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  • Tim Greyhavens

The Picture Says It All: A Conversation with Shari Sant Plummer

Shari Sant Plummer is an internationally known conservation activist, philanthropist and photographer. She is president of Code Blue Foundation, a trustee of the Summit Foundation, vice president of Seacology, and chair of the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP). She is also a board member for the Sylvia Earle Alliance Foundation, an advisory board member of the BLUE Ocean Film Festival and the World Wildlife Fund’s National Council and Marine Leadership Committee. As a member of the Smithsonian Ocean Initiative Advisory Council, Shari helped create the Sant Ocean Hall at the National Museum of Natural History. Shari also writes for National Geographic’s News Watch and Ocean Views, and she is Executive Producer of the Netflix documentary Mission Blue.

Plummer worked as a stylist and design director for Ralph Lauren in New York for nine years before moving to San Francisco to be Esprit’s visual director. In 1994, she founded the environmental fashion and home furnishings store Worldware, which was one of the first lifestyle stores with an environmental focus.

Plummer sold the business in 2001 and now devotes herself full time to her conservation work. An avid diver and ocean activist, she travels extensively throughout the world promoting ocean conservation and environmental awareness.

I spoke with Shari by phone recently to hear her insights about conservation photography and its intersections with philanthropy.

[Disclaimer: Wilburforce Foundation, where I work, has funded several of ILCP's projects. This interview was conducted outside of my role at the foundation.]

Tim Greyhavens: Let’s start with your background. What got you hooked on photography?

Shari Sant Plummer: I grew up in the age of film. As a kid, I had kind of an unusual hobby of just renting a darkroom and printing for hours. I wasn't even taking my own pictures. I would take negatives I found in the attic of our house and print them. I loved the whole process of putting the negative in the enlarger, manipulating it, putting it in all the baths, and then watching it slowly reveal itself. I felt like I was taking a photo, even though I was using a negative that had been made many years before I got to hold a camera. But I loved the whole process of creating that image because I had control over what that final product was.

Then, later, I ended up working at Ralph Lauren as a design director, and I was in charge of all the styling for our women's ad campaigns. I worked really closely with Bruce Weber, and I watched his process. I literally stood next to him on all of the shoots, because I was looking at the light, I was looking at how the light was affecting the clothes. If they weren't falling properly there was a shadow that shouldn't be there, or a wrinkle, I would jump in and fix it. It was sort of like you had to be on the same wavelength and know when to interrupt a shoot and when not to. You had to see the same thing. It really changed the way that I looked at light.

Then, while I was still working at Ralph Lauren, my family went on a safari in Africa. That's when I bought my first real camera, a Nikon. That's when I really, really got into photography. I started playing around with black and white printing, and then hand painting over it and doing my own sort of artistic form. When I left Ralph Lauren, the first thing I did was I was to enroll at the International Center of Photography. I took classes advanced photography there, really honing my photography and printing skills and doing some other thing with cyanotypes and daguerreotypes, and all these old formats of printing, which I loved.

But then along came digital, and it's kind of changed everything. I really still miss that feeling of being in the dark, totally focused on the image, and having that image evolve literally in front of my eyes in a bath. That was just the coolest thing. But, I've adapted.

Did you have any photographic heroes when you were learning photography?

All the classic Magnum photojournalists. I thought that photojournalism was what I wanted to do, but then I got a little more into the fine art aspects of it. People like Margaret Bourke-White, Tina Modotti, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, Eugene Smith ‒ all of them were heroes of mine. I used to shoot black and white all the time, so I really studied their work and their printing techniques.

I've actually always wanted to do a film about the period of photography when Alfred Stieglitz had 291 Gallery in New York. Georgia O'Keeffe came into his life in the beginning of the 20th century, when there was a renaissance of art and architecture going on in New York. It was about the same time that Edward Weston was living with Tina Modotti, and later Frida Kahlo married Diego Rivera in Mexico. They all knew each other, and they were all testing the boundaries of art and photography, inspiring each other. It was just when cameras had become hand-held, and they could move them around and take pictures in a whole new way. Edward Weston was taking pictures of toilets and clouds, making abstract photographic art. Georgia O'Keeffe was painting stamens of flowers, and not still-lifes of flowers. It's a really interesting era in art and photography, that all came together when people really started making fine art and not portraiture with cameras.

One of the things that's challenging when we look at photography in relation to philanthropy is that there are a lot of people who know Ansel Adams, or Edward Weston, or Tina Modotti. But the philanthropic side of things is still a more mysterious world to a lot of people, including many photographers. Yet, there is a direct relationship because philanthropists need photography to help tell their stories, and photographers need philanthropists and funding to get their work out there.

Photography is a great way to educate. People have a very short attention span, and a photo is a fast way to impact someone. For example, look at Chris Jordan’s work on Midway Island. He took pictures of albatross in the middle of nowhere who are dying because their stomachs are full of plastic. If I wanted to influence Congress when they are legislating about a plastic issue, I would show the stark images Chris took. I wouldn't have to say anything because the picture say it all.

