Before I ever put pen to paper and wrote that proposal I was highly confident that the things I was going to say or try to photograph were going to be things that were scientifically documented in scientific literature. I mean, there's a book on my bookshelf here in my studio that provided a lot of that basis, and it's The Cultural Lives of Dolphins and Whales by Hal Whitehead.
0:27:29.0 BS: Now, Hal Whitehead is this legend in the whale biology world, he spent his life studying sperm whales and other whales. He is not prone to hyperbole or fanciful depictions of whales. These are scientists that are by the book in every way possible. And his student is Shane Garo, who I worked with in the field on this project, and with Hal. I worked with Andy Szabo, I worked with researchers in almost every location. Andy Szabo in Alaska with humpbacks and Nan Hauser in the Pacific. And at most locations we were working with researchers who were looking at these very things, they were studying the whales, depending on the species, their dialects or their feeding strategies, their social behaviors, all of these things.
0:28:17.8 BS: So I felt very comfortable because one of the things I always caution younger or emerging photographers about is making sure you get the story right. If you're a conservation photographer, the last thing you wanna do is take shortcuts, you don't wanna fudge something because you think it's true or know it's true but somebody can poke holes in it, because that will set everything back a million years. So we have to go very hard to maintain that journalistic integrity. But with whales and whale culture I think it was very fine with me, I wasn't worried about it, because the science absolutely supported it.
0:28:56.4 BS: Now, that being said, might I extrapolate a little bit? Sure. I saw and photographed, and we filmed, an Orca mother carrying her dead calf in the Norwegian Arctic. This was on Thanksgiving Day, it was the first time I had ever been away from my own family on Thanksgiving. I travel 8 or 9 months a year for 25 years, but I always manage to be home for some of the bigger holidays, and I had to be in Norway on Thanksgiving because that's when the Orca were there. So I remember that day, it was a cold snowy day, I woke up in the morning, put on my wetsuit, went out, I was thinking about my family eating turkey or celebrating back home.
0:29:36.8 BS: But I saw this family of Orca moving very purposely through the fjord, jumped in the water a few times and saw this mom with a calf draped over her head, and I can describe that in no other way than grief. It seemed like a mother who refused to let go, who was grieving. The family was behaving very... "Purposefully" is the only way I can say it. It was like a funeral procession. Now, that is me saying what I observed and what I think, and I'm okay with that. A scientist might say, "Well, we don't know why she was carrying it. Or did one of them kill the whale? We don't know."
0:30:17.5 BS: I mean, we know that there's a high mortality rate with Orca because of the heavy metals and PCBS and toxins and so forth that get into the tissues of the mom and they get passed on in utero and the calf can't handle it and they often die. We didn't do a necropsy on that little guy, we don't know what happened to it, so there's a lot of "what ifs", and that's me going a little bit astray in saying I think it was grief. But I think it was.
0:30:42.8 BS: I think I'm okay with saying that. And the other stuff is definitely founded. So I've often described what I do as parachuting into the lives of researchers and trying to give visual context to their work. A guy like Shane has spent 15 years studying these Sperm whales near Dominica, and I wanted to go there and spend months, two, three, more months, whatever, to try to get pictures that would give a visualization to his science. And that's what I try to do in every location.
0:31:19.1 JH: A while back you mentioned that you used to be kind of like the bearer of doom and gloom and everything was a very difficult story, and this one in particular, this large project, feels like there's so much hope and joy and light inside of it. And I'm curious about your... How you handle things like compassion fatigue, and do you look for ways to show stories that help you as the storyteller but also the audience handle compassion fatigue and the difficulty of this in ways that are, I guess, less traumatizing?
0:31:58.9 BS: Yeah, I guess I do. It's very insightful, Jaymi. I don't know that it's overly conscious, but I think after years of seeing so many terrible things out there I think I do try to look for things that make me feel good and offer hope.
