By Nuri M. Steinmann.
Tom Vierus is a photographer, filmmaker, and marine biologist. While being involved with photography for more than ten years, Tom’s background as a marine biologist is a strong asset in storytelling and allows him to approach assignments with a deep understanding. Besides his strong interest in science and particularly shark ecology & biology, Tom dedicated himself to photography and video specializing in wildlife, nature, and underwater imagery. A large part of his work is dedicated to science communication to help scientists and institutes tell their story to the public. Tom has documented scientific projects and expeditions in Germany, French Polynesia, the Republic of Fiji and the Solomon Islands and works on a regular basis with the Center for Tropical Marine Research (ZMT) in Bremen, Germany.
Hi Tom! You hold a master’s degree in marine biology, you are a prizewinning wildlife photographer and filmmaker and you are an expert in shark ecology. That sounds like a dream job. What was your motivation and inspiration to go this path? Childhood dream?
Hi Nuri! It has been a long way with a lot of twists and turns and I am still at the very beginning. To be honest, I am not one of these people that practically knew when they were born, that they want to become marine biologists and dive the world. After joining an intercultural exchange program and spending almost two years in South Africa at the age of 15, I somehow knew I had to focus my energies to help people and the environment. Back in Germany, I started studying general biology, not really sure of what my path would look like. I wanted to go back to Africa and help somehow, but I knew with a better education my chances to make an actual impact might be greater. Then in 2012, while snorkeling I encountered my first shark in the wild – a great hammerhead shark off the coast of Florida – and immediately got hooked. I wanted to know more about these animals, their threats and dangers and eventually wanted to challenge the public perception on sharks. That led me to a master’s degree in Aquatic Tropical Marine Ecology with a focus on shark science and subsequently to an eight-month field trip to the Fiji Islands, where I studied a potential shark nursery.
“I love what I am doing, and I am trying to make the world a better place.”
Photography has been part of my life long before the science and has always played a vital role for me, even – or maybe especially – during my studies. Coming back from the tropics, I won the German Prize for Science Photography for a series of images on my own shark project and was able to share my (and the shark’s) on a wide basis. Somewhere in those months I decided to go professional with my photography and videography. While I love science, I slowly recognized that I can make a bigger impact by going down that route and by following my passion. It is more direct, more engaging and more public (which doesn’t mean science can’t be all that, but unfortunately very often just isn’t). That is almost two years ago and while it is a tough business, I don’t regret any of it. I love what I am doing, and I am trying to make the world a better place. Environmental awareness is the major driver for me and my work.
Would you say your motivation and source of inspiration has changed over time with new experiences?
Yes, of course. We humans are not machines and adjusting certain believes, habits or even goals in life is not only normal but, in my eyes, also necessary and vital for personal development. I have been lucky enough to travel throughout many regions in the world – Asia, Africa, Australia, USA and the Pacific – and have seen wonderful natural wonders, but at the same time incredible atrocities to nature. My main motivation is to bring back some empathy towards our environment and all the organism we are sharing this planet with while at the same time educating people about what is going on, what we can do to help and why it is important to do something. There are lot of issues out there worth to be tackled, but our life-time is limited, and a day only has 24 hours, so in my field it is also about choosing priorities. And they may shift with new knowledge and experiences, with journeys in remote and pristine areas or with travels to incredibly sad places.
To become a wildlife photographer and filmmaker, is the dream of many young people – But I can imagine being a freelancer in times where almost everyone has a mobile phone, which takes almost as good pictures as professional cameras, is not always easy. What keeps you motivated to go on, and what would you tell a young student who is thinking to go into the same direction?
Well, my most important piece of advice would definitely be to go after your dreams no matter what! There will be many Nay-Sayers out there telling you what you should and especially what you cannot do. I never listened to them and have always gone and worked towards what I thought was right. Be honest to yourself, learn to listen to constructive advice and criticism and always be pro-active. Rarely anything will simply come to you. Work hard, practice and know for yourself why you are doing what you are doing. Sure, mobile Phone sensors increasingly advance and they are awesome tools in documenting either video or photos. Who knows, you might even be able to win the one or other awards with these images, but if you really are on an assignment and want to document a specific issue, you will need more than just a phone to snap an image. You need to go wide, need to go close and maybe even in the air or underwater. My motivation is right out there, I have tons of plans, dreams and projects I am envisioning – it is usually about the funding aspect. How to get the money for your next project? Being your own boss is great but acquiring all your assignments and jobs yourself can be tough and might not be for everyone.
“Be honest to yourself, learn to listen to constructive advice and criticism and always be pro-active.”
After you have obtained your master’s degree you decided to leave the path of becoming a scientist. Instead of doing research you now document the work of others. Why did you make this decision to become a storyteller instead of a scientist?
As I mentioned before, I still love science and continuously stay informed. Science is vital for our society to advance, but in order to do that, the science needs to be communicated. During my time in the “science world” I had some pretty bad experiences with people high up in the hierarchical chain and eventually noticed I do not want to spend too much time having to deal with these things. I am extremely happy to have completed my master and to have published a scientific paper, but I am sure, I personally make a bigger difference by helping other scientists tell their story and sharing my images and videos with the public. Science communication is becoming more and more important: the best science won’t do anything, if it isn’t communicated to policy makers, NGOs, members of the public and other stakeholders. A large part of my current work is dedicated to that.
For your masters you were working with sharks and they are also your favorite animals to shoot with your camera. Why that special fascination for sharks?
The earliest ancestors of sharks have been roaming our oceans more than 400 million years ago – long before the first dinosaurs. They have shaped our oceans and are vital for our oceans. Yet, many of these incredibly beautiful predators have declined to worrying levels and the image of a man-eating beast often still holds true in the eyes of the general public. Once you have seen a 4-meter shark in its natural habitat, it will change the way you see these animals!
They are not only extremely beautiful to observe but sharing the ocean with them is something you simply won’t forget. Having survived hundreds of millions of years and adapted to any imaginable niche in the oceans (deep sea, cold waters…) the evolution has equipped sharks with a variety of special features to survive but not to cope with anthropogenic fishing pressure. Fact is that sharks need our help: about 5 to 10 people die from sharks every year while one hundred million sharks are killed. Sharks are simply not keeping up and cannot reproduce as quickly as we are taking them out the oceans. We have perfected fishing techniques over the centuries and there are no places left to hide. That is where we scientists, photographers, filmmakers and communicators come into play. We can spread the word, share the message and raise issues that otherwise might not get any attention.
Not only sharks are at risk. Our planet and especially the oceans face an uncertain future. The list of major challenges is long. Do you still have hope that we will manage somehow to turn the tide around?
Yes, I do. And I believe if you don’t have hope, you should keep quiet and step away to leave the stage to people who actually try to change things for the better. Don’t get me wrong: sometimes we might loose precious ecosystems functions with the clearing of mangroves, the dredging of rivers or the destruction of coral reefs, but there are plenty areas and projects out there showing us why and how hard work pays off. Mangroves can be replanted; plastic pollution can be reduced, and fish can be granted time to grow and reproduce. It is never going to be perfect, but there is hope and there is a lot we all can do about it. Your blog used to raise awareness and spread the word is one of a million ways of how to contribute.
What would be the three things we have to change, which you think are the most important?
On an individual basis: go plant-based and generally make informed consumer and life-style choices. Don’t be too hard on yourself, as no one is perfect and can never be anyway. It is about small things: reduce plastic pollution, don’t buy bottled water if you can drink tab water, refuse plastic bags, and don’t support destructive industries. Instead, focus on supporting companies that do good for the environment and support organisations and individuals fighting to make this world a better place and not a worse one. Watch some movies if you forget what climate change is and why it is bad for the planet – there is plenty of good work out there.
It is 2050 – What is Tom Vierus doing and how will our planet and its oceans look like?
That’s a good one! I will still be diving the world’s oceans and documenting increasing fish abundances in well-regulated and enforced marine protected areas (hopefully on an affordable 8k camera by then 😉). Shark fin soup, one of the major drivers or shark overfishing, will be a regrettable custom of the past and illegal fishing is hardly existing. The deep see will be more explored than the moon and destructive impacts such as deep-sea fishing, and mineral and gas exploration halted. Trawling is hopefully banned in any imaginable way and the oceans as other areas on land left to flourish once again. I hope that industrialized and developing countries will have moved to mainly renewable resources and a majority of cars driving around are electric. Large parts of the populations not depending on meat or fish will be eating plant-based and the wasteful, unnecessