Picturing Culture

iLCP Executive Director Cristina Mittermeier is at the forefront of the modern conservation movement

While Cristina Mittermeier has a well-established reputation as a wildlife photographer, capturing people is perhaps her greatest passion. She has devoted much of her time to working with communities around the world whose survival is closely tied to the health of the environment. Above and below right: These images were taken while Mittermeier was on an expedition in the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico, with the iLCP. She was one of 32 photographers to document various environmental threats affecting the area. She focused on the impact to local fishing and cattle ranching communities.


By accident, Cristina Mittermeier found her way into photography. She was lugging around her husband’s camera equipment and began doing some shooting of her own. Her images would sometimes get mixed up with his and end up in print. Since those early days, Mittermeier has traveled the world as a nature photographer, spending time in nearly every country in South America and Europe, as well as China, India, Australia and South Africa. She also managed to start the rapidly growing International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). Consisting of a who’s who of nature photography, the group has become a powerful force in furthering environmental and cultural conservation through ethical photography. Many of the photographers associated with the iLCP work with top organizations like Conservation International, the International Wilderness Leadership Foundation and The Nature Conservancy, among many others.

Early on, Mittermeier understood the importance of conservation in a way that few do. Born and raised in Mexico City, her original training was as a marine biologist, and her first job was working for Conservation International in Mexico for the preservation of the Gulf of California and La Selva Lacandona rain forest. She participated in the original management plans for various protected areas in both regions and helped negotiate Conservation International’s first debt-for-nature swap in Mexico.

“It turned out to be a fantastic turn of careers,” says Mittermeier. “Scientific pursuit is so time consuming, so all consuming. You have to dedicate yourself to keeping up with the constant advancements. It’s very labor-intensive. When you publish something in a science journal, it goes to a limited audience. If you take the same idea and use imagery to translate it, the audience becomes bigger. It’s so much more effective.”

Mittermeier’s background would prove to be invaluable, however. How she chooses her projects and from what angle she covers them is informed by science. What’s challenging for many photographers who set out to document the environment is having a great deal of awareness of what the important issues are without understanding why. So partnering with scientists and conservation groups not only is helpful, but the effect is more lasting.

Realizing there were many photographers out there using their work to tackle critical issues like climate change, habitat preservation, deforestation and un-protected corridors, Mittermeier reached out to some of the biggest names in environmental photography. With people like Art Wolfe, Gary Braasch, Jack Dykinga and Frans Lanting on board, she was able to lay a solid foundation even though she was initially told it would be impossible to get a group of this caliber to work together. Mittermeier found the exact opposite to be true.

Image was taken in Madagascar.

“I’m thrilled at the impact we’re having,” she says. “Everyone recognized the need for this kind of work, but no one was doing it in a systematic, professional way. I thought that if I bring a lot of photographers into the mix and get them to speak about their work, we could influence other amateur photographers and the general public.”

One of the most successful initiatives was launched in 2008—RAVE, or Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition. The basic concept is to parachute a team of photographers with different specialties, writers and video shooters into an area facing any number of threats. Their job is to bring back a full portrait of the situation in a very short period of time. While Mittermeier says she knew they would be effective, the overwhelmingly positive response from the conservation community caught her by surprise.

In November, the group completed its seventh and largest RAVE to date in the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico. Starting in July, there were 32 photographers on the ground documenting the biodiversity and conservation threats to the area, which is known as the heart of the ancient Mayan civilization. Some of the resulting 100,000 images were presented at the ninth World Wilderness Congress in Mérida, Mexico, which was opened by President Felipe Calderón and attended by 1,800 delegates from 50 countries.

Image was taken in Madagascar.

During the expedition, Mittermeier concentrated on documenting local fishing and cattle ranching communities, showing how their livelihood depends on healthy ecosystems. While she began her career pursuing wildlife photography, she wound up discovering that her real passion was in photographing people. To that end, Mittermeier has spent a lot of time working with indigenous communities around the world and operates with a deep understanding of how intimately connected human welfare is to nature.

“When we talk about carbon emissions and deforestation, the difficulty is in trying to bring a human face to it,” explains Mittermeier. “So part of what I try to do is use my relationship with indigenous communities to say, ‘These are people who are doing an enormous favor for humanity.’”

Mittermeier says that her most honest and relevant work has come about when working in a remote village and trying to show the close relationship between “healthy ecosystems and some of the most vulnerable and marginalized people on the planet.”

From the highlands of New Guinea to South America’s Guiana Shield, she has gained access to very remote places that few people ever see. Much of Mittermeier’s work has been in the Amazon rain forest with a group of Indians called the Kayapo, who live in a pristine region given over to them by the Brazilian government. They legally and physically control 28.4 million acres of the forest, by far the largest block of tropical forest protected by a single indigenous group. The Kayapo nation lives much as its ancestors did, practicing sophisticated agroforestry and sustainable use of wildlife, with an egalitarian social structure and decision-making by consensus.

