Brian Skerry on assignment“I am a photojournalist, first and foremost, and if I cross a line, then there might not be any going back. I think you have to maintain journalistic integrity, and if you do the story right, then people will draw their own conclusions to the degree that there is a right and wrong in these stories. Hopefully, people come away with a right informed perspective.”

Brian Skerry is a photojournalist specializing in marine wildlife and underwater environments. Since 1998 he has been a contract photographer for National Geographic Magazine, and in 2014 he was named a National Geographic Photography Fellow.

Brian is praised worldwide for his aesthetic sense as well as his journalistic drive for relevance. His uniquely-creative images tell stories that not only celebrate the mystery and beauty of the sea, but also help bring attention to the large number of issues that endanger our oceans and its inhabitants.

Brian’s year round assignment schedule frequently finds him in environments of extreme contrast, from tropical coral reefs to diving beneath polar ice. While on assignment he has lived on the bottom of the sea, spent months aboard fishing boats and traveled in everything from snowmobiles to canoes to the Goodyear Blimp to get the picture. He has spent more than 10,000 hours underwater over the last thirty years.

Brian frequently lectures on photography and conservation issues having presented at venues such as TED Talks, the Royal Geographical Society in London and the Sydney Opera House in Australia. He is also a regular guest on television programs such as NBC’s TODAY Show, CBS Sunday Morning, and ABC’s Good Morning America. Recognition for his work includes awards from organizations and competitions such as Pictures Of The Year International (POYi), BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year, Nature’s Best and Communication Arts. In 2010, National Geographic magazine named one of Brian’s images among their 50 Greatest Photographs Of All Time

Brian is a founding Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP) and is actively involved with numerous conservation groups. 

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On learning to dive and photograph in cold, murky waters

“I knew that if I could work in those conditions, that are more challenging both from a diving and photography standpoint, that I would probably have a little bit easier of a time when I got to the warmer, clearer, easier places to work.”

“You’d work all week for a half an hour on the bottom on a given dive or maybe a couple of hours over the course of the weekend. Part of that time was just getting down to these sights, the shipwrecks, or to the ledges that I was diving, looking for lobsters or fish and things. Trying to make a few pictures and then come back. It was a tremendous amount of time invested for a very little reward.”

On breaking in to National Geographic

“[My colleague] said, ‘if you want I will recommend you but I think you’ve got about a 98% chance of failure with this story. Keep in mind with National Geographic you’re only going to get one chance so you might want to wait for a better opportunity to come down the road.’ I thought about it and part of my gut told me that another opportunity may never come down the road.”

“I was leaving [National Geographic], I was in the elevator wearing my suit and tie and heading back to my hotel. There was a woman in the elevator who I really didn’t know, she was in a lot of these sessions. She started asking me questions, “Geez, Brian what else do you shoot? Do you do natural history? Do you have more stuff we could look at?” It turns out she was the Deputy Director of Photography, Susan Smith, at the time who was one of the people that was sort of a talent scout.”

On drawing the line between photojournalism and advocacy

“I am a photojournalist, first and foremost, and if I cross a line, then there might not be any going back. I think you have to maintain journalistic integrity, and if you do the story right, then people will draw their own conclusions to the degree that there is a right and wrong in these stories. Hopefully, people come away with a right informed perspective. That being said, as a human being you can’t do something for decades and not have an opinion.”

“If I am in the ocean, and I see an anthropogenic stress that has occurred to an animal … For example, if I was swimming along a coral reef and there was a sea turtle all wrapped in fishing line in monofilament and struggling on the bottom of the ocean and if I could go over and untangle that turtle, I absolutely would do it.”

On balancing the desire for meaning and the need to earn a living

“You’ve got to make a living, you’ve got to pay the bills, but if there’s a little bit of time in your schedule to do something for free that it benefits the world, then boy, that’s a rare opportunity.”

“For the most part, I believe that the people who go into this kind of work do it because they very much care about nature, they care about the planet, they’re not in it just for the money. I mean we have to make a living, but if we were in it for the money there’s a lot of other careers that would be far more lucrative.”

On excuses for not getting the shot

“They really don’t care that there was a hurricane, or that the boat sank, or that my camera flooded. I mean, at the end of the day, either you got the picture, or you did not get the picture. That’s really all that matters. It’s like a professional athlete. You could have maybe one bad game. Boy, if you have a couple, you’re going to be sitting on the bench.”

Advice for emerging photographers

“Timing is everything and this is what I often tell emerging photographers, young photographers that it isn’t really a race. Obviously, you want to get out there and do your thing but you also want to be prepared so the more time that you can invest in yourself, your skills and whatever it is that you want to do out there, it will not be wasted. That’s really important.”