Opinion Piece for The Conservation Network

The Conservation Network is a website and community set up by some friends of mine that helps people interested in fieldwork and conservation find jobs. The initial idea was to put peope with the interests and passion necessary in touch with organisations that are already conducting meaningful work. This work encompasses marine and terrestrial conservation efforts worldwide and is a great place to check out if you’re looking for something like this!

Their website is: http://www.theconservationnetwork.org and they can also be found on instagram @conservationnetwork

A Personal Perspective on How Underwater Photography can be a Force for Good

– James Matthews

Hippocampus Bhagibanti – Lembeh, Indonesia

I am an Underwater Photographer and PADI Divemaster currently living in London, UK, but with hundreds of dives around the world. I most recently travelled to Indonesia to volunteer on a Marine Research site in Wakatobi, run by Operation Wallacea. For those of us who work or volunteer in and around the ocean, its beauty and wealth are all too plain to see, as are the issues affecting it. However, many people have either not been able to experience this beauty or are not aware of the wonders beneath the waves. How, as conservationists and photographers can we help protect the ocean we love and depend on? Well, the answer comes in part through the images we create and how these images can bridge the gap between scientific research and the general public. By striving to create beautiful images, we can start conversations about vulnerable marine life. A photograph is more than the sum of its parts, it’s more than a composition;  it’s a window into the underwater world, allowing anyone the chance at experiencing some of the wonder beneath the waves.

Doto ussi – Lembeh, Indonesia

Especially in urban environments, there is an increasing disconnect between us and nature. If nature isn’t a part of people’s daily lives, then people are less inclined to care. People simply will not care about what they cannot see, as much as we like to romanticise the ideal. By bringing the marine environment into the public eye through photographs, videos and writing, we give people a reason to care. The photo is only the first step, however, as once the viewers engage with the visual image, the story behind it can help to educate and inspire. By providing an accessible medium to people, it allows an easy connection to actionable change. This could be as simple as providing access to sources of information, conservation networks acting in relevant fields or links to other photographers that inspire you. 

Photography is a universal language that can be used to shine a light on issues that many people didn’t even know existed. While we are all aware of the grandiose threat of climate change and ‘global warming’, few people are aware of the real issues affecting our oceans, beyond viral videos of plastic pollution in Bali or large-scale oil spills like the recent event in Northern Brazil. Ocean acidification, sea surface temperature rise and plastic pollution are but some of the major challenges we will have to face, and will have to continue to do so. Other issues such as destructive fishing practices, ghost fishing, the wildlife trade for pets and medicine and harmful tourism are having an increasing effect on our oceans. In today’s society with easy access to the internet and social media, photographs are becoming ever more important as a quick and easy way for people to absorb information. By simply getting photos and information out there you can start to open people’s eyes to the issues the ocean is facing.  Social media is a particularly useful tool in this regard, as it provides not only an opportunity for sharing images, but for real engagement surrounding those images. Starting conversations and getting people talking about the underwater world is the first step in creating a movement for change.

Amphiprion ocellaris – Wakatobi, Indonesia

 It’s well known that the ‘charismatic megafauna’ are often used to inspire action, although I’m a firm believer that the weird and wonderful creatures down the food chain can have a similar effect. Photos that explicitly show the conflict between man and nature have their place of course, but I also believe that images that show the natural world in all its glory are particularly powerful too. Finding a balance between highlighting issues and what we actually have to save can help inspire hope for a better outcome, rather than simply inducing a sense of despair.

 I choose to shoot primarily macro photographs mainly because of the almost alien nature of many of the small critters in the sea. I regularly see things that would not look out of place in the most far-fetched sci-fi movies, and without photographs to show people, few would believe these creatures exist.  To me, seeing something that is so far from my usual frame of reference is really exciting, and I just hope it fosters the same excitement in others. I particularly enjoy taking photos that seem to remove the subject from its environment, emphasising that otherworldly feeling. One of the nicest things I’ve heard about my photos is : ‘I didn’t even know something like that existed’, as it really tells me that I’ve taken someone somewhere they haven’t been before.

Lastly, the platform by which photos are displayed can have a profound impact on their effectiveness as tools for scientific and artistic communication. Of course, getting images published in magazines and websites that see thousands of readers is an effective way of disseminating your message, but it isn’t the only way.  You can have a meaningful impact anywhere you share your photos, be it via photo sharing platforms, social media or physical prints. The key here is simply getting the photos out there, as they can’t have an impact sitting on your computer or on your camera. On that note, you shouldn’t be afraid to share your work as we’re all in the process of improving. As photographers, we are often hyper-critical of our own work and this can lead to reticence to share it. I promise you that others aren’t as critical of your photos as you are and often a photo that you don’t even like ends up being received very well! As divers we often take for granted what we can see under the water and sometimes it takes a moment of pause to step back and think just how few of the 7.5 billion people on earth have experienced the world as we have. By showing people what we see, we’re raising awareness of both the beauty of the oceans and the joy we get from experiencing them.

Sepioteuthis lessoniana – Lembeh, Indonesia

I hope that you continue to support the amazing work that my friends at The Conservation Network are doing and that you continue to use the platform to gain amazing experiences and help the planet! If you’d like to see more of my work or simply get in touch for a chat, check out my website at

www.jamesmatthewsuw.com

or instagram

@matthews_uw.

Please also check out my latest feature in DIVE magazine as their featured photographer at

www.divemagazine.co.uk/hotshots/featured-photographer

If you’re interested, there are some other far more talented photographers on there too! Thank you and I hope we can all get back out there to capture more beautiful ocean art soon! 

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