0:32:19.5 BS: Because if there's no hope what's the point? I get very depressed. I spent... In 2007, I did a cover story on the global fisheries crisis, and it was one of the first big, I think, ocean stories at National Geographic that really focused on environmental problems. And as I often say, I went into that story... I wanted to approach it more like a war photographer, a conflict photographer, I didn't want it to be a pretty underwater story, obviously, I wanted to show images of what was happening to marine wildlife around the planet through the collection for seafood. Because it's one of the things that humans eat all over the planet, but it's done in a way that's not like other forms of agriculture.
0:33:02.3 BS: It's, in many cases, unless it's aquaculture, in many cases we are eating wildlife, but we don't often think of it that way. So I spent two years traveling around the world trying to photograph components, elements of that story that I felt were essential. And I became physically depressed. It was bad, everywhere I was going I was seeing horrible things. I'd be in some tropical location and see gill nets in a Mangrove, and they were catching little fish that were two or three inches long, and that's what they were gonna eat. Or bottom trawlers that were destroying the ocean, and bycatch and dead sharks and finning and plunging stock assessments of so many of the animals that used to be plentiful in the ocean.
0:33:49.3 BS: I mean, I wasn't sleeping well during that time, I was traveling and there's jet lag and stress and you're just not... I remember I was staying... I think we were in maybe a final show at National Geographic, we were editing, or I was editing with my editor at the time, Kathy Moran, at National Geographic, and I think I was staying at her house near DC, and my friend Nick Nichols, who was a staff photographer, a wildlife photographer at National Geographic was staying there as well, and I hadn't slept much that night, and I got up in the morning, I grabbed a cup of coffee and Nick was sitting there reading the paper, and I went into this little living-room nook that Kathy has in her house, and I sat down with Nick and I said, "Nick, do you ever get depressed about this?"
0:34:32.3 BS: 'Cause I mean he was doing this, he was an inspiration to me terrestrially, what he was doing in Africa and other places. And I said, "Do you ever get depressed about this stuff?" And he said, "Man, Of course", he says, in his Alabama accent, he said, "Brian", he says, "You know, you're working in the most depressing place on the planet, man", he says, "It's hell out there, what you're seeing." And he was right. So I suppose after doing that kind of stuff for a while, for my own mental health I needed to do stories that were more inspirational.
0:35:04.3 BS: But I think it's a number of things. It's that and it's finding cool stories, it's finding interesting science. People need reasons to be hopeful but they also need reasons to see the natural world differently. For so long we've seen ourselves apart from nature or above it, and with a story like Secrets of the Whales I wanted to say, "In many ways, we're not so different. Families matter these animals too." So those are the kinds of things, if you find them. If you find them, they can be, I think, powerful messages.
0:35:39.3 JH: Mm-hmm. About, I guess it was September of 2018, 2019, I held a conservation photography workshop with a small group of students and a dinner, so we all gather in a house, and this was obviously pre-COVID, and do our workshop for a week and have dinners and meals together. And so one night we're sitting around the dinner table and the conversation got brought up of how do you handle these really difficult situations, like what are coping mechanisms. And it was interesting because each student had something to say. And one was a doctor and she talked about basically her coping mechanisms for dealing with patient death and what that was like in dealing with families.
0:36:19.3 JH: And another student was working for a non-profit organization that deals with big cats, and she had the opposite, she's like, "No, you have to let yourself mourn and kind of break open and not have a thick skin." And each student seemed to have a different coping mechanism. And when you were sitting there with Nick Nichols and saying hey do you ever get depressed? This is how I'm feeling," did you recognize a coping mechanism to get through these depressed states?
0:36:47.1 BS: No, I don't think I did. For context, I grew up in this little textile mill town in Massachusetts, I didn't know anybody who did anything like this. I wasn't prepared for any of this life, really. It was a big dream and I got lucky and it all happened and it's great and I've tried to do the best with it, but I couldn't prepare for a lot of this and wasn't able to cope with a lot of that stuff.
0:37:19.3 BS: I told a story recently, I did this NG Live Behind The Curtain thing for Secrets of the Whales, and I think I told this little story in there about... And grief, just as another example of grief, not related necessarily to what you asked about, but it's a similar kind of story. In 2016, as always in my life, I was traveling non-stop and so forth, but I was home. It was in September, and I got a call on a Sunday morning early that my mother had passed away. Now, I knew she was not doing well but, you know, you never quite expect it. But I got that call on a Sunday morning. On Monday I was at the funeral home picking out caskets and making funeral arrangements. On Tuesday morning, which was my birthday, I was writing her eulogy.
