Photographer Shawn Heinrichs grew up with an innate love of nature. Born in Durban, South Africa, he spent all his free time outside, hiking, diving, swimming and snorkeling.
“The oceans I grew up with were these incredibly vibrant seas: Thousands of dolphins chasing each other, millions of sardines up the coastline, humpback whales breaching in the background, sharks and more marine life than you could imagine,” Heinrichs says.
He eventually moved to Philadelphia and missed the ocean he grew up with. Upon returning to Durban in the early ’90s, Heinrichs noticed his beloved ocean was not the same as he had left it.
“Instead of finding incredible volumes of predators and prey and these vibrant seas, you had dilapidated reefs covered in algae,” he says. “You had the occasional shark if you were lucky, and mostly small fish. Something had changed in my short lifetime. We had emptied a lot of the oceans.”
At the time, Heinrichs had started his career in finance. Through work, he spent a lot of time in Asia, where he began to notice where the ocean life had gone after leaving the sea.
“All the big fish were on the tables in restaurants. Shark fins were available in the stores. Seahorses were dried and piled up in traditional medicine shops,” he says. “It suddenly struck me that it wasn’t an accident. Human beings were the cause of the demise of the last great frontier of the planet.”
Heinrichs decided to take his photography skills underwater. He felt as if it was one way to capture the last of the beauty that still existed in the oceans. But even more so, he would capture the truly dire environmental situation on Earth.
Since then, Heinrichs has spent more than two decades as a photographer, investigative journalist and conservationist. Based in Boulder, he founded the production company Blue Sphere Media, which specializes in adventure and conservation films. Heinrichs’ work has been published all over the world, and he has produced art exhibits and films, including contributing to last year’s Racing Extinction. Heinrichs stops by Chautauqua on Feb. 15 to talk about his work and the state of our oceans and marine life.
The current environmental status of ocean life is a bleak picture. Immediate threats include massive extinction of marine species, which will lead to collapse of predatory food chains and eventually diminished food sources for humans. Pollution is another problem, with the massive amounts of plastics filling our oceans and acidification of the water caused from rising carbon dioxide levels. With the ocean’s pH balance shifting dramatically, calcium sources are dwindling, and calcium is the foundation for shells and reefs, and essential to marine life. The list continues.
While the importance of protecting our environment can’t be overstated, Heinrichs reminds us that environmental problems will eventually lead to other political disasters.
“If we don’t respond, the oceans will collapse and so will the protein source for over 2 billion people. And if you want to see the birth-ground for unrest, look at displacement,” he says. “If you look at what’s happening with the Syrian crisis… can you imagine what happens when 2 billion go hungry?
“Think about national security. Where do you recruit your next terrorist? You find those who are really starving and angry,” he continues. “You’re looking at national security issues on a level we’ve never seen on this planet.”
Throughout his career, Heinrichs has spent time capturing many devastating practices around the world. One of his main focuses has been capturing the shark finning trade, a process he calls gruesome and barbaric, with almost half of those de-finned sharks being tossed back into the water alive.
The weight of this work began to get heavy for Heinrichs within a few years.
“During that process, I realized things were getting really dark for me because I had seen so many bad things,” he says. “It was really bad. It was like post-traumatic stress disorder.”
From an early age, Heinrichs had an affinity for sharks. While he felt like his work was reaching people, the destruction of the species with which he had fallen in love was disappearing faster than he could put his images out. That’s when he realized an important part of the puzzle that was missing from his work.
“I came to a principle that I needed people to connect with imagery and animals in the same way that I did,” he says. “They weren’t going to the oceans and spending the time with these animals and these environments in anywhere [near] the volume I was, so I needed to use my image and storytelling to connect people in that same way.”
Heinrichs knew that to get people engaged in conservation, they had to care about these animals and environments.
“If someone says we’re missing the spotted owl and it’s dying off, you’re like, ‘What’s the spotted owl?’ But if someone says, they’re going to kick in your door and murder your family and steal everything you own, you’re going to defend it,” he says. “The difference is, you have a strong connection to your home and your family. But you have no connection to this random animal. So my job is to create those connections so that people fall in love again with these species and habitats.”
In 2014, Heinrichs released a short film called Tigress Shark. The film was addressing the Australian shark cull, which was exterminating sharks in order to protect beaches. In the film, an underwater performer dances with a swarm of tiger sharks. The dancer uses no protective apparatuses or diving gear. The result is a stunning collaboration between human and animal.
Within the first 24 hours, the film spread around the world, amassing millions of views. Over the next couple weeks, thousands of signatures and protests flooded in, calling for an end to the cull. And soon after, Australia had shut down the shark cull.
The turn of events inspired Heinrichs.
“I didn’t just want to raise awareness, I wanted to inspire action and really make a lasting change, and that’s been my mission ever since,” he says. “Using my images and storytelling through film and media to inspire people around the planet to protect the last of our threatened species and habitats.”
Nowadays with technology, Heinrichs says, a love of nature is being lost. There’s a separation where people feel divorced from nature, but Heinrichs strives to remind people that we are still very much linked.
“One of the things I can do is re-forge that connection in a very deep and emotional way,” he says.
With the decaying environment, it’s an essential notion to understand. Heinrichs stresses the importance of the situation, urging that the time for conservation is now, and there are no more second chances.
“This is the last generation that can save the oceans. We’ve already passed all the other warning points,” he says. “There’s a lot of hard work and dark days ahead, no matter what we do, but the ultimate story could be that we rallied and made a difference, or we let it all slip away. It’s really in our hands right now.”