As a philanthropist, the money spent getting Chris to take that photograph in Midway Island was really well-spent. It's probably more useful than a much more expensive whitepaper on the subject. You need to have that, but that’s the scientific backup. What's going to stick with somebody is that image of the dead albatross lying there with all of the contents of its stomach filled with plastic.

For a small foundation like mine, dollars for photography can have a lot more impact than a scientific study might. Of course it really helps to support the science as well. Sometimes the photography is the last thing that's put into a campaign, but maybe it’s the most powerful thing that pushes it over the edge.

Chris is a good example of someone who does really great work with both still images and with video. There seems to be more and more blending of the two formats, especially as DSLR cameras have evolved to take high-resolution video as well as stills. Do you think that as we become more of a fast-paced content society the impact of individual images will be diminished?

No, I don't. I think we have a lot of multimedia opportunities now. You can go read the New York Times on your iPad, and then you see images, and then you click on a video. But I still think that the images are at least as powerful, if not more powerful, than video. To your point about these cameras, cameras can do these multi-function things but a lot of photographers can’t. It's very hard to switch back and forth on a shoot between video and still photography. It's a different mindset.

Photographers that are seasoned professionals are learning now how to use video, because editors are asking for it. But often they will take an assistant for the video or to video them taking the photograph. Being a good cinematographer is not necessarily the same as a good photographer.

Lately I've become more interested in film projects. My foundation, the Code Blue Foundation, is working with Sundance Institute and other philanthropists, using funding to encourage environmental films and storytellers through the institute and through their labs. We want to make sure that those filmmakers with great ideas are being nurtured and get the kind of help they need to these films will be seen. I think it's really important to have video. But I don't think that that the really great nature photographers are going to turn into really great nature filmmakers any time soon. Some may, but they really are different methods of storytelling.

One of the concerns that still photographers are coping with now is the sheer volume of images they take. It used to be a good photographer would have cabinets full of slides. Now we have hard disks full of images, and the number of images someone takes has increased significantly. There’s definitely a concern about the technology keeping up with the storage for these massive data banks that people have. And it's not just individual photographers ‒ it's museums, it's the organizations like National Geographic, it’s magazines. Are you hearing anything about philanthropy dealing with that issue?

That's a really timely question. I just gave some funding to ILCP to update their storage capabilities, because it is both a significant asset and a really important piece of the history we’ve seen. But then as computers keep upgrading and the storage keeps changing, you have to keep moving files from the last latest thing to next latest thing. When nature photographers go out and shoot something in the wild, they can take unlimited numbers of shots. Then they'll come back to an editor at a publication like National Geographic with 17,000 images for a story that will finally publish eight of them. What happens to all the rest of those, and how do you keep up with that? As a philanthropist, I can fund an organization's ability to keep buying bigger and better storage, but eventually you run into the question of how to manage all of that storage in a sustainable system.

You've probably seen the recent postings online that said when sheet film was popular we’d take a dozen pictures, and maybe two would be good. Then we went to 35mm film, you'd take 36 pictures, and two would be good. Now we've got digital, and you take 5,000 pictures, and two will be good. I there's a bit of an overload now, in terms of shooting as much as we can and hoping that something rises to the surface. But that seems to be the nature of the game, because editors want as much flexibility as possible.

I have friends who photograph for National Geographic, and they have it driven into them that "we don't publish excuses." You have to come back with the story, with those really amazing images. I've tried to restrict myself because I hate editing. But it's hard when you're shooting in nature because you don't know if that shark's coming back again. I take "safety shots", and then I think hopefully I'll get this better later in the dive. There was something sort of beautiful in having a limit of 36 pictures on a roll of film, and I remember being really selective of when you pressed the shutter, as Henri Cartier-Bresson described as that "decisive moment". With digital cameras I rarely have the discipline to do that.

everal years ago Jim Brandenburg gave himself the challenge of taking only one photograph a day for 90 days. And he produced this astounding set of images. I remember thinking that the discipline to do that is almost Zen-like. So much of what we see these days is super-fast-paced. If you look at many films or television shows now you look at television, you're seeing 1,000 images or more in ten minutes time because they're going by so quickly. I wonder if that's really just a change in aesthetic, or if that's just the demand because people are trying to get an already overloaded viewer’s attention.

There's a growing appeal to the retro movement, going back to vinyl records instead of digital streaming, or Polaroid cameras now are being rescued and refurbished. That single shot of a Polaroid that can't be reproduced, it has an appeal now to a culture that is used to having as much as it wants. It wants that discipline, as you pointed out. I think that film will probably make a comeback. I know I'm starting to see darkrooms pop up again. I think we kind of gorged ourselves in the digital age, and now maybe we're going to sit back and be a little bit selective in what we're wanting to consume in photography.