0:38:11.0 BS: On Thursday morning I delivered that eulogy at her funeral mass. At Friday morning at 6:00 AM I had a pick-up from a car and was brought to the airport and I flew to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where I delivered a keynote address at Dalhousie University that night. On Saturday morning I flew back home to Boston, came home, it was my 28th wedding anniversary with my wife, and we got some takeout food and had a bottle of wine, and on Sunday morning, I flew to DC and on Monday, I was at the White House meeting with President Obama to give him a print of himself that I photographed a few weeks earlier when he invited me to go snorkeling with him after he created the world's largest marine-protected area, in Papahānau there he expanded the boundaries.
0:39:00.9 BS: So all of that happened in exactly one week. And then from DC I flew off on assignment somewhere. And it's been five years, and I don't think I've taken time to properly grieve about that, or process any of that. I haven't really processed my time with the President, I haven't processed the eulogies, I haven't processed any of those things because I've been on this hamster wheel for so long, and you just kinda go from one thing to the next, and it can be a distraction. You get lost in the work. But you know, there's some truth to what that person said at the dinner table that night about giving yourself time to grieve.
0:39:36.8 BS: And I don't think I have done that, and so much of the things that I've seen... But again, conversely, I have seen extraordinary things, I think the good far outweighs the bad. I've seen so many things, and three years of working on Secrets of the Whales was amazing. Everywhere I went I had a very ambitious shot list and found myself getting even more than that. Very blessed to see so many of these wonderful things with these whales. So it's not about feeling sorry for myself, the things have been fantastic and I've lived my dreams far beyond my wildest expectations as a little boy. So it's all been good, but I do think that for your own health and good will, good mental health, that you probably should take time to think these things through.
0:40:22.9 BS: But I have a great support system with my wife and kids and everything. So it's not like I'm dwelling in a corner with a packet of razor blades. It's not so bad. But yeah, these things are certainly in there somewhere.
0:40:40.4 JH: I'm gonna take a really sharp turn in the conversation because you've mentioned this a couple of times and I'd love to ask you about building a shot list. You mentioned wanting to parachute in and be able to really truly visually represent what researchers are working on, and that you had an ambitious shot list for certain things. How do you build that? What is your process for crafting your shot list for a story?
0:41:06.4 BS: Yeah, well it really comes down to the research that I've done in the years leading up to you. So as I'm developing a story proposal, project proposal, I will think about obviously what the story is, is it rooted in science, and then what are the visuals? I remember when I had just finished those... I finished the cover story on dolphins in 2015, and then 2016 I did these four shark stories into 2017, and I remember I was having lunch with Sarah Leen, who's the former Director of Photography at National Geographic, we were having lunch in the cafeteria at National Geographic and she's like, Well, alright Brian what do you wanna do next?"
0:41:49.8 BS: I said, "Well, you know, Sarah, I'm thinking about this story about whale culture", and I started to explain it a little bit and I remember her putting down her utensils and looking at me and is like, "You can't photograph culture in whales can you?" And I said, "Well, I don't know, I think I can." I said, "But admittedly, the writing side is gonna have to do a lot of the heavy lifting, because there's things I can't do in the magazine, I can't show a humpback whale singing, I can show it but you can't hear it. And that's culture, it's been written in scientific papers as the horizontal transmission of culture."
0:42:27.8 BS: So I remember that, and that just made me work harder to figure out what I could photograph that would be cultural. So in the process of doing the research I am trying to understand the science, I'm trying to understand, in this case, what is culture, what are these ancestral traditions, what makes it that. So Shane Garo had a great saying, he says, "The difference between behavior and culture," he says, "Behavior is what we do, culture is how we do it." So most humans, for example, eat food with utensils. That is behavior. But whether you use chopsticks or knives and forks is your culture.
