by Shauna Potocky
Bryant Austin has seen whales in a way most people will never experience—he has floated for hours in their realm simply waiting for them, waiting for a connection and an opportunity. Today that patience and care represents the most exquisite collection of life sized and detailed whale photographs in the world.
Austin has traveled to remarkable locations in order to wait—places such as the Caribbean, Australia and the South Pacific. When his waiting results in a connection, both whales and the world are rewarded. He is then able to capture and create composite photographs resulting in 1:1 scale portraits of whales—life-sized. Yes, whale sized photographs.
Austin’s work has brought the essence of whales to humanity in a way that is profound. This work has resulted in worldwide recognition, from gallery exhibitions to whaling conventions.
Recently I had the opportunity to connect with Austin and ask about his inspiration, challenges and insight.
Shauna Potocky: Your work is recognized around the world and is so incredibly unique. What inspired you to do this work?
Bryant Austin: I’ve always been unsatisfied by the way whales have been photographed underwater. In the beginning I thought that there were no other options for photographing them underwater in ways that would make them more compelling.
By a completely random event in 2004 with a humpback whale mother and calf, who moved right up to me while I was on snorkel—they were less than six feet away at times and I could see for the first time, their true colors and all of the fine texture and detail that makes them real. This is what started the process for me to think about how I could photographically capture those moments and recreate the emotional sensations I experienced.
SP: Your incredible body of work has led to you to participate in conferences or other opportunities that address issues facing whales and marine mammals. What meetings or events have you participated in? What role did your work contribute to these meetings? What was the outcome or your thoughts on the proceedings?
BA: In 2008 I had my first opportunity to exhibit my work at the International Whaling Commission meeting in Santiago, Chile. The exhibit itself didn’t change any of the outcomes. However, there were indicators of its power to move viewers. Outside of the main meeting room, where everyone breaks for coffee, were massive tables filled with brochures and pamphlets either for or against whaling. As my exhibit was in the main lobby, we asked the IWC Secretariat if we could display my first life size portrait of a humpback whale calf in this area and with no text of any kind. The Secretariat said “no,” stating that it would be too provocative and contentious to do so. The idea of a life sized portrait of a baby whale being contentious made me realize that my photographs may indeed have the power to inspire change in the coming years.
SP: Art can be a powerful tool for education and engagement. Have you found that your work has inspired others to care for the ocean, for whales or other marine mammals?
BA: When my work was first exhibited in Norway, I realized it had the potential to speak to a wider audience, including those living in countries that commercially hunt whales. I remember a press conference where former whalers were invited to see my work. At times they were moved to silence and I was captivated by their expressions as they studied my prints, seeing a whale in a way they’ve never known.
SP: What challenges did you face along the way to following your path working with whales and sharing your work as an artist?
BA: The biggest challenge is funding. My work had no precedent for a reason; it is very expensive and risky. It can cost as much as 2,000 dollars per day to work alone at sea with these creatures. I float alone in the ocean among them and patiently wait for them to approach me on their terms. I may go three months in the field and only have one or two encounters that are meaningful to my work. Other times, I may be in the field for five weeks and return home with nothing. This is the risk I must face in order to create something very special that has never existed before.
Even after a successful field season, the challenges continue as I must raise enough money to frame and mount my largest works which can cost as much as 85,000 dollars. Over the years I’ve come to appreciate exactly why this has never been done before. In a lot of ways this work shouldn’t exist, but it does so, against all the odds.
SP: You recently published the book, Beautiful Whale. Can you share with us a highlight for yourself in completing this book?
BA: One of the highlights was returning to the Kingdom of Tonga in 2011. Five years had passed since my last trip there and it was cathartic to be back. I was there for only five weeks and was attempting to compose a few more portraits for the book. I had many great and memorable encounters, and it was great to apply all that I’ve learned over the years with the whales who originally inspired my work.
SP: Your art has been featured in some remarkable locations. Do you have a favorite exhibit? And, do you have any upcoming exhibits scheduled?
BA: The one exhibition that always stands out in my mind is Beautiful Whale at the Tamada Museum in Tokyo, 2010. My largest photographs were printed and mounted for the first time and debuted at this museum. It was only the second time I had ever seen these prints full size and it was a heartfelt experience to see the responses from the overwhelming number of visitors that attended.
My most recent show at the USA Gallery at the Australian National Maritime Museum came down this year. I currently have no plans for another major solo show in the near future; however, several of my prints will be featured in a group show at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts starting in October, 2015.
SP: What do you feel is the most critical issue facing whales today? What can people do to help protect marine life?
BA: There are many issues threatening the survival of whales today and few that we can change as individuals. However, the one thing we can do as individuals is to simply stop eating seafood. It is estimated that 300,000 whales, dolphins, and porpoises die entangled in commercial fishing gear each year for our love of seafood.
More whales are dying every year entangled in commercial fishing gear than at the very height of commercial whaling. I would encourage your readers to make a commitment to no longer eat anything from the ocean.
Reflecting on Austin’s comments regarding entanglements, important quantitative information is coming to light. In a study published in Conservation Biology in 2006 by by Andrew J. Read, Phebe Drinker and Simon Northridge, the paper focused on determining global rates of bycatch and subsequently reported “an annual estimate of 653,365 marine mammals, comprising 307,753 cetaceans and 345,611 pinnipeds.” Today efforts are increasing to address this issue.
Bryant Austin’s work captivates. He has connected people to one of the terrestrial world’s greatest mysteries—the ocean and the world of whales. Through his work, book and exhibitions, these monumental beings receive the awe and respect they deserve. Yet, their journeys and livelihood are not without peril. Today, the world is more equipped to protect marine mammals than any other time in history. If we cannot directly stop whaling or the impacts to marine mammals, such as entanglements, we can directly address the marketplace that drives the harvest or mechanism of their decline. When we make choices the marketplace listens and that, scaled up, results in change.