Image was taken in Madagascar.

“They maintain a traditional lifestyle independent of outside influences,” Mittermeier explains. “It’s truly amazing that the only reason this large region is not being logged or burned is because these Indians are conserving it.”

Balancing her own work with her role at the iLCP is made easier by the fact that the goals are essentially the same. Last year, Mittermeier was able to step back from managing the day-to-day operations, allowing her to focus on her own work while laying out an overall vision of how the iLCP will expand and define its role in the conservation community. This year, the group is separating from the WILD Foundation and getting its own status as a corporation. It’s also expanding in terms of productivity, fundraising and promotion with new initiatives like Earth In Focus. Designed to be the iLCP’s nonprofit publishing arm, this new endeavor will include a variety of projects like workshops, lectures, exhibitions and books authored by some of the world’s leading experts on climate change, ecology and biodiversity.

Mittermeier has served as a longtime editor of a book series published by Conservation International and Cemex, the Mexican construction company. The books showcase in photos and essays the importance of biodiversity, as well as the threats. Highlighting critical aspects of conservation in recent years, the books are written in partnership with leading NGOs and are donated to universities, government agencies, research institutions and nonprofit organizations for fundraising.

Mittermeier has traveled the world, but most of her work focuses on the Amazon. This image was taken in Madagascar.

The Wealth of Nature is the 17th volume in the series, and it’s illustrated with images from iLCP photographers in partnership with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Conservation International. The book contains hundreds of stunning full-color photographs taken by a host of world-renowned nature photographers, including noted wildlife photographer and OP columnist Frans Lanting, award-winning photographer and writer Jenny E. Ross and endangered species photographer Joel Sartore. The book makes sense of what’s being threatened by climate change, while celebrating nature and demonstrating how it contributes to our health, economic prosperity and cultural values.

In December, Mittermeier joined the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen to talk about the book and to discuss the role women can play. She’s partnering with other women journalists in an effort called “Hot Pink: Solutions to Climate Change.” The goal is to find ways of empowering women in the developing world to adopt more sustainable ways of living—for example, finding an alternative to wood burning and collecting for cooking so that trees, which reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change, are left standing.

“Fifty percent of the population isn’t empowered to be part of the solution,” she says. “Women are so marginalized around the world and could be a huge part of making progress on this issue.”

Mittermeier is planning to go on a couple of RAVEs in the coming months. In February, the iLCP is heading to Patagonia to document the construction of a hydroelectric dam that would destroy one of the region’s oldest rivers. Another project is in the works in British Columbia.

“The role of photography in conservation is always evolving,” says Mittermeier. “And as photographers, we’re much more effective when we work together.”

Cristina Mittermeier Quick Facts
As a photographer and writer since 1996, Mittermeier has coedited nine books, including a series published with Conservation International and Cemex. Included in that series are:

Megadiversity: Earth’s Wealthiest Countries for Biodiversity (1996)
Hotspots: Earth’s Biologically Richest and Most Endangered Ecoregions (1998)
Wilderness Areas: Earth’s Last Wild Places (2002)
Wildlife Spectacles (2003)
Hotspots Revisited; Transboundary Conservation: A New Vision for Protected Areas (2005)
Pantanal: South America’s Wetland Jewel (2005)
In 2009, A Climate For Life: Meeting the Global Challenge and The Wealth of Nature joined the series, with both examining the impact of climate change on biodiversity

Sony Artisans Of Imagery
Cristina Mittermeier was chosen as one of six professional photographers to launch Sony’s Artisans of Imagery program in 2008. The group also includes Andy Katz, Me Ra Koh, David McLain, Brian Smith and Matthew Jordan Smith.

“This is my second year with the program,” says Mittermeier. “I got involved because I love the Sony α900. For the kind of shooting I do, it’s the most wonderful piece of equipment—lightweight, steady, resistant to humidity, heat, cold and rough use. I also love the rest of the Artisan team. We’re like a little family.”

The group shares their expertise by lecturing and doing educational workshops at universities and photography festivals. In addition to providing instruction and motivation to future generations of photographers, they give Sony input on equipment development, enabling the company to better meet the needs of demanding pros.

“Sony asks me to try new equipment, review it and make suggestions for how to improve it,” Mittermeier explains. “As a woman shooter, I couldn’t recommend any other camera more than the Sony α900.”

Last October, to mark the program’s first anniversary, each photographer displayed work exclusively shot with the Sony α900 at the Aperture Gallery in New York. The images were taken all over the globe, including England, India, Madagascar, Thailand and the U.S. Additionally, their work can be seen in various books, advertising campaigns and worldwide exhibitions.

More information about Sony’s Artisans of Imagery program can be found at www.Sony.com/darkroom.

To see more of Cristina Mittermeier’s work, go to www.cristinamittermeier.com. Visit the International League of Conservation Photographers at www.ilcp.com.