“Storytelling is the most important tool we have” – legendary photographer Cristina Mittermeier on saving the planet

Cristina Mittermeier taking photos
A conversation with the renowned conservation photographer about her new documentary on National Geographic (Image credit: The Walt Disney Company)

“The only way you can change the world is with stories,” says Cristina Mittermeier in the opening moments of her new National Georgraphic documentary, Win or Die.

“The bigger your legend becomes the easier it is to share the story. People want to hear it, they want to listen.”

Considered one of the most influential conservation photographers of our time, with 1.5 million followers on Instagram, the ocean photographer is using her renown not just to tell stories, but to open viewers’ eyes to the environmental emergency happening in our oceans. As her partner in the profession and in life Paul Nicklen puts it, they’re aiming to build a movement of people who care from a photograph.

Photographer is a stunning six-episode docuseries from award-winning filmmakers E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin of Free Solo acclaim which premieres on March 18. Each episode follows the journey of an iconic photographer in a different environment – Dan Winters in Iceland’s fjords, Anand Varma examining spiders with orange armpit hairs through a microscope and Krystle Wright chasing tornadoes in West Texas. 

Throughout the series, you'll embark on six epic adventures where you’ll learn about the photographers, their craft and also about the natural world and the things that threaten its existence  – it's a visual feast for those who like to explore whether that's above ground in hiking boots or deep under water.

Underwater photographer

Photographer is a stunning six-episode docuseries from award-winning filmmakers E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (Image credit: The Walt Disney Company)

Mittermeier and Nicklen’s episode begins at night. They’re on board a boat in the Bahamas and in the distance are the glittering lights of an oil rig the size of a city. Their mission: to chase big oil out of the Bahamas using only their cameras. The documentary weaves between deeply relaxing underwater shots of the Bahamas’ rich biodiversity and tense scenes where the couple consider the fatal consequences of not intervening with offshore drilling – the giant oil rig is drilling in a whale migratory corridor and threatening to destroy this wonderland.

“I believe storytelling is the most important tool we have to reconnect people to the imperative of protecting nature, not just because we love animals, but because every species on Earth is part of the building blocks of life on this planet,” Mittermeier tell us.

“Our survival and well-being depends on a robust foundation of functioning species and ecosystems, whether we know it or not. My photographs are calls to action for the audience who sees them to become engaged in the active role of demanding that governments and corporations do everything necessary to ensure the integrity of life on this planet.”

Underwater photographer

Mittermeier says she's terrified of inadvertently inviting people to vulnerable places through social media (Image credit: The Walt Disney Company)

Born in Mexico City, Mittermeier started out as a marine biologist, telling us: “When you choose to see fish as individuals that are curious, intelligent and worthy of knowing, instead of just slabs of flesh swimming in butter, you can be mesmerized and entertained for endless hours.” She later studied fine art photography and now she works as a writer and conservationist in addition to her photography work, which often finds her working with indigenous people as well as photographing wildlife.

Nicklen grew up with the Inuit in the Canadian Arctic and worked as a biologist in the Northwest Territories before specializing in photographing the polar regions. Together, the couple are the founders of SeaLegacy, a non-profit that uses photography and film to raise awareness about threats to the health of the ocean, and it's this project that they focus on during their episode of Photographer.

The pair entice the viewer into the beauty of the Bahamas, an easy prospect with its crystal clear waters teeming with exotic fish. They reveal the largest underwater seagrass beds in the world, something Mittermeier calls the biggest scientific discovery of the last 10 years. These grasses at first appear unremarkable, but then Nicklen explains how seagrass is the oldest living organism on our planet, and these are essentially the lungs of the Bahamas.

Underwater photographer

Seagrass is the oldest living organism on our planet, and they are essentially the lungs of the Bahamas (Image credit: The Walt Disney Company)

Through photography such as this and with the aid of social media, we’re increasingly able to venture into distant corners of the planet that we may never have thought possible a few years ago, and of course, inviting the public into vulnerable places through her work carries a risk Mittermeier is all too aware of. 

“I am terrified of unleashing negative impacts on the fragile places and creatures we photograph. Once or twice in the past we have made that mistake of disclosing such locations, and we had to recognize the immense and influential power National Geographic has to direct people’s attention to those places.”

These days, she says, they try to keep sensitive locations they visit secret, entering into their ecosystems with what she describes as “an unwavering moral and ethical code of conduct” to get a great shot and leave no trace.

“You have to put in the time to gain a creature’s trust. You will never get a credible, beautiful image if your modus operandi is to harass animals to get a shot. The best images will only come when animals decide they want to get closer to you, and not the other way around and that takes time and patience.”


It takes time and respect to get the perfect shot (Image credit: The Walt Disney Company)

Whether your field of interest lies in nature, photography, conservation, or all three you’ll be hard-pressed not to be enchanted and persuaded by Mittermeier and Nicklen’s passion for saving the ocean, wherever you live and adventure.

“I think a lot of people have already given up. You know, why care if everything is already doomed? We still live on a beautiful planet,” says Mittermeier.

National Geographic's Photographer premieres on March 18 and will be available to stream March 19 on Disney+.

Julia Clarke

Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.