2023 Women of Discovery: Q&A with Cristina Mittermeier

On October 12th, WINGS WorldQuest will induct five new Fellows during our 2023 Women of Discovery Awards Gala in New York City. In a special Q&A series, we are sharing a little bit about each honoree. CRISTINA GOETTSCH MITTERMEIER (“Mitty”) is a marine biologist, storyteller and pioneer in the field of conservation photography. Hailed as one of the most influential conservation photographers of our time, she has dedicated her entire life to protecting the world’s oceans and wild places – inspiring millions of people to do the same. In 2005 Cristina founded the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP) to provide a platform for photographers working on environmental issues, coining the phrase “conservation photography.” In 2014 she co-founded SeaLegacy, a non-profit organization using strategic communications at the intersection of art, science, and conservation to protect and rewild the ocean for the benefit of biodiversity, humanity, and climate within our lifetimes.  

WINGS: Tell us your story. How did you get involved in science and your field specifically?

CRISTINA MITTERMEIER: I discovered my passion for science and conservation at a young age, growing up in Mexico City with a deep appreciation for nature and the outdoors. The ocean, in particular, held a special place in my heart, captivating me with its beauty and complexity. This fascination led me to pursue a degree in biology at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City. During my studies, I realized that scientific research alone was not enough to address the urgent environmental challenges we face. I recognized the power of visual storytelling and the impact it could have in creating awareness and driving change. With this realization, I delved into the world of conservation photography, blending my scientific knowledge with my artistic expression.

In 2014, my partner Paul Nicklen and I co-founded SeaLegacy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ocean conservation. We recognized the potential of visual storytelling to inspire people and ignite a passion for protecting our oceans. Through SeaLegacy, we embarked on numerous expeditions, documenting marine life, fragile ecosystems, and the threats they face.

Our mission has always been to bridge the gap between science, art, and advocacy. We collaborate with scientists, policymakers, and local communities to amplify the message of conservation and drive meaningful change. Our photographs and films aim to move people emotionally, to evoke a deep connection with nature and ignite a sense of urgency to protect it. Over the years, I have been incredibly fortunate to witness the power of storytelling and the positive impact it can have. I have seen how a single image can touch hearts, raise awareness, and inspire individuals to become stewards of the environment. It is a privilege to combine my scientific background with my passion for photography, working tirelessly to preserve our planet’s natural wonders for future generations. Through my work, I hope to awaken a sense of responsibility and empower people to make a difference. The challenges we face in the realm of conservation may seem daunting, but I firmly believe that collective action and a deep love for our planet can bring about meaningful change. Together, we can protect and restore our oceans, ensuring a sustainable future for all.

WINGS: What is something you would like people to understand about your work?

CM: I think the most important thing I want people to take away from my work is that “the environment” and “saving the ocean” are not just my problem. I did not choose to do this work as a hobby or out of ego. I do this work for self-preservation. Perhaps my background as a scientist makes the imminence of the effects of climate change and biodiversity loss more visible to people like me, but the consequences will, and are already, being felt by all.

My work is not meant to “inspire” or entertain. I am trying to break through the wall of apathy and ignorance to spring humanity into accelerated action. My work is a desperate attempt at “screaming from the rooftops” that our planet is on the brink and humanity is in grave danger. It is an invitation to start taking action today.

WINGS: What are the greatest barriers to more women working in science?

CM: Gender Bias: Prejudices and stereotypes about women’s abilities and roles limit their opportunities in science.
Lack of Representation: The scarcity of female role models and leaders in science can discourage women from pursuing careers in the field.
Work-Life Balance: Balancing scientific careers with family responsibilities can be challenging, particularly with the demanding nature of research and inflexible work environments.
Stereotypes and Cultural Expectations: Societal stereotypes and cultural expectations can discourage girls from developing an interest in science and limit their aspirations.
Lack of Support and Mentorship: Women often face a lack of support and mentorship opportunities, which are crucial for career development.
Unconscious Bias: Unnoticed biases in decision-making processes, such as hiring and promotions, can disadvantage women in their scientific careers. To address these barriers, it is necessary to create inclusive work environments, challenge biases and stereotypes, promote mentorship programs, and provide equal opportunities for women in science. By doing so, we can foster a more diverse and equitable scientific community that benefits from the talents and contributions of women.

WINGS: What gets you up in the morning? 

CM: Urgency. For many photographers, the passion lies in the romance of the equipment and the lifestyle. For me, photography is an opportunity to engage with people whose morning is populated with other thoughts: work, kids, lunch plans. My job is to use my images in social media, exhibitions, books and even award ceremonies, like this one, to be an urgent reminder that time is running out to do more and to do it quickly.

WINGS: What’s your next challenge? 

CM: My next challenge professionally is to reach the highest audiences: TV, United Nations, government buildings. We can no longer pretend that climate change is something that will happen in the future. It is here now, and everyone needs to spend some time asking “what can I do?” Make it an honest question. Not one that someone else should answer for you. We all can consume much less, for starters. It is easy to blame China and India for not doing more, but the honest truth is that we, North Americans and Europeans, consume 10 times more than they do and are responsible for tenfold emissions. Should we be trying to minimize our daily impact? Absolutely.

WINGS: Describe yourself in three words. 

CM: Stubborn, opinionated, and blunt. I have a memory from when I was in first grade in Mexico City. At a parent teacher conference, my school teacher, Miss Mari Cardeña, with whom I still maintain a relationship, told my mother that I was “claridosa”, which literally means “someone that tells the truth bluntly”.

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