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Photographer Ocean Voices: An Interview with Ocean in Focus Contest Winner Matthew Potenski

Taking Photos with Bite

2009 Grand Prize Winner - Mangrove and Backhoe by Matthew Potenski

"It's not just an image; it's telling a story that may inspire people to act and make positive change."

— Matthew Potenski

The Ocean in Focus contest judges recognized Potenski's winning photo of a solitary mangrove shoot in the line of a backhoe in the Bahamas as an excellent example of what good conservation photography can do—tell a complete story of environmental impacts and struggle for survival in a single image. Matthew D. Potenski, MDP Photography/Marine Photobank

Biologist and photographer Matthew Potenski is the Grand Prize winner of SeaWeb's Marine Photobank and Project AWARE Foundation second annual Ocean in Focus conservation photography contest. A shark lover since childhood, Potenski has been a shark biologist for much of the past 10 years. He also has worked with the Bimini Biological Field Station Sharklab in the Bahamas to encourage government officials to declare the local habitat for juvenile lemon sharks a marine protected area, which they did in December 2008.

While researching southern stingrays in Grand Cayman in 2003, Potenski forayed into underwater photography and became hooked. He now interweaves his passions, science and photography, to understand both the function and beauty of the underwater world and its inhabitants and to reveal his findings in ways that will inspire others to conserve the marine environment.


Seaweb: Congratulations on winning the grand prize of the second annual Ocean in Focus conservation photography contest. Why did you choose to submit this particular image?

Matthew Potenski: That image is very close to my heart. There's a little area off of the south island, right next to the Sharklab basically, which is kind of an interior bay. I had a National Geographic author visiting to research an upcoming book, and I took him into this bay to show them some healthy mangroves, instead we found a large backhoe was building a sandspit. To date, no one has been able to locate permits for this work. They were digging up the area and filling sand in. Furthermore, the work was being done without sediment traps, and during falling tides large plumes of sandy water were spilling out to choke the seagrass flats near it. In a matter of days they cut most of this bay off, and that was a very important shark habitat. The declaration of a marine protected area in North Bimini was a great victory for the environment and the sharks, and to turn around in the middle of that success and find this construction in our "backyard" was extremely frustrating.

Matthew Potenski - Morning Rays

Southern stingrays, like these swimming off Grand Cayman in the Caribbean, enticed Potenski into pursuing nature photography. © Matthew D. Potenski

I had my camera with me and as I walked in there I saw this one mangrove shoot that was right in the line of where this sandspit was coming out. It was right on the chopping block, on death row so to speak. Just to get a shot like that—this is an area I love and these are the mangroves that we studied that the sharks use extensively for habitat, and that one is basically doomed. Emotionally, it was pretty saddening, but the opportunity was there to take a picture that said something about it. I was determined to see that this mangrove didn't die in vain, and to use its image to serve as an example of coastal habitat destruction I could expose to a larger audience.

S: In the bigger picture, what does that solitary mangrove shoot represent?

MP: Mangroves are a very important habitat for juvenile finfish and juvenile invertebrates, and that shoot is at risk of being taken out before it has a chance to spread out and grow and become the magnificent structure that it could be. In a more metaphorical sense, the mangrove represents the fragility of nature and illustrates the power humans have to either protect or destroy the natural world.

S: Did you know immediately that you had taken a great image?

MP: The main reason I took it was to use it when contacting officials in the Bahamas to show them what was going on. Later on, it became an opportunity to take it to a broader audience with this photo contest. When I take a photo, I try to take it so that it has a visual punch, and I tried to take that photo as I thought it would have the most impact. Emphasizing the mangrove shoot in the foreground, with the backhoe looming ominously in the background give this image a tragic, and yet defiant, tone.

S: As a marine and wildlife photographer, what are you looking for when you line up a shot? Do you plan out an image beforehand, anticipating it will have a strong conservation message, or does that characteristic develop organically?

Matthew Potenski - Whale Shark and Sardines

Potenski recently finished a three-year study of whale sharks in Tanzania. He won the grand prize in the Nature's Best Photography Ocean Views 2009 photography contest for this image of a whale shark in the middle of a school of sardines. © Matthew D. Potenski

MP: A lot of it is being at the right place at the right time. For my shot, I didn't even know that this development was going on in the area, so I kind of just walked into it. But with more experience, you get a better sense of when that "right time" will be. And being there in that environment, there’s a hundred ways I could have taken that shot. Overall, I'd say there's a bit of both elements. You have to be there when something interesting is happening, but then you also have to have the technical and the artistic skills to capture it in a meaningful way.

S: How do you think nature and wildlife photography contributes to conservation?

MP: The biggest problem is that people don't know what's going on out in the ocean half the time. It's not right up in their faces; it is miles and miles away in the middle of the blue sea. So what you have to do is take those issues, get pictures of them and bring them to people so they can see it and start to understand it. ... I think photography is a very powerful tool for doing that.

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

MP: The biggest thing is to always have your camera with you and to always keep shooting. You never know when you're going to see something amazing, especially when it comes to the ocean. That's part of the reason I love doing the marine biology: Every day you head out on a boat, you don't know what you're going to see. Most days you don't really see anything spectacular, but every now and then you run into that one spectacular thing, and as long as you're prepared to capture it, you'll be very successful.

S: What’s been the most gratifying part of being a photographer?

MP: The ability to have a photograph that accomplishes something and makes people look and think about one of these issues. ... It's not just an image; it's telling a story that may inspire people to act and make positive change.

Matthew Potenski Matthew Potenski grew up in New Jersey, and as a boy, frequently visited zoos, aquariums, and museums that inspired his love for the sciences—especially biology. He became fascinated with sharks before entering high school, and knew then he wanted to dedicate his life to learning about these magnificent predators. He graduated from Rutgers in New Jersey with degrees in biology and marine sciences. He has spent the last 10 years of his life pursuing field biology work on projects involving the study of sharks and stingrays, allowing him to travel and dive in many areas of the world.