How to turn the tide with powerful imagery and captivating storytelling – an interview with Shawn Heinrichs from SeaLegacy
Shawn Heinrichs is an Emmy Winning Cinematographer, photographer and conservation storyteller. He is a co-founder of SeaLegacy, an organisation pushing for an abundant, healthy ocean and planet. Shawn uses imagery and words to share the compelling stories of ocean species who otherwise don’t have a voice.
Are you interested in a career in conservation photography and conservation journalism? Read on to hear all about Shawn’s story and his incredible underwater moments. Start your conservation storytelling career with some inspiration from Shawn!
Why do you work in conservation?
I have always felt a very deep connection with nature.
I could have decided to focus on building a financially rewarding life and have a nice house with all the cars and accessories to a seemingly luxurious life, but the natural world that supports us was disappearing before my eyes and I couldn’t sit back and do nothing.
In the short time from when I started swimming in the ocean as a child to when I was in my early twenties, so much of the incredible marine life that I’d simply taken for granted had disappeared. Disappeared is a bit misleading because it wasn’t just disappearing, we were taking it.
We were silencing our forests and turning prairies into car parks. We were dissolving reefs into rubble and emptying our oceans.
I realised I had to do something about it. I chose to jettison the business world to stand in defence of nature; the very life support system of our planet.
How would you describe your current role and what does it involve?
There are different aspects of my work. There is the fieldwork and the at-office creative post-production work. There is also the conservation campaigning, plus the work to support and grow a foundation.
My days can be focused on any one of those things. I can be out there raising money, communicating with donors and supporters, or creating content to distribute to our online community and media partners.
The root of my work is frontline journalism, conservation storytelling and natural history filmmaking and often, that work takes me to places like remote West Papua, to share the stories of our relationship with the oceans or the mangroves or the jungles, and how the future of our oceans and forests are inextricably linked to our own human survival.
My work is about creating empathy through imagery and then taking that imagery and the stories they translate into to the people who can make an impact.
We also use these stories to reflect the beauty and importance back to the people in their own communities so they can reaffirm their pride and cement their commitment to protecting their critical natural resources in their own backyards.
Other times I’m working on shows for Netflix or The Discovery Channel, or National Geographic – bringing an exposé to the larger world.
In addition to all of this, I spend a lot of time at my desk. I’m editing in Lightroom, Photoshop, After Effects and Premiere, creating content for our social channels for campaigns.
Another aspect is the campaign work where we develop strategies to protect particular environments and species. This work includes developing relationships with key leaders and policy makers. This involves writing articles and stories and creating campaign strategies that are often steeped in radical collaboration with multiple organizations.
In a nutshell, my job ranges from being underwater with manta rays to sitting in a meeting with folks who orchestrate change at CITES and the United Nations.
How much time do you spend in the field versus the office?
It’s 50:50, except for this year! Half of my time is usually fieldwork, but when you add in all the travel and preparation, only a tiny portion of my time is spent in the water capturing those moments. It’s the point of the pyramid!
How do you measure the impact of storytelling?
It depends on the nature of the stories we’re telling. In Papua, we measured impact by how many hectares were protected.
Other times, it’s how many laws have now been put in place? What is the reduction in poaching? What ranger patrols are now in effect? We measure against real, hard, tangible outcomes, in which animals and environments are protected and measurably saved!
Sometimes impact is about building public support for a movement that will result in new legislation or political ruling, or demand sustainable use of a resource rather than exploitation.
Measurement can be tricky, but in the end, it’s about the species we’re concerned about thriving. Are the places we want to protect doing better than they were before? Have people changed their behaviours? Are these behaviours less destructive?? Are there new laws in place to protect the environment?
How can we be more strategic as conservationists to have more impact?
A lot of people think taking a picture of something, an endangered species for example, is conservation. It is an ingredient of conservation, for sure, but without a strategy behind it, you may not be effecting change.
The strategy is the confluence of the imagery, of the storytelling and of the action you’re trying to achieve. What does a win look like? How do you work out your strategy?
We start with the win then work out how to get there. We visualise that we’re in the room where decisions are going to be made, and we plan backwards from there.
Who’s in that room? Who needs to make a decision? Who are influencers? How do we engage with those influencers? From there, we apply our expertise and experience around storytelling in a way this is most likely to get all the people who are critical to making something happen on board.
Ideally, the law is passed, the species is protected or the ranger patrol cuts the ribbon on a new protected area and the world is a better place.
People always say conservation is about saving nature, but nature doesn’t need saving. Our focus needs to be cultural reengineering. We have to change our relationship with nature to create an opportunity for ecosystems to thrive!
What campaigns are you most proud of?
The great moments are the ones in which we can measure a significant win and a great example of this is the protection of manta rays at the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species.
There was trading and gross exploitation of these vulnerable animals and their numbers were plummeting around the world.