I'm sorry, but I don't want to see pictures of people's dinner. I really don't. Why is everybody photographing their food for me? I don't want to know where everyone is all the time at every minute of the day. Show me one image of your day, or of your vacation, or of your child. Please don't bombard the Internet with gazillions of every single thing you do because then we just tune out. I think you're right. We're going to see people kind of turning away from that type of overload, and going to a more selective and beautiful expression of what they're experiencing.

Part of what this overload is affecting is the whole concept of copyright. There are billions of images available online, and tens of billions more being uploaded every year. Yet, we're working with a law that is based upon a very different way of how people once produced and looked at images.

It's a really huge issue, and it's one that we discuss a lot with our photographers at ILCP. We encourage all of our photographers to copyright all of their images, of course. But now anyone can take an image, change it slightly, and say that it's theirs. And there are all sorts of legal issues about images posted on Facebook or Instagram. I think the hard part of that is that technology both encourages and limits what is shared. Instead of expanding what we can see, technology now makes some people afraid of sharing.

And then there’s the question of who owns a photograph. There was a really interesting case recently where a monkey took a selfie. That was big news, especially for wildlife photographers. The photographer, David Slater, had set up the camera, and then the animal grabbed the camera and took his own picture. The question quickly arose about who owns the copyright and whether or not it belonged in the public domain. That's an extreme example, but it’s the kind of thing we may be facing more and more in the future.

While we’re on the topic of sharing, what about the issue of payments for photographers? Some people wonder why photographers who care about social or environmental issues shouldn’t just give their images away. How do you respond to the challenge of making great images readily available but also allowing professional photographers to earn a decent living?

In the organization that I chair, the International League of Conservation Photographers, we have tried to make it both affordable for the nonprofit groups that want to use the images for conservation, yet still retain enough to pay the photographers and to pay the employees that manage those photographs. We don't usually pay them as much as they might make on another commercial or even on an editorial job, and those rates are all negotiable, depending on the photographer. But even if somebody wants to donate something, they can go on record and have a tax write-off, still retaining the value of that image.

The reality is that photographers need to be paid for literally putting their lives on the line sometimes, going out into these really remote areas up against dangerous wildlife like great white sharks or lions. Sometimes, when you see one of these images in National Geographic or with the ILCP, you think, oh, well, they were just lucky. They were there at the right place at the right time. No. A great series of photographs is planned out months, even years, in advance, to line up all the permits and all the access to the places they go. Then there’s the sitting for hours, days, months, in a blind, or diving in the water over and over again, until finally all those things come together. Then, of course, that artistic vision and the technical knowledge when you finally press that shutter and get that image, it all comes together.

Photographers like Garth Lenz in the Tar Sands, Nick Nichols covering elephant poaching, or Steve Winter covering what's happening to our big cats do the work at their own risk and often their own expense up front. They can only do that if there’s enough money somewhere down the road to take on the next project. That’s where philanthropy can make all the difference in the world.

What about those times when different forces of philanthropy appear to complete? For example, foundation support is helping efforts like Wildscreen Exchange that want to make online image libraries available for conservation causes. At the same time, as there are more and more images available the value of any particular image may be reduced significantly. You and other philanthropists support the efforts of ILCP and individual photographers to get out on the ground and to take great pictures and tell hard-hitting stories. How do we balance out those two sometimes competing efforts?

I don't know that they're competing. I think that if you have an amateur photographer who happens upon a scene and Instagrams a picture of a bulldozer at a dam site with wildlife that's threatened in the picture, it tells that story and that's a lucky shot. Great, share it with the world. But that's really different than a story like we would do at ILCP, when we have an expedition that's specific about an issue. As an example, at the Summit Foundation, another foundation that I'm on the board of, funded a series of expeditions with photographers and cinematographers to create specific messaging around marine protected areas in the Mesoamerican Reef. They had imaging that was targeted for stakeholders, like local fishermen, imaging for tourism, and imaging for policy makers. Those were really thought-out stories, and storytelling. It's very different than a snapshot that someone might happen upon.

For a directed story on a specific conservation issue, by photographers like David Doubilet or Brian Skerry or Steve Winter, there's no comparison between what their images are going to emote and what you feel seeing a snapshot taken by a tourist. The two can co-exist, but I don't think they compete.

I think that it's important for philanthropists to fund those expert storytellers, like the ones I just named, to go out in the field to cover these really critical environmental issues. That why I do what I do.

What are you most excited about right now?

There seems to be a global ground swell of support for ocean protection now. Decades of incredible photography, films, exploration, science and activism are starting to pay off.

Mission Blue, the film that I was executive producer on, is up for three Emmys. It’s the story of Sylvia Earle, her lifetime of work exploring the ocean and her mission to increase public awareness about and action for a global network of marine protected areas. We hope it will inspire a whole new generation of people to speak up for our greatest natural resources and build on the momentum created by the many inspiring heroes in this field.

Tim Greyhavens



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