National Geographic’s Brian Skerry to talk ‘connecting the dots’ with underwater photography

As a young boy in New England, Brian Skerry dreamed of being an astronaut or a scientist.

But when his parents would take him to those New England beaches, when he would lay eyes on the mysterious ocean, his career aspirations shifted with every lap of the waves.

Skerry, National Geographic Society marine wildlife photojournalist, has been in the business for four decades now — he’s come a long way from the days of Jacques Cousteau documentaries and National Geographic magazine subscriptions. Those teenage scuba diving days led him to bigger oceans, including his lecture at 10:45 a.m. Tuesday in the Amphitheater, part of Week Two’s theme “The Human Journey: Origins, Exploration and Preservation In Partnership with National Geographic.”

When Skerry addresses an audience, he doesn’t distance between himself and the group, despite his platform. Instead, he enjoys sharing personal testimonies that bridge the gap between his supposed elevated status and the listeners’ lives.

“I’m not there lecturing people about what they should and shouldn’t do, I’m not there to talk about ‘Oh, how dangerous it is what I do’ or ‘I’m so brave because I go underwater with sharks and polar ice,’ or any of that stuff,” he said. “That’s sort of irrelevant to do. What I want to do is get the audience excited about whatever excites me.”

Before doling out facts about the field or his career, Skerry prefers to establish an understanding of his life above sea level. He thought a scuba diving certification he got when he was 15 years old was the primary step in becoming a part-time ocean explorer, but a diving show he attended one or two years later encouraged him to take the plunge. Photographers and filmmakers displayed their underwater work on the big screen, and he was hooked.

“I often describe it as having an epiphany, where I realized that this was the perfect way for me to explore the ocean — I would do it with a camera,” Skerry said. “I was a very visual person. I loved movies and books and magazines. The notion of traveling around the world and making photographs and telling stories about the things I learned and saw underwater just really appealed to me in a big way.”

Post-dive show, his life in Massachusetts began to take a nautical shape. Skerry worked on charter boats and completed shipwreck diving while doing wildlife photography on the side. But he called National Geographic his “Mount Everest,” a goal he always wanted to reach. He did whatever he could to reach that magazine-oriented checkpoint, including selling stock photos and working for smaller dive magazines. It began to seem impossible, though, given his personal geography.

“I came from this little, blue-collar working class town, this little old textile mill town and didn’t know anybody that did anything like that,” he said. “I look back and the odds were probably a billion to one. I didn’t have the resources to travel to faraway places, but you know, I sort of just figured it out.”

In 1998, all of the oceanic dreaming became reality. National Geographic assigned Skerry to a story about a pirate shipwreck off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, passed off from a veteran photographer who was unenthusiastic about the story’s premise. Skerry considered a “98 percent chance of failure” when taking the assignment, considering the other photographer had attempted it a year before, only to come up empty.

“People running the project were a little shaky because visibility was bad, and said, ‘You have to keep in mind, Brian, that with National Geographic, you’re only going to get one chance, and if you fail, you won’t get another shot,’ ” Skerry said. “ ‘You might want to wait for another opportunity to come.’ ”

But he was successful, and Skerry quickly transitioned into wildlife photography with the magazine. During that time, though, his sights were repositioned toward the environmental crises of the world. Whether it was endangered species, global overfishing or climate change, Skerry was there, camera and diving gear in tow.

“I don’t think most people are necessarily aware of what’s happening under the waves, and I was given this great privilege to see those things,” he said. “As a photographer and photojournalist, I felt a sense of responsibility and a sense of urgency to bring those stories to light as well. My work is really a blend of celebratory stories, where I try to reveal great beauty and magnificence underwater, but also still trying to offer solutions for what’s going wrong under there.”

It’s not just a matter of point and shoot, though. The eight to nine months per year he is on assignment include 17-to 18-hour days. A “day off” has become a foreign concept to Skerry. The only hindrance to this underwater exploration is inclement weather, but even then, his responsibilities — working on equipment, meeting people, prepping for the weather-appropriate days — do not cease.

“The days are typically long, whether in a polar region, in a tropical region, living in a hotel, on a boat, in a little hut or camped out on a beach,” he said. “This has been an all-consuming career for decades, but I love it.”

Before, his interest in photography was driven by a desire to make stories about things that interested him. When he started to realize the impact impressive visuals could make, though, his mission began to gain a few more levels. Since recognizing this passion, Skerry has been able to further conservation agendas. A story about commercial, industrialized overfishing, which made the cover of National Geographic in 2007, is one that stands out to him as worth the extra depth.

“With this story, I wanted it to be different than a normal underwater story,” he said. “I wanted to approach this more like war photography. I wanted to go out and really get into the nitty-gritty and show people what was happening to wildlife.”

That particular project was also a way to help people see sharks in a new light, Skerry said. While most people still see them as villains and demonize them, he considers them “miracles of evolution.”

This is why Skerry has spent  a large portion of his life submerged. His work has taken him to “dozens of countries, from polar regions to tropical, from mangroves to seagrass beds, from temperate water zones to deep oceans.” He has worked with scientists and researchers, people focused on one particular field, and has worked to make his photography as effective as possible.

“I’ve been blessed to see so many things and be able to sort of connect the dots as best as I can,” Skerry said. “And I’ve been able to sort of see this broader chess board. I’ve looked at the ocean over four decades and have seen all of these connections. I realized that everything is connected. We need to see it that way if we’re going to preserve it, if we’re going to conserve it.”

Tags : Brian SkerryNational Geographic’week two

The author Kelly Powell

Kelly Powell covers the Interfaith Lecture Series, Mystic Heart Meditation Program and Abrahamic Program for Young Adults. She is studying magazine journalism and minoring in photojouranlism at Kent State University, where she will be a senior next semester. Powell loves libraries, antiques stores and national parks. Follow her on Instagram at @kellannpow.