Interview with Photographer Marty Snyderman

Written by on January 16, 2013 in Interviews, Other News

Editor’s Note–Contributing MST writer Michael Bear is an AAUS (American Academy of Underwater Sciences) Science Diver and a Featured Contributor with California Diver Magazine. He lives and works in San Diego and recently interviewed Marty Snyderman for us.

Photo © Marty Snyderman.

Photo © Marty Snyderman.

Marty Snyderman is the Marine Life Editor and a long time monthly columnist for Dive Training magazine and the Senior Editor of California Diving News. He has been involved in underwater photography for 38 years and continues to produce compelling images of marine life in attempts to raise awareness and interest about many marine issues.

Marty’s still photography and/or writing has been utilized by National Geographic Magazine, Natural History, Time, Newsweek, Time Life, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, New England Aquarium, and Seattle Aquarium. Marty has produced films for the PBS Series Nature and the Discovery Channel, and his film footage has been used by National Geographic, Audubon, the BBC, Survival Anglia and many other entities that have interest in the marine environment.

He is a member of the Board of Trustees for the Reef Environmental Educational Foundation (REEF), and an advisor to Board of the Shark Research Institute (SRI).

Marty has also won an EMMY award for cinematography, and is one of 70 people to have received DEMA’s Reaching Out Award, which puts him in DEMA’s Hall of Fame as a photographer.

To date, Marty has authored eleven books, including California Marine Life which was re-released in cooperation with the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

MST caught up with him recently to ask him how he got his start and what other things spark his passion.

Q: Although you have done many other things in your life, you are perhaps best known for your underwater photography of sharks. What got you started?

I fell I love with sharks when I was a kid, so I guess you could say it has been a lifelong love affair. Despite the fact that I grew up in landlocked Arkansas I was intrigued by all things ocean as a child. I read every marine life-related book I could get my hands on, and like a lot of kids my age I was glued to the television when Jacques Cousteau specials aired. The same with Sea Hunt. I always imagined myself swimming right alongside of Captain Cousteau doing what I thought was important research, and working with Mike Nelson to protect the world from bad guys.

I think my job is all about taking what I have learned from science, and whatever innate skills I was born with and others that I developed and using that knowledge to get myself in the right place at the right time to capture a moment that reveals something about an animal, the way it lives and the environment it lives in. Of course, I want to do it in a manner that causes an emotional reaction in viewers so that they develop a deeper sense of appreciation for my subject matter. Creating an emotional connection between a viewer and my subject is a key to any success I might have.

(One day) I was snorkeling off the beach in front of our hotel and I came across a small shark. The instant the animal saw me it bolted for the blue. I just wanted the animal to be safe, and the fact that it didn’t attack me helped convince me to an even greater degree that I was right and the fishermen had it all wrong when it came to sharks.

And that is how and when I fell in love with sharks. I have been in love ever since.

I never forgot my early experiences with sharks. In fact, my real purpose for getting certified (for diving) was to take one of the first steps necessary so I could learn how to photograph and make films about sharks. I was so hooked on sharks.

Only a few years after getting certified I became a diving instructor, and not long after that I began buying underwater photographic equipment. I had just started working at a dive center in San Diego with a handful of guys that were among the first people ever to venture out into the open sea in hopes of photographing sharks. I became fast friends with Howard Hall, and along with Larry Cochrane we started exploring the open sea off the southern California coast. We built a shark cage and learned how to attract sharks. Only a handful of people were doing this kind of diving in those days so it was quite an adventure, and we had a blast.

Tiger Shark. Photo © Marty Snyderman.

Tiger Shark. Photo © Marty Snyderman.

We eagerly shared our images and tales of high seas adventure with anyone that seemed interested. Soon our work was getting published. At first it was local newspapers, then national publications, and before long our stories and pictures were being seen around the world.

My goal was to become a spokesperson for animals and ecosystems that could not speak for themselves, to do what I could to raise public awareness and effect change. I knew that shark populations were being grossly over fished in many places around the world, and that as a result, sharks populations and many marine ecosystems were in serious decline. I wanted the world to know, and more importantly to act.

Q: Sharks are so misunderstood. We’ve gone from ‘Jaws’ in the ’70s, which scared nearly an entire generation of people out of diving to the fact that now, sharks are in peril, with several species in danger of becoming extinct. What would you like people to know about sharks that might demystify them a bit?

I agree with the premise of your question that sharks are misunderstood. But in terms of what I’d like people to know about sharks I think my answer might surprise you, and it might sound as if I am contradicting myself. My take on sharks is that they are absolutely wonderful animals, and for the most part they want to be left alone to live their lives. But I also think that many species will bite a human for several reasons if we put ourselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, or drop our guard when we shouldn’t, especially in situations in which bait is being used to attract sharks. Unfortunately, I’ve seen it happen on several occasions, and it is not pretty.

So, when I hear divers at cocktail parties talking about harmless sharks are I flinch because I don’t want people to get hurt. While I know it’s highly unlikely that a diver will get bitten, I also want to encourage divers not to take them cavalierly. They are wild animals, and many species are very capable of seriously messing up your day.

Conversely, I want people who don’t have any, or much, experience around sharks to know that they aren’t the monsters of sea lore as they are so often portrayed to be.

Along with those thoughts, sharks have evolved to have some fascinating adaptations. I find their ability to detect electrical fields, intrauterine cannibalism, the ability of some species to successfully navigate in surroundings that appear to be featureless to us, the fact that parthenogenesis (giving birth to young without being fertilized by a male) has been documented in some species, and so on and so forth to be fascinating. It always strikes me that when I tell people that are unaware of these adaptations that they get so interested in sharks on the spot. You can see the light bulbs turning on.

I hope that it is obvious to most thinking people that the world’s oceans are healthier with healthy populations of all kinds of sharks, and knowing that, we need to do what must be done to protect sharks to so that their populations are sustainable.

In some ways I love the fact that sharks are mysterious to us. They live in a world where we need a lot of specialized equipment just to survive even for a short period of time. I think it’s very fortunate to live at a time when underwater exploration is relatively new. I relish the mystery, and the opportunity to make personal discoveries. It’s hard for me to imagine that diving would hold the same thrill if I knew everything there was to know about every ecosystem and animal. So while I love to learn about new discoveries, I also hope that some things about sharks remain mysteries. But, and this is a big but, I hope we learn enough about them to protect them and ensure their survival in the wild.

They are like most other animals. They generally want to be left alone. If cornered or feeling threatened, they might bite you. There are times when wild animals attack people simply because we get into the wrong place at the wrong time, and wild animals sometimes react by fighting instead of fleeing, or they see an opportunity to grab a meal. I don’ think it is all that complicated.

Q: What has been the most interesting photo shoot you’ve ever been on?

Humpback. Photo © Marty Snyderman.

Humpback. Photo © Marty Snyderman.

There is no way I can single out any one shoot and definitively say that it was the most interesting shoot above all others. I will say that anytime I am around whales I am as happy as I ever get. But I can also get as happy, and be as totally engrossed, when photographing nudibranchs (sea slugs) or any other creature. I guess I’d say that capturing animal behavior with a camera and working around big animals are pretty high on my list.

I have always had a place in my heart for animals, but I suppose that early on in my career I felt too much self-imposed pressure to get the money shot. Over time I learned that while research and persistence can be immensely helpful, there are times when things just don’t go your way. In many respects, I’ve learned to enjoy those experiences too. In short, it’s about enjoying the process, not just the processed image, but it took me some years to get there.

Q: What would you advise a young person nowadays, who wants to photograph marine life for a living?

I’d advise any young person that has a dream to chase that dream as hard and as far as they can. They will know if and when it is time to change course. No harm in that, but I do think that there is a huge price to pay for not trying.

I’d also say that if I did it, whatever it is in terms of making a career out of my love for underwater photography, others can do it as well. No doubt, I got a lot of help along the way. I came along at the right time, and I found myself working in a dive center with Howard Hall, of current IMAX fame. We became great friends, dived together and chased our dreams together. And I met and got to work with Stan Waterman and Jack McKenney, two pioneers in the field of underwater exploration and filmmaking. Both were very helpful and supportive. The only way I can ever pay them back is to help the next person along.

I’d tell young people that they have to be entrepreneurial. The days of owning an underwater camera system and sitting by the phone waiting for it to ring and thinking that is the path to a successful career are long over. You have to make the phone ring. You have to knock on doors and create opportunities for yourself. But it can be done.

Over the years I’ve learned a lot about how one phone call, letter, introduction, or the like can knock down a mountain for a younger person. I’d like to encourage my peers to do those things for deserving young people. We will all be better for it, and so will the oceans.

Taking technically sound pictures is getting easier every day. But that is not the case when it comes to making compelling images and telling entire stories with only a few shots. Doing that is an art form and a tremendous challenge. To me, the importance of photography is to use the art to make others think and feel, to put them there alongside you in that setting. You need to understand that aspect of the profession. That is something I’d like younger people that want a career in underwater photography to understand.

Manta Rays. Photo © Marty Snyderman.

Manta Rays. Photo © Marty Snyderman.

Copyright © 2013 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

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