Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Brian Skerry: Dreamer, Diver, Underwater Photographer Extraordinaire

We just had to post this stunning photo from underwater and ocean wildlife photojournalist Brian Skerry, as well as the article it accompanied.

When he was a child, Brian Skerry spent a lot of time on the floor of his parents' living room, in Uxbridge, refining a very specific daydream. He would sit there, pore over the pages of National Geographic, and resolve that, when he grew up, he would lead an adventurous life.

A lot of kids have big daydreams; Skerry's gotten to live his.

Skerry is a National Geographic photographer - something that he says he can still barely believe himself.

And his dream job has turned out to be just as magical as he imagined. For the October issue of the magazine, Skerry shot a feature story on the plight of right whales, which were hunted to the brink of extinction. In the course of the shoot, he was standing on the ocean floor off New Zealand when a bus-sized whale came in close to gently inspect his assistant, who was standing just a few feet away. "My heart was beating out of my chest," Skerry said. But he got the shot; the photo of that encounter has since become an Internet sensation.

When people - especially children - ask Skerry about his job, he is happy to share his story, knowing, he says, that it is an important testament to what happens when you dedicate yourself to a dream.

The first milestone in his dream came at age 15, when he first tried scuba gear in his backyard pool. With regulator on, he sat in the shallow end of the pool, relishing the fact that he didn't have to come up for air - and the realization that he didn't want to.

He got his scuba certification, started diving all over New England and, a couple years later, went to the annual conference of the Boston Sea Rovers, a prestigious underwater exploration club, and heard lectures from many of the stars in the field. That night, he told his girlfriend (now his wife) that he settled on the way to live his dream: he would become an underwater photographer for National Geographic.

The big problem with that dream was the odds: there are only two or three underwater photographers at National Geographic, and they stay on for 25 or 30 years. He was 18 years old when he made this resolution; for the next 18 years, he pursued that dream,with his family making a lot of sacrifices along the way.

He worked in a textile mill; he made corrugated boxes; he sold corrugated boxes. Underwater photography, with all of its equipment and travel, is an expensive hobby, and there were plenty of years where he spent more money taking photos than he made selling them. "There were many, many times when I almost gave up," he said.

When he was 36, his chance finally arrived. Skerry had become a specialist in diving shipwrecks, some of the toughest diving around because of the threat of entanglement, and a National Geographic photographer recommended him for a tricky wreck shoot off the coast of New England. The photographer, Bill Curtsinger, had been to the wreck, knew the conditions, and was not eager to return. He told Skerry two things: because of the poor location, he had about a 98 percent chance of failure. And National Geographic would give him only one shot to prove himself.

Skerry thought about it for a few days, and went for it. The gamble paid off. Eleven years later, he is working on his 16th feature story for the magazine.

"I still can't believe I'm living the dream," he said with modest disbelief as he sat sitting in his home office in Uxbridge (where he still lives), surrounded by photos of his beloved ocean animals and souvenirs from his travels around the globe. "I get paid to swim with sharks and whales."

What sets Skerry apart from the many, many people that want his job, according to Greg Stone, the vice-president for global marine operations at the New England Aquarium, is that he does more than take pretty pictures. Skerry is not so much interested in photography - he does not even take pictures of his family; his wife handles the camera at birthday parties - but in ocean conservation. He specializes in stories that illustrate the destruction humans have had on the creatures of the oceans, whether through over-hunting, fishing-net entanglements, ship collisions or habitat loss due to global warming.

"He wants every picture, every story to make a difference for the oceans," Stone said. "He understands the power of the media, the power of images, and how those can influence what people think and feel. He's a storyteller. A journalist. He has incredible technical ability - and I can tell you that they work in very difficult situations - but on top of that he has an instinct, an ability to artistically interpret things in new ways that are compelling."

Skerry loves the stories that his photos tell, but no moment, he said, was more memorable than that day in New Zealand, when he captured the image of the curious right whale.

"It was something," he said, "that I don't think I could ever have dreamed of as a kid."

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