0:43:08.9 BS: So you've got animals that are genetically identical, you've got Sperm whales in this place that are speaking one dialect, and you've got another clan of families over here that is speaking a different dialect. They are the same animal, just like humans, but they're doing things differently, that is their culture. You've got Orca in New Zealand who have a preference for international cuisine, their ethnic food that they like to eat is stingrays, and the ones in New Zealand are the only Orca in the world that have figured out a strategy for catching the food that they like.
0:43:45.6 BS: The ones in Patagonia are predating on Sea Lion pups, and the ones in Norway like herring. And each of those families are the only ones in the world that have figured that out. In Patagonia there might be like two families that are doing this. And they pass that knowledge down to their children. So that is the definition of culture. So I would look at the science and say, "What can be done photographically, what can be visually done?" And then it's about, "Okay, where do I need to go to see that? What time of year?" Working with Ingrid Visser, a biologist in New Zealand who's dedicated her life to figuring out Orca behaviors and cultures there. Or working with people in Norway or wherever I was going.
0:44:26.9 BS: So it was really about trying to figure out the various aspects of culture, what I could photograph, what would have to be handled by the writer, Craig Welch in this case. The good thing is that I was able to amplify this story through TV, so I created the series idea with National Geographic channel and served as a producer, and we brought in a production company, Red Rock, who had great expertise, and we were able to do the motion picture and the audio, and do so much more than just the print story. And then the book, I can tell the personal stories which I really wasn't gonna do in either of those other mediums. So with each of those platforms, book, magazine, and television, motion picture, we can do different things.
0:45:12.2 JH: Wonderful. You have so much energy and so much passion and drive, and through that you've brought us extraordinary stories around the world. And it's hard to look at you, especially as someone who has this amount of energy and enthusiasm about the work that you do, it's hard to look at you and think that you ever fail. Do you ever come back with shots you just never got or a story that never happened, or things that just didn't pan out the way you wanted?
0:45:39.6 BS: Oh yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. I actually keep a list. My OCD, or my insecurities... I have a little Word document on my laptop of I think every assignment trip that I've made in 23 years and how many times I got skunked, how many times I didn't get anything. And fortunately it's not that much, I don't even remember what the tally is, but it might be 130, or it's probably more than that now, I don't think I've added in Secrets of the Whales. But let's say it's 130 trips over 29 stories, and there might be six trips where I came back empty-handed with nothing.
0:46:22.1 BS: And a lot of times that's just because the weather was bad or the animals didn't show up, but in the end one trip doesn't mean you don't get the story. Usually there's multiple trips for a story, usually. So, I remember I did a Bluefin tuna story, and I wanted to produce some of the first pictures of giant Bluefin under water, and so forth, and I ultimately got it in the Canadian Maritimes, 1000 pound, 1200-pound Bluefin under water, which was extraordinary, but the first year I went with a filmmaker friend of mine, Rick Rosenthal, to the Azores. He's a brilliant wildlife photographer, and he also stays in touch with people around the world, throughout his career, as I do. He had some intel that said that after a decade or two of not seeing Bluefin in the Azores, they were seeing Bluefin.
0:47:15.4 BS: This would have been, I don't know, maybe 2012, 2011. 2011. So he called me up and said, "Do you wanna go? I know you're working on a bluefin story." And I said, "Yeah." So we shared some expenses, we went there, and I think I spent three weeks. And I had to leave, I had to come back for an event, I was presenting an award to a friend of mine in DC, so I had to come back. And the day after I left he got it, and I didn't get anything. He got a bait ball with Bluefin tuna out there in the blue water.
0:47:46.3 BS: So I went to Kathy Moran at the magazine and I said, "Look, if I go back next year for a month, I'm sure we'll get it." So they said okay. So I went this time with no assistant or anything, I didn't the first year either. I went and I sat in a motel room for a month, and the wind blew 40 knots every day. I think in a month I got out five days, and those five days we were just getting our butts kicked out there, and sort of rough seas, never saw a single tuna. I did see a Leatherback eating a Pyrosome, and I made a picture that won an award.
