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Saving the sea with Brian Skerry

Saving the sea with Brian Skerry - Award-winning photo-journalist Brian Skerry has worked for National Geographic for the last ten years. Here he tells ePHOTOzine about his marine-related stories and why it took so long for him to enter a competition.

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Brian SkerryEleven years ago Brian Skerry was talking to one of his friends, who happens to be one of National Geographic's veteran photographers Bill Curtsinger about a shipwreck story Bill was asked to cover.

"He called me up and said the visibility isn't good I really don't think it's a winner but I can recommend you if you want it."

With National Geographic you only get one chance to impress them and even though there was only a small chance that this particular trip could be successful, Brian thought this could be the only chance he would have so he accepted Bill's offer. After showing a selection of his work to National Geographic they sent him on the assignment which Bill said would be difficult and it was. The water wasn't that clear but National Geographic who were looking for a new under-water photographer to develop liked Brian's pictures, asked him back and offered him a job.

"They taught me everything and I learnt about design and layout in between going on small assignments and now I'm on my 16th one."

Brian, who began diving over thirty years ago has always liked marine life and his work, which has recently won him four prizes at the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition demonstrates this.

Photograph by Brian Skerry"I haven't entered a lot of photography contests and I noticed a lot of my colleagues at National Geographic entered this particular one. I don't think I did bad really I entered seven images and four won prizes."

The one that won him first place in the Underwater World category is a very unique and special image for Brian: "I have dove for thirty years and I have never seen anything like that before. A 40ft wale near the ocean floor so close to a diver, it gave it perspective it looked great. I chose the others because they were nice pretty pictures. The shark image is special because it shows a shark in an environment people are not used to. It shows they don't always have to be vicious predictors."

Becoming a photographer for the National Geographic gave Brian a passport to the world and a job that couldn't have fitted him any better.

"I am passionate about the ocean and I love to tell stories so it fitted well."

Recently he has started to focus on conservation and telling stories which will open peoples eyes to problems they most likely would not have heard about without his work. Some of his recent work has focused on the global fishing crisis which Brian started after reading an article in a newspaper. The piece said that 90% of the world's big fish had disappeared and he expected this to be covered the world over but it wasn't so Brian decided to do something about it.

Photograph by Brian Skerry"I like to tell big stories as it opens peoples eyes up to things they don't know and after the fishing story I was on the phone to senators and to media companies such as Good Morning America. The oceans are in trouble. There are some serious problems out there that I believe are not clear to many people. My hope is to continually find new ways of creating images and stories that both celebrate the sea yet also highlight environmental problems. Photography can be a powerful instrument for change."

The global fishing piece is just one of the many stories Brian has told. His stories, which take around 8-12 weeks to cover have seen him living at the bottom of the sea, spending months on old fishing boats and using everything from helicopters to snow mobiles to get him to his work.

"Sometimes I work on one project other times I do three or four and if I do that they're all at different stages. But if I have too many I can't focus as I plan everything myself."

Constantly coming up with new ideas to propose to National Geographic can be a challenge, after all they aren't going to approve everyone's ideas. Brian has done OK so far and his preparation and knowledge of the animals he photographs has helped with this.

photograph by Brian Skerry"I have always had an interest in certain animals such as whales since I was a kid and I spend all the free time I have reading science papers, news, websites and talking to scientists. I stay close and informed about the areas I photograph. For example I may hear a piece on off shore drilling in a place that should be kept how it is and decide to follow something up about it."

Brian travels with 25 cases of equipment, which includes his Nikons, underwater housing and strobes.

"Under water you loose all the colour as it gets absorbed so you need strobes to bring the colour back."

You have to get very close to the subject, 5 or 6 feet away as water is muggy and the light gets diffused. Patience is also crucial, you have to visit sites time and time again to get the picture right.

"Slow shutter speeds, strobes and getting in close all help."

Photograph by Brian SkerryBackground is important too something which Brian is prepared to go and look for then sit and wait for a fish to come into shot rather than finding a fish and photographing it anywhere.

"If you chase it you get the animal but not a great looking shot, beautiful coral creates drama you just have to be patient and wait for it. I'm lucky I love the anticipation and I love what I do. It's great, the whole package is great. I like planning a trip and then worrying that the pictures wont turn out. Then if you have a good day in the field it makes you feel great. You get home and spend time with a picture editor and you see the story folding out in front of your eyes. It doesn't matter how long you have worked in the industry for either it's still cool to get the magazine with your work in through the letter box."

Visit Brian Skerry for more information.

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