Tactical Beauty

How underwater photography serves conservation efforts

Coping with climate change is such a profoundly new part of the human experience that a new word, solastagia, has been coined to describe the emotional distress caused by violations against the planet. Underwater photographer Keith Ellenbogen may have hit upon the best remedy for this distinctly 21st-century form of anguish—action. Ellenbogen uses beauty as a call to arms. He hopes those who encounter nature’s pulchritude through his images will be inspired to protect delicate underwater environments and change policies.

Ellenbogen has spent his career documenting marine life around the globe, including coral reefs in Palau, migrating bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean and penguins in Patagonia. Numerous conservation organizations have used his arresting images to promote understanding of marine ecosystems. As a CAST Visiting Artist, Ellenbogen, who is known for pushing the technological limits of his medium, explored new high-speed photography and underwater imaging techniques, in collaboration with Edgerton Center Associate Director Jim Bales and theoretical physicist Allan Adams.


The Class: “Underwater Conservation Photography”

Ellenbogen and Adams created and co-taught “Underwater Conservation Photography,” a cross-disciplinary course that covered everything from using camera settings to constructing lighting systems for underwater work to building ROVs (remotely operated vehicles). The class spent several intensive weeks in the MIT pool honing their diving and photography skills and testing equipment and techniques, before heading to the Wildlife Conservation Society on Glover’s Reef off the coast of Belize. For their expedition to succeed, students needed to acquire an expansive skill set that combined knowledge from such varied fields as marine biology, mechanical engineering, ocean engineering, science journalism and photography.

Shooting underwater has its challenges, such as limited air supply or low visibility. Getting the best shot requires you to work nimbly and quickly, while managing a lot of sophisticated equipment. “In one case I spent about 20 minutes snorkeling with the 105mm macro lens, chasing a gorgeous yellowtail damselfish—the result of that struggle was maybe three decent shots and seventy blue blurs,” says Grant Genzman, a graduate student in Mechanical Engineering and Technology & Policy at MIT who holds an BS in Ocean Engineering from the US Naval Academy and a commission as an officer in the US Navy.

Several students noted how responding to these demanding conditions not only strengthened their visual thinking skills, but also improved their work in other disciplines. Nathan Tyrell, a graduate student in Mechanical Engineering who minored in photography as an undergraduate, says that before this class, “My photographic method was like brute force. I would go and shoot a ton, then develop my film a month later and look at it. From that, I’d construct this bigger idea. But here, every shot is so difficult. There are so many technical things that you have to get right, that you can’t really go in with that approach. It’s not the most economical way of shooting. This forces me to think things through more, which is valuable for me both as a scientist and an artist.”

Sasha Chapman, Knight Science Journalism Fellow in the Program in Science, Technology and Society (STS), mostly writes about conservation issues related to the food system, including problems with oceans and fish that we eat. She says underwater photography is a new pursuit: “One of the things I found really interesting about taking the photography class was that it’s still storytelling—whether it’s in words or images. It can be really helpful to think about storytelling in a different medium. I think that actually will make me a better writer.”

For Maha Haji, a PhD candidate in Mechanical Engineering in the joint WHOI/MIT program, who is building a device to harvest uranium from seawater, building ROVs led her to think more deeply about “citizen science”: “We’re going to run out of uranium on land in the next hundred years, so we want to see if there are alternative sources of uranium, or whether we should look at new kinds of reactors that can handle spent nuclear fuel. My research is very much on the build side of things in the ocean, which is why the ROV stuff was really fun…. With this ROV, it’s so easy for anyone to buy it, build it and put it out in the ocean. An interesting new avenue that’s come up is this idea of ‘citizen science’—making equipment or knowledge readily available to the general public, so that they can go out and survey the oceans however they see fit. We could get so much more interesting data and get more people involved, which is especially important now that we have so many issues facing our oceans related to climate change and pollution. That wasn’t an avenue I thought existed before, but I really think that by taking this class, I’ve realized you can really make it happen.”


The Trip: Wildlife Conservation Society on Glover’s Reef, Belize

In Belize, students photographed the ecosystem of coral reefs and dozens of species of fish and other sea creatures in order to tell a unique conservation story. They documented damselfish, parrotfish, seafans, Christmas tree worms, sponges and eels, among other creatures, and then exhibited their photographs in the Wiesner Gallery, accompanied by text explaining the technological, biological and ecological stories behind the images.  

Many expressed a heightened awareness of the small, easily overlooked aspects of the ocean environment. For example, Victoria Gunning, Master of Engineering student, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, found herself attracted to something infinitesimal: “Before this class, I had never realized that the white sand beaches surrounding coral reefs had a simple reason for being so fine and uniform. Parrotfish scavenge coral for algae. In the process, they bite chunks of coral and rock, turning the mixture into a uniform sand when excreted…. This sand, in addition to forming beaches, provides many homes around the reef…. The lives of garden eels, sand divers, flounder, stingrays, just to name a few, would all change without the help of parrotfish generating sand.”

Chapman investigated a creature so tiny, it is easier to hear than see: “Sound travels very differently underwater: it seems to come from everywhere enveloping and disorienting you. Until my first snorkel, I had not realized how noisy Glover’s Reef was. One sound in particular—a crackling and popping just like Pop Rocks—intrigued me. Rarely seen by divers, tiny snapping shrimp are far easier to hear. They create bubbles that collapse with enough force to stun their prey and announce their existence to the rest of the ocean, at a decibel level louder than a jet plane at takeoff. Listening to them reminds me of all the things we don’t see.” She adds, “When we look at a reef—healthy or bleached—what we see bound up in it are not just the fates of the creatures who live there, but our own fates, too…. Life is fragile…. Change one small thing, and the reef’s exquisite balance changes too.”


The Outcomes

The enormity and complexity of problems like climate change require all hands on deck to offer solutions. We need experts in the STEM disciplines to explain the facts and experiment and devise methods to reverse or prevent damage to the planet. We need politicians, diplomats, economists, psychologists, journalists, artists, and countless other humanities researchers, to change policies and alter public opinions. There is a long history of artists rousing people from complacency through their work—a point stressed in this course.  

Without exception, the students combined “beauty and seriousness…the most shocking tactics left to artists these days”—to borrow a phrase from Turner Prize winner Grayson Perry—to evoke compassion for the demise of coral reefs. “What would you do, if in your lifetime, one-third of the world’s cities would be completely destroyed? Unfortunately, if nothing is done, this is the exact plight faced by the world’s coral reefs today,” Haji implores viewers of her suite of photographs. Her classmates raised similar points in their work. Genzman explains, for instance, “In the water I was often distracted by small things that I found particularly beautiful and I felt compelled to share that beauty with others…. These small organisms demonstrate the great diversity and liveliness of the reef, and I love the unique personalities they often have. Most people enjoy seeing the big shark, a colorful school of fish, or a graceful sea turtle, but sometimes it is nice to recognize the beauty right in front of us that may otherwise go unnoticed.”

Their strategy was simple: confronted with such beauty, can the viewer resist caring? Appeals to human reason alone may not change people’s behaviors, but perhaps stirring their hearts, as well as their minds, will.


Keith Ellenbogen is currently an Assistant Professor of Photography at SUNY/Fashion Institute of Technology.

Posted on June 24, 2016 by Sharon Lacey