0:48:22.5 BS: I remember emailing Kathy on my last day in the Azores, I said, "So, remember that Leatherback story I did a couple of years ago?" I said, "I've got a really awesome picture now that... I know the story's published but I'm sure we could find a use for this." And she's like "Yeah, how'd you do on the Bluefin?"
0:48:38.2 BS: "Yeah, not so good." So there are definitely those trips, I was out this past weekend, I'm doing a new story on the Gulf of Maine right now near my home, and I was out trying to shoot jellyfish and I shot for two solid days, and there's one or two pictures that I like but it wasn't as good as I hoped it would be. So of course, inevitably there's always gonna be times where you just don't get it for all kinds of reasons. And sometimes the reason is me just not doing a good job, but whatever. I think in the end, as long as the win tally is a little bit greater than the fail tally, yeah I guess you're doing okay.
0:49:14.9 JH: Yeah, well, I have to say, judging by the wall behind you of all of the cover stories, you definitely have a very solid win tally going on.
0:49:25.8 BS: I've often said it's like being a professional athlete, you're only as good as your last game. If you're a football player, baseball player, it's like, "What did you do for me today?" So, anyway, and that's okay, that's the way I should be.
0:49:38.2 JH: Well, I have one last question for you, which is a while back you mentioned when you advise emerging or aspiring photographers these are some of the things that you let them know. When you're working with people who are up-and-comer conservation photographers, truly passionate and need some guidance, what are some of the common things that you tell them about coming up in this career?
0:50:00.8 BS: Well, I try to give them as much advice or insight as I see it, and I think there's so many things that can get us concerned if we overthink it. We have to make a living, how are we gonna do it? Who's paying photographers these days for pictures of dead turtles or whatever, there's all kinds of things. I think at the fundamental level I am a firm believer in following your heart, following your passion. I think there's an old saying, "Follow your heart and the money will come."
0:50:34.3 BS: That being said, I do think you have to be smart from a business standpoint as well, and have a good strategy. So realize that you need to create a good portfolio, that there are entities out there who will hire photographers, but it's gonna be on the strength of your portfolio. Can you shoot journalistically? Can you tell a good story? Can you make the beautiful pictures and those hard-hitting conservation stories, and the science-y story pictures that help move it along? So perfect your craft, have a strategy, but lead with your heart. Definitely go with the passion. But then within that strategy try to figure out who has funding, where you can get the money.
0:51:18.9 BS: You might have to work other jobs. For many years, in my early part of my career, I was doing many other jobs, were just paying the bills and allowing me to buy camera equipment or dive equipment. For so many years in the early days I was spending far more money than I was making at photography, but I just couldn't quit. I didn't give up, and I think there is something to that longevity.
0:51:41.3 BS: I talked to a... I was emailing a writer friend of mine the other day, a very successful writer, and I wanted to introduce another friend of mine who's an up-and-coming writer to him, because he's looking for advice, and my friend the successful writer said, "You know, I'm not sure I have any great wisdom, and my success is probably just because I didn't quit." And I said the same thing, I said that in a commencement speech recently, that maybe I just got lucky because I didn't give up.
0:52:06.3 BS: But I think you can be a little more strategic about it and resourceful and beat the bushes and find out where there's funding. Work with conservation organizations and NGOS and scientists and research organizations and universities and publications who can pay you, but definitely follow your dream, have a strategy and don't give up. Those are sort of the three pillars of, I think, success in this business.
0:52:33.3 JH: Well said. And so simply and clearly said too. Having three pillars off the cuff is pretty awesome.
0:52:40.3 BS: Thanks, I just made that up. No, no it's true.
0:52:44.3 JH: Well, Brian, thank you so much for sitting down with us and just sharing you so much of your work and your experience and your thought process with us. It's incredibly valuable to hear everything that you're going through. And, ultimately, thank you so much for doing this work, because as that craftsman said, "You are changing the world for the better with every story that you pursue", and I really appreciate everything that you do.
0:53:11.4 BS: Thank you so much, Jaymi, and right back at you. I love this podcast and everything that you touch, so keep up the great work and thanks for having me.
0:53:18.7 JH: Thank you.
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