We had to get 180 countries who were part of the United Nations to get onboard and express their support. Because of the power of visual storytelling and because we engaged with the right influencers, policy makers and leaders, we gained a critical victory!
Mantas now have protections in place all over the world and populations once heavily threatened are now safer.
How can budding conservation photographers know whether and when to volunteer their skills in photography/filmmaking and when they should be working for pay?
This really depends on where you are in your career. When you’re starting out, people want to know what your capabilities are. My strategy is to always put a lot on the table initially.
Once you’ve established your value, then think about reciprocity. Early in my career, I offered a lot, but once I was able to start producing great content and results, it was time to start valuing it. More and more, I was able to say – and show – that my time and my content was worth something. I could say that to keep doing what I do, I need to get paid. It’s a progression.
Subject matter also plays a part in knowing when to volunteer and when to charge money. You may be a professional, but if you don’t have any experience with a certain subject you may have to donate your time to get it.
What’s your advice for people who want to get into underwater photography/videography?
There are a ton of people with cameras out there. You have to think about what you’re able to contribute to the larger narrative in the current moment? Just because you love going underwater and taking pictures, doesn’t mean your work is valuable. You need to be clear on what your angle is!
What’s your passion? What’s the problem? Work these things out first and then explore how your passion and your voice can contribute to solving a specific problem. Carve out a niche for yourself and strive to be identified for that niche.
What key steps in your conservation career have you taken?
I like to joke that I’m completely unqualified for my job! I’ve never taken a photography or journalism course in my life, but I do have two things going for me: an absolute and unwavering sense of purpose and unyielding perseverance.
Early in my career, I worked harder, smarter and with more commitment than anyone who was around me and that would be a hard pace to maintain without a sense of purpose! I knew that I needed to give a voice to the voiceless, to animals and places that were being exploited, otherwise ‘out of sight is out of mind’.
This insatiable drive guided every single one of my steps. It was my perseverance, and not expecting anyone to give me anything in return that has allowed me to have the career that I do. I did the hard work. I developed the necessary skills and acquired the deep expertise.
What advice would you give someone wishing to follow in your footsteps?
Don’t try to be like someone else! They’re already there doing it. Take inspiration from people you admire, but find your own passion and path!
This is hard work. If you want a sexy career where you don’t have to work hard, this is the wrong one. There are more losses than wins and it’s an uphill battle most days, but when you do experience a win, they’re sweeter than anything else in the world.
You have to have passion and purpose at the core of what you’re doing. It might not be fun and adventurous; 80-100 hours a week can’t all be amazing.
What’re the best and worst parts of the job?
The hardest part is arranging the logistics of my travels, from customs and immigration to baggage and equipment, and it’s becoming harder. Once I’ve arrived at a particular location there, I love it, but I don’t enjoy packing my bags beforehand!
The best part of my job is when I’m face-to-face with magnificent beings. Sharing space with an incredible sentient animal and knowing that its future is hinging on your ability to tell its story is what drives me. Those moments are magical. They remind me why my work matters!
What’s your most memorable underwater moment?
One of my most memorable moments underwater, and there have been many, was with a manta ray that was tangled in hooks and fishing line. It was clear that it was unable to feed and was going to die. I kept diving down again and again in repeated attempts to free it until eventually, I managed to pull the hook out of her head. It was very intense. Afterwards, she circled back and looked me in the eye, before swimming off, knowing she’d live another day. I felt like she was thanking me, acknowledging me somehow. This is what I want the world to feel, an exchange of awareness between species that reinforces how connected we all are.
How do you stay positive while working in conservation?
We’ve only been here on this planet for a relative blink in geological time, and what we have done to this Earth, is insignificant. Yes, we’ve done a lot of damage and there are a lot of things that have been pushed to the brink, and past, but nature is resilient.
I know that if we don’t show up we’ll lose most of what we care for, what sustains life on this planet. On the other hand, if we do show up, we can turn the tide and make a difference.
The only rational course is to maintain positivity and make a difference. It’s about showing up with passion and purpose because we have a responsibility to care for and make space for all species to thrive.
Turn the Tide
Are you feeling energised and ready to start your marine conservation career? Or your career in conservation photography and storytelling?
Stimulate yourself with some awe-inspiring imagery by Shawn and SeaLegacy! Watch documentaries, do your research and volunteer to gain experience. Read up about marine conservation and conservation photography. Start your conservation career by checking out our jobs board.
Find your perfect job in marine conservation, photography or conservation journalism and start changing the world for the better!
Main image credit: Shawn Heinrichs.
Author profile | Tash Allen
Tash is a marine conservationist, divemaster, and digital marketer. She has a passion for the ocean and everything in it! When she’s not guiding people in the water, showing them epic marine life, she’s communicating about it through copywriting and social media. In her spare time, you’ll catch her exploring land and sea, hiking, and finding adventures to go on! See more on LinkedIn.