Anyone paying attention to science outreach in recent years will have learned a great deal about shark biology, whether they intended to or not. That's because the University of Miami's R. J. Dunlap Marine Conservation Program, an active shark research group, communicates its efforts on a social media scale few other laboratories can match. Their tweets are witty, their facebook updates thoughtful and sincere, and they are always on point with timely debunking of media shark myths. I like RJD, of course, because they do beautiful marine photography.
The success of the RJD outreach program is owed in part to consistently engaging imagery that captures not just the animals but the researchers who study them. Many of the most spectacular photographs from the group have been the work of Christine Shepard, one of RJD's embedded media specialists. Christine's work has been featured in outlets such as the History Channel, Washington Post, Discovery News, BBC, and National Geographic Online. She is currently finishing her stint with RJD and is moving to Hawaii to continue her work in marine conservation and fine art photography.
I was pleased recently to have an opportunity to interview Christine about her methods, about her career, and, especially, about sharks.
CE: You make great images of sharks and of shark science. Can I ask if you were interested in sharks first, or photography first?
CS: Thanks! My love for water and the ocean has been a huge part of my life since I was a little girl growing up in Southern California. I also have always felt at home with the visual arts, drawing and painting as a youngster and then beginning my photographic pursuits with my first SLR camera around age 12. Sharks specifically, though, did not come into focus until joining the RJ Dunlap Marine Conservation Program’s team as a media intern during college. These scientists were so passionate and knowledgeable about sharks that it couldn’t help but rub off. Now I am that lady at dinner parties that will go on for hours blabbering about why sharks are the coolest animals and how perfectly evolved they are to be our ocean’s apex predators.
You majored in communications in college, rather than marine science. Does your background give you a different perspective than your co-workers at the R. J. Dunlap Marine Conservation Program? And, do you see your scientific collaborators making common communications mistakes?
I majored in Electronic Media as well as Ecosystem Science and Policy at the University of Miami. With a foundation in both science and communication, I feel confident working alongside marine researchers as well as other multimedia specialists. I bring specific skills to our team such as photography, video production, writing, graphic design and educational development. But I also bring a big picture vision that allows me to simplify complex scientific studies into easier-to-understand and visually engaging multimedia packages.
The RJD team is unique in that most of their scientists also have training, interest and inherent talents in the arts and communication. For example, our director Dr. Neil Hammerschlag is a gifted artist and photographer who places great emphasis on public outreach. Ph.D. Candidate Austin Gallagher also is an underwater photographer and leads an underwater film festival called Beneath the Waves. And Ph.D. Candidate David Shiffman (@WhySharksMatter on Twitter) is a social media and blogging guru who has taught me quite a bit about science communication through social media. That’s just to name a few!
If I were to identify common communication mistakes in the general scientific community, I would mention use of jargon, too much detail, and not enough visuals.
Do you often have a particular set of images in mind ahead of time when you travel with the team? Do you have the freedom to determine these subjects, or are you on assignment to capture specific images?
Since I have been working with the RJD Program for nearly four years, I have a pretty strong grasp on the research methodologies and goals. Dr. Neil and I work together on outreach strategy, determining what multimedia projects to work on next. When we go on expedition, I generally create a shot list for myself, identifying what images and video clips I hope to capture. Ultimately whether I can capture that imagery is up to Mother Nature and the sharks.
One of my favorite photographs of yours was taken from the sea floor, looking up at a shark tethered to a research boat . Can you tell me about how you made this image?
Oh I’m glad you like this one too! It’s one of my favorites, for a number of reasons. First of all, it was one of the most fun and successful international expeditions I’ve participated in with RJD. We went to Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas to host four days of citizen science shark tagging with Oracle. Running two trips a day for four days, we brought out over 200 participants from 22 different countries! There was even a custom-built shark cage for participates to observe the tagging process from an underwater perspective. Many were nervous about cage diving… that is until they saw me swimming around outside of the cage taking their picture.
Most days the water looked like a swimming pool – turquoise, shallow and gin-clear. On the final day, though, a giant bull shark pulled our gear out a bit deeper into more murky water. The subsequent line had hooked a large nurse shark. I grabbed my camera, mask and fins, took a deep breath, and dove down to the end of the line. With the sun behind the boat, the green water provided a perfect backdrop for this dramatic silhouette.
I see that you also put down the camera to participate in the hands-on aspects of shark research. When you’re in the field, how do you divide your time?
First and foremost, we are a team at RJD. Everyone pitches in and helps to make sure the field research goes smoothly. When I train new photo interns, I have them go out on at least one trip first without a camera just to learn and participate in the research. That way, they can lend a hand when needed, be safer by knowing where to look for moving lines, hooking and sharks, and be more strategic about their imagery.
When I go out on shark tagging trips with RJD as the trip photographer, my primary role is to capture imagery from the day to give to students and participants. Every trip, we take out high school students and often citizen scientists as well to participate in the research process. It’s a truly amazing hands-on learning opportunity that often debunks many of the common shark fears and misconceptions. By providing these participants with an album of professional photography, it helps them to remember the exhilarating experience and to also share it with friends and family.
In addition to the photography on trips, I also enjoy chatting with students and participants about the research projects at our lab, about shark conservation, and also career advice. Being on a boat for six or seven hours with a group of people really allows you to connect. We like to keep things light and playful onboard with plenty of humor, but it’s also great when we end up deep in conversation about shark facts and conservation. You can often see the light bulb turn on for many students when they are exposed to this new possible career path that resonates with them. That’s the best!
I also love jumping in to help with the research side when time permits. Usually I’ll wait until I have a solid foundation of imagery from the day before putting down the camera. But then I’ll take little breaks to deploy gear, haul in the lines and weights and show students how to measure various environmental conditions. The only time I really can jump in with shark sampling and tagging is if we catch a lot of sharks that day and I’ve captured plenty of imagery of all the students and participants with sharks. Then, I sometimes help restrain the sharks, take a finclip, biopsy, measurements, or even attach a tag. I actually just had the opportunity to take blood from a nurse shark the other week for the first time and had a blast. I’ve photographed the procedure over a hundred times on shark tagging trips, but actually doing it myself was really fun and empowering.
As much of your work is produced in the context of your employment, do you retain rights to the images?
Yes, I am fortunate to work for a wonderful employer who has allowed me to retain the rights to my creative work.
Let’s talk about equipment issues specific to marine photography. What camera and lenses do you use? Do you use different cameras for video?
In college when I switched over to a digital SLR, I bought the Canon 50D, Canon EFS 17-85mm wide-angle zoom lens, and Canon 60mm f/2.8 Macro lens. It has been a really great prosumer camera kit that has allowed me to grow exponentially as a photographer.
After working with RJD for about a year, the University was able to secure funding to purchase an underwater camera kit. We worked with Reef Photo and Video up in Fort Lauderdale to purchase a Canon 7D, Tokina 10-17mm Fisheye lens, Nauticam underwater housing, Zen mini dome, and one Sea & Sea strobe. I’ve really enjoyed taking my photography below the surface with this camera and housing. Honestly every time I take it in the field, I feel like I learn something new and grow a little bit as a photographer.
Since I will soon be leaving my work here at the University of Miami to move out to the Big Island of Hawaii and go freelance, I’ve made a big investment with some new gear this month. My philosophy with selecting new gear was going for top-quality that will last many years and allow me the creative freedom to take my work to a new level. My new camera kit includes: Nikon D4s, Nikkor 14-24 f/2.8, Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G, Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G and a Gitzo Ocean Systematic Series 3 Tripod. I am waiting on the underwater housing for a few months, but will likely go with Nauticam, as I’ve really appreciated working with their gear these past few years at RJD.
What is on your gear envy list?
Luckily, I just went through months of gear research and have invested in most of what I’d like to have right now. But sometime in the near future I would love to add in a surf housing for my camera so I can start learning that niche as well!
Are there common gear problems you encounter operating a camera in an underwater or salt water environment? Do you take precautions for salt or water damage?
Most definitely! I am a pretty relaxed and happy-go-lucky person, but when it comes to preparing my gear I am much more of a perfectionist. Electronics and salt water are not the best of friends. So taking some extra time to double check everything is clean and in it’s proper place prevents most issues from arising. After my research and dive trips, I soak the housing in freshwater for anywhere from 30 minutes to one hour, and then allow it to air dry. It also doesn’t hurt to invest in gear insurance, just in case…
Finally, tell us about sharks! Are there species you are especially excited to see? Are some easier to work with than others?
Oh boy! Now we get into the really fun stuff! I love being in the water with Hammerhead sharks. They are so highly evolved and specialized that they look like aliens of the sea. I love how they move through the water and can turn on a dime. Also, since they are endangered, it’s a great reminder to count my blessings when I do them. But really, any day that we see a shark out on the water is a great day.
Some species definitely put up more of a fight than others. Nurse sharks may be docile underwater, but hook them on a fishing line and they will give you the best workout you’ve had since Crossfit. From an underwater photography perspective, though, I wouldn’t say any species are easier to work with than another. Conditions are extremely dynamic and I always err on the side of caution giving extra space to animals when they seem more agitated or disorientated. Usually though, the sharks are not the least bit interested in me and head in the opposite direction.
If there were one thing you’d like people to know about sharks, what would it be?
Great question. One thing I didn’t fully appreciate before working with scientists was the vital role sharks have in our oceans. Generally I understood that everything in the ocean has its place and when the balance is disrupted through excessive fishing activity, the system is thrown off.
But I was fascinated to learn more specifically how sharks help keep our oceans healthy. They are highly evolved predators who target the weak, the diseased, the dying, even the dumb. By removing these unhealthy fish from the ocean, it leaves the strong ones to reproduce, promoting health throughout the whole food web. When sharks are fished out, however, the population dynamics with their prey can become unbalanced, triggering cascading ecosystem effects. This can affect economically important fish species and have large impacts on the fishing community. Knowing that the oxygen from approximately 3 out of every 4 breaths we take comes from the ocean, it would also make sense not to significantly disrupt the ocean’s balance in its food web. The ocean is a beautiful and vital part of our planet. In my opinion, conserving its apex predators is something we all ought to care a bit more about, and hopefully these images can help begin that conversation.
You can see more of Christine's work at http://christineshepard.com, and you can follow the progress of the RJD shark tagging project at http://sharktagging.com. All images in this post are Christine Shepard and used by permission.