Renowned photojournalist Brian Skerry has spent more than 10,000 hours underwater over the course of his 30-year career. Growing up in Massachusetts, he was drawn to the ocean and all its mystery, never imagining that one day he would land his dream job and that it would be underwater. With discipline and hard work, he became a contributing photographer for National Geographic in 1998 and through his stories shed light on both the beauty and the fragility of the ocean and its inhabitants.
Of all the accolades and awards he has garnered over the years, the Rolex National Geographic Explorer of the Year Award that he received in 2017 holds a special significance. In view of a new enhanced partnership between National Geographic and Rolex, he stands out as a true pioneering explorer and an example for the next generations.
How did you become an underwater photographer and explorer?
I was inspired by the early Cousteau documentaries and reading National Geographic. I had this great love of exploration and discovery. The ocean seemed like a perfect place for mysteries that were waiting to be discovered.
As a teenager, I had an epiphany, realizing that the perfect way to explore the ocean was with a camera. Being able to travel around the world and tell stories was a lofty dream. I came from a blue-collar town. I didn’t know anybody who did something like that. The odds of any sort of success were probably a billion to one.
When did you start working for National Geographic?
National Geographic was the Mount Everest, the epitome of where I wanted to be. Eventually, in 1998, I got my first assignment and I have just begun my 28th story for the magazine. It’s been so much more rewarding than I could ever have envisioned.
How do you choose your subject matter for news stories?
Almost all the stories I do are my ideas. At the beginning I just wanted to do those that interested me, that were fun, but I saw a lot of problems occurring in the oceans. I began doing some of the first big conservation stories at National Geographic, because I wanted to make a difference.
Have you seen your photographs and the accompanying articles make an impact?
I have. For example, I had a cover story about saving our oceans. The premise was to use 2016, which was the centennial anniversary of the National Park Service in the United States, as an opportunity to look towards the next century and protect America’s oceans.
The very first national park in the United States, Yellowstone, was protected, due in part, to a photographer named William Henry Jackson. He brought photographs back and showed them to Congress, which led to the creation of the first national park.
I wanted to do the same thing with photography on this story, because photographs can be powerful.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve seen underwater?
I’ve had an endless string of extraordinary encounters: being with a southern right whale in the Subantarctic with animals that had never seen humans before. Forty-five-foot, 70 tonne whales spending two hours with me on the bottom of the ocean was beyond my wildest dreams; with sharks and amazing creatures under the polar ice.
What have you learned after four decades as a photographer?
I’ve come to the realization that everything is connected. We can’t have coral reefs if we don’t have sharks and we can’t have whales if we don’t have krill. If we begin to mess with parts of the ocean, it breaks down. It’s like a finely crafted Rolex watch. Everything is so finely balanced. If for no other reason than our own self-interest, we need to see the ecosystems as a whole and how they interrelate with us.
The message is clear that nature is resilient and tolerant to a point, but we have to take action.
What has changed the most since the beginning of your career?
Digital technology has revolutionized how we do things. I used to go on assignment for a few months and shoot 500 rolls of film and not know what I had. I would wait nervously by the phone for a couple of weeks until I got a call from my editor. Today, I know what I have before she does. I can take more chances and be more creative.
What’s also changed is the world’s appetite for good stories. As a storyteller, it’s a very exciting time. Cameras are getting smaller; we can shoot in low light, shoot more frames, and go deeper. I can put camera traps in places, capturing behaviour that I never saw before, and I can broadcast that story through the pages of the magazine, and channels such as Instagram and Twitter that reach different audiences.
Is there hope for the oceans?
I believe we live in a pivotal moment in history, where for the first time, we actually understand the problems and we know the solutions for many of them. That’s unique. Previous generations didn’t fully appreciate the problems.
I’m also encouraged from many different angles – from partnerships like this one, with National Geographic and Rolex, to people who follow my work. As Sylvia Earle said, “We still have 10 per cent of the sharks left and 50 per cent of the coral reefs left, so it’s not too late.” I think we have every reason to be hopeful.
Of all the awards you’ve received and the accolades, what does this year’s award of Rolex National Geographic Explorer of the Year mean to you?
To receive the Rolex National Geographic Explorer of the Year Award meant more to me than anything I’ve ever been given. As I said in my acceptance speech, to me, Rolex is the epitome. It represents excellence, precision, and ocean exploration. It’s especially meaningful because as an explorer and a photographer, the greatest gift we can be given is the gift of time, and there could be no finer testament or seal of approval.
In the light of the new partnership with National Geographic, supporting veteran explorers such as Sylvia Earle and yourself, and the next generation of explorers, what do you think it takes to be an explorer today?
You need to have your eyes wide open and see, not only what lies before you within your own field of expertise, but how what you do is connected to everything else.
Given the ease of access to information and through organizations like Rolex or National Geographic that disseminate information, we as explorers, can be much more aware of what’s going on. Collectively, if we build on that we can achieve results that we might not otherwise have imagined.
As an underwater photographer, how do you deal with the obstacles and the hostile environment?
There are a lot of challenges, but I realized years ago that one’s success in life, no matter what field you’re in, will be determined by how well you overcome obstacles. On any given day the weather might be bad, or the animals don’t show up or the boat breaks down, but if you can narrow that field of variables by really preparing to the nth degree then you will have a much greater chance of success.
Have you always been disciplined, or did it develop over time?
I played sports in high school. I played tennis and American football, so I understood discipline. I may not have been the greatest student but for the things that interested me I was very disciplined.
Once I started as a diver and a photographer, everything had to be just perfect. A great photograph doesn’t just happen, it has to be very precise; if you leave it up to chance you’re going to fail. I’ve come to understand the value of discipline even more with each year.
What do you think makes Rolex and National Geographic perfect partners?
I couldn't be more thrilled about this partnership. You have got two iconic brands whose history dates back over a century, both amongst the most trusted brands in the world.
Rolex represents the epitome of excellence. There is nothing that represents human spirit in a better way than that brand. When you see that name, it means something.
It’s the same with National Geographic, which has remained above the fray, because they strive to tell important stories. They’re not political, but yet they’re making statements that bring value to people’s life. It’s about truth.
If you can bring these two together, each is great on its own, but together what might the possibilities be?