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Photographer Ocean Voices: An Interview with Ocean in Focus Photo Contest Winner Tom Campbell

Photographs That Make a Difference

Tom Campbell

Bryan Toro

Photographer and filmmaker Tom Campbell is the Grand Prize winner of SeaWeb’s Marine Photobank and Project AWARE Foundation's first Ocean in Focus photo contest. Campbell has been a professional photographer and cinematographer for 45 years, shooting numerous videos for television productions and placing thousands of still photos in major publications. Campbell has been taking photographs since his father gave him a box camera when he was a young boy. A qualified U.S. Navy diver, Campbell bought a Calypso, one of the first amphibious cameras, in 1962 in Okinawa, Japan. In addition, he conducted covert underwater operations in the Vietnam War from 1964 to 1965 with the U.S. Marine Corps' elite First Force Reconnaissance Team that was assigned to SEAL Team One.

Tom Campbell shares in his own words and imagery the real potential for photography to help decision-makers take action to protect marine wildlife and habitats.

SeaWeb: Congratulations on winning the contest. This is an outstanding image. Why did you choose to submit it to the Ocean in Focus photography contest?

Tom Campbell: Thank you. I appreciate that. On a rare occasion, you get a chance to shoot something that can actually make a significant difference in some people’s minds. I’m happy that this is one of those pictures. I decided to submit to the contest because I think that [SeaWeb and the Marine Photobank] do a tremendous service by even having such [an initiative], and I think we have photographs that relate to what you’re trying to accomplish. It’s not about the exposure for me; it’s about the number of people that see this and what it makes them think.

SW: Images with a less than aesthetically pleasing conservation theme are not always the first photos that photographers want to shoot or distribute. What compels you to want to capture these images?

TC: If you are a professional photographer, which I have been for many years, when you shoot images, you always think about what the marketability factor is or the educational factor. In my case, and in many other people’s case as well, we like to think about the environmental factor.

There are certain pictures that when you see them, they stimulate an emotional response. … In this particular case, [fellow cinematographer and friend] Howard Hall and I saw so many things when we were working on this production. … [We] were shocked by how badly these giant drift nets affected the marine life.

Sea Lion Caught in Gill Net

Campbell won the Grand Prize of the Marine Photobank's Ocean in Focus photography contest for this photo of a sea lion entangled in a gill net off the coast of Santa Barbara, California. Tom Campbell/ © Save Our Seas Ltd./Marine Photobank

SW: What was the most difficult part of capturing your image that won the contest?

TC: Actually the most difficult part of it was that I was having trouble with the strobe on my camera firing. I had to shoot about 10 shots and I only got one or two pictures of it. Also, it was very difficult because we were working at night. That particular picture was taken early in the morning, just after the sun came up.

Because of this photograph and the film that was done [“An Incidental Kill,”for which Campbell shot stills and Hall shot 16mm footage] a law was passed that restricted almost 70 percent of the use of gill nets in the Santa Barbara Channel.

Blue Heron Caught on Six Pack Holder
Despite Campbell's efforts to remove a plastic six-pack from the neck of this blue heron, the bird escaped and later drowned. Tom Campbell/ © Save Our Seas Ltd.

Unfortunately this is something that the average person never sees. It’s out of sight, out of mind. And the average person that even cares about marine life and may go diving a lot still doesn’t totally realize that there’s a life and death struggle that goes on under the surface of the sea every second, and it’s all very closely tied with an ecosystem, and it works just fine until we get involved.

SW: Do you seek out those photographs that deliver a powerful conservation message, or do you acquire them as the opportunity arises?

I’d say both. For example, a sergeant on the harbor patrol is a friend of mine and he knows that I’m quite concerned about the environmental aspects of the ocean. He saw a large blue heron flying around one day with a piece of six-pack plastic around its neck. He called me, so I immediately grabbed my camera and raced down to the harbor. …We just kept following this bird around as much as we could, hoping that we could get close, and we had a net to throw over it. We made a couple of attempts to catch it but weren’t able to.

But I took some pictures of it, and those pictures were quite dramatic because they show this beautiful, big protected blue heron with a six-pack holder around its neck, and it didn’t know how to get it off. About three days later [the harbor patrol sergeant] called me and said, “Tom, you’re not going to like what happened to this bird.” It had lunged at a fish, and the six-pack ring had gotten stuck on a nail on a pier. It got caught with its head under water, so it drowned. Images like that can be very compelling, so whenever I have the opportunity to hear about something like that, I’ll go out of my way to photograph it.

Anti Gill Net Poster

Campbell's photo was used on a poster that helped lead to the institution of section 8681.5 of the California Fish and Game Code in 1985, which placed a five-year moratorium on the issuing of new gill net permits. This law has been reinstated several times and is still in effect. United Anglers of Southern California/The Committee to Ban Gill Nets

We had another photograph of a sea lion sitting on an oil platform float with a piece of broken drift net around its neck. And it had gotten tighter and tighter as the animal grew. It was cut way into its neck and the skin was all broken; it was a really gruesome sight. I went out with the marine mammal protection people—they were going to try to rescue it—and I did get a photograph of it. It is also a really compelling photograph and it won first place in a BBC photo contest in the environmental category. That photograph has made a difference: it has been used on the poster to get the gill net issue into the state legislature, and they banned the gill nets. Seeing the dramatic photographs and hearing the stories that went along with these images compelled the officials to take action. Pictures can do a lot.

SW: That must be one of the more satisfying outcomes that you see as a photographer.

TC: It is. Like the picture of the sea lion in the drift net. The reason I think that has such an impact is that we’re air breathers, just like they are, and you can imagine yourself just taking a free dive down in the ocean some place, and then getting stuck in something. You can see the surface, but you can’t get to it. You know you are going to drown. When you see pictures like that, you have to ask yourself, “Is it really worth what we’re doing with these drift nets if they’re not designed to just catch certain things and they’ll catch anything?”

SW: What message do you want to convey to other photographers about the importance of conservation photography?

TC: The oceans of our world are the last frontier. We have a chance to save much of them if we do something now. If you don’t do anything else with your pictures, the very least you can do is show them to people and talk about how important it is to protect ocean life. It’s the only way that people are going to learn.

I also think it’s very important that this message goes to children. We’re frequently asked to do presentations at different schools, and we don’t charge for that. We take the time off work to do it. We show pictures, films and equipment and we talk about what we do. It’s interesting how many little kids will ask, “What can I do to do what you do when I get big?” I think it’s important to educate the children because they’re the future.

More information on Campbell’s production company, Tom Campbell’s High Definition Productions, can be found at www.tomcampbell.com.