There are photographers, and then there are photographers. The ones who not only capture moments for forever, but that also work behind-the-scenes to make sure these moments are not numbered. Tom Vierus is one of those photographers who uses his impressive skills to make a difference in marine conservation. Check out his interview!
The Fins United Initiative: Thank you for being here with us, Tom. So, why did you choose marine biology as your career path?
Tom Vierus: At the end of my bachelor’s degree I joined a marine biology excursion to the Florida Keys. One day we went out to snorkel and encountered a scalloped hammerhead shark. That was the first shark I had ever seen in the wild and I instantly got hooked. I knew I wanted to find out more about sharks and decided to enrol into a master in tropical marine ecology with a focus on sharks.
TFUI: How did you move from strict science to becoming a photographer/filmmaker?
TV: I have been into photography long before I started with science. So naturally, during all my travels and expeditions I took photos and videos. It started off with taking my Gopro everywhere and putting together little holiday movies. I would spend hours and hours on the edit and loved seing the final result and being able to decide how it would turn out. During my master studies I dove deeper into the science world and quickly noticed there is an urgent need for better science communication. For my fieldwork I went to Fiji where I investigated a potential hammerhead shark nursery (check it out here) and back in Germany received the prestigious German Prize for Science Photography for a photo series depicting this project. One thing that made the photography and filming very tricky though was that I had to do the science part AND the media part at the same time. I think I can make a bigger impact by telling the stories of science and help scientists and projects tell their story because I can solely focus on the filming and photography. After my masters I decided to register a business and I have been slowly making my way from there.
TFUI: What has been your favorite picture (or film) and why?
TV: That’s a tough one! There are plenty of great images and films out there, but one of my favorites is the photograph of a right whale and a diver taken by Brian Skerry.
TFU: These are stunning! What has been the biggest source of inspiration in your work?
TV: There are a quite few people out there that have and keep inspiring me – each one with their own amazing talent. The work of Laurent Ballesta is a big inspiration, as is Paul Nicklen’s work in the Antarctic. Their photos, videos and engagement with their projects are a huge push for me. At the same time, I really don’t need external motivation for what I do. I have been lucky enough to travel and live in various places on earth and have seen beautiful places as well as environmental disasters and human atrocities. Trying to leave the world a little better than when I came into it and show the people what it is worth fighting for - that is my main driver.
TFUI: Your pictures of sharks are absolutely breathtaking-- I feel like I'm there with them! What struck me about your photos was that they don't depict sharks as "scary". No gloomy background, no teeth in your face (though there is that cute smiling shark one!). Were you taking pictures with that in mind?
TV: Thanks! Indeed, I try to portrait the beauty of sharks and trigger admiration and curiosity rather than fear. Sharks get enough bad news and need more positive feedback in the general media. Images are definitely part of that. While sharks are predators and no pets, I think it doesn’t always have to be the great white shark trying to grab a bait with all teeth showing. That said, they do have teeth and are predators, so it should also be part of the bigger picture.
TFUI: What do you hope people take away from your photographs/films?
TV: My aim with my photography and films is to inspire fellow people to appreciate our environment and become an active part of the conservation movement. The word “conservationist” has nowadays a bad touch to it and I would argue for that to change. We all can be conservationists. We all can be part of the movement by simply changing our own way of life. Avoid those single-use plastics, shift your diet towards a plant based one, recycle your trash properly, tell your friends and so on.
TV: It’s been said many times but nevertheless stays true: people only protect what they know and understand. Why should anyone care about the ocean, or sharks, or elephants, or the amazon if they do not know anything about them? Our role as filmmakers, photographers but also as marine biologists is to go out there and share the wonders of our world with the public! Inspiring people is like planting seeds - they keep growing all by themselves. People must understand that we all can make changes in our daily life which positively affect our planet.
TFUI: Any advice for those starting out with underwater photography/filmmaking?
TV: Don’t listen to the people telling you what you cannot do. Just go out, shoot what you love and keep repeating that. The more you shoot, the better you get! Another tip would be to know your equipment by heart and don’t let the constant thought of better gear demotivate you from shooting (that thought never goes away 😉)
TFUI: What is your whackiest experience while out shooting?
TV: I guess my most exciting experience was underwater while diving in the Shark Reef Marine Reserve in Fiji: there wasn’t any sun that particular day which made it even darker down at 30m. Additionally the bull sharks that day were extremely agile stirring up sand and swimming extremely close. I had to push a few of them away with my dome and one of the bulls actually bit into one of my flash arms mounted on my underwater housing. It wasn’t an unsafe situation – sharks generally are attracted to the flash lights and their electric impulses which hey can sense with specialized cells - the ampullae of Lorenzini – but it was definitely a dive to remember!!
TFUI: Do you think people in the different places you have traveled/studied in have a good relationship with the ocean environment? What about with sharks? If not, what can be done to better it?
TV: All across the range. In Fiji for example, people are deeply connected to the ocean and sharks are rooted within their ancient mythology. At the same time sharks are caught, sold and eaten throughout the islands – often out of necessity. Recently, we spend several weeks in the Pacific on a Feedback trip of a Germany funded Climate Change Resilience project. After great talks with different stakeholders, we would still see them throw their rubbish into their sea as we would leave on a boat. Sometimes it can be really frustrating. On a positive note, we have seen a lot of improvement in communities where we actually sat down with the people, listened to their stories
and shared some of our knowledge.
TFUI: How so?
TV: Mangroves have been replanted and certain fish species avoided during spawning seasons. In the end it comes down to working with the people. It might be a bit different in some westernized countries like Germany. Most people are not affected by climate change, falling fish stocks or disappearing forests. Industrial nations simply replace disappearing products with alternatives without consumers noticing anything. What we can do here is to keep reminding the public that their choices do influence our environment. Many products have a long rattail that is sometimes hard to see. Shark meat is sold under synonyms, the cheap shrimps have led to mangrove destruction in South East Asia and animal agriculture is the leading contributor to greenhouse gases in our environment. In the end there is a lot that we can do about it, but it is very context specific. Of course, a fishing community on the Solomon Islands will need different recommendations than a little town in Switzerland. Especially consumers in the westernized world must be made aware that their consumer behaviour is their weapon. Don’t be part of industries you don’t want support. One of the biggest changes an individual can make is changing his/her diet. It is an unpopular topic among many as it requires change with oneself but going plant-based can have a real impact. Of course, no one is perfect, but we can all start somewhere and in order to get people to do something, we need to show them what’s out there, what’s at stake, and what it is worth fighting for.
TFUI: What has been the coolest encounter with a shark (or other Chondrichthyan) that you've had?
TV: I guess being in the water with sixty bull sharks in Fiji must have been one of the most exciting moments in my life. These sharks are so powerful and elegant and during these dives they come so close that I sometimes have to push them away with my camera. Definitely makes me come out the water with a huge smile every time 😊
TFUI: Do you speak another language? If so, how has it helped you reach your audience in a different way?
TV: Besides German and English, I do know some basics in French and Spanish. I also lived and went to school in South Africa about ten years back and still speak some Afrikaans (though its dramatically worsened over time). While most of my work is being done in English, back home in Germany I organize multimedia talks in German and recently had an expedition on sharks, their threats and their role in the oceans. So, wherever I am I try to engage in talks and be it only on a very basic level. I would love to improve my language skills though and become more fluent in the above languages – its on the list 😉
TFUI: What is the most rewarding thing about your job?
TV: I think some of the most rewarding moments are the interactions with kids. I spoke on a few occasions to crowds filled with young kids around ten years old. Their curiosity, enthusiasm and euphoria are hard to match and a joy to see! When I get letters from these kids telling me they want to become divers, shark researchers or photographers it might be the biggest reward I can get. They will be the ocean ambassadors of tomorrow.
TFUI: What’s next for you?
TV: I am currently working on two short movies – one on the physioshark project in French Polynesia and the other one of a climate change and resilience project in the Pacific. In my business you have to be prepared and always on the lookout. I haven’t been home for eight weeks now and I am looking forward to my desk and some time off traveling. I have several projects in the pipeline: I am trying to organize an exhibition on coral reefs in the light of the International Year of the Reefs and hope to be back in the Pacific by the end of the year. If you want to follow my travels and projects you can check out my blog www.livingdreams.tv or visit my page www.tomvierus.com
THE FINS UNITED INITIATIVE WOULD LIKE TO THANK tom FOR His TIME AND
TFUI Founder Melissa C. Marquez is author of all animal bios and "Behind the Fins" segments.
SEE MELISSA'S TEDx TALK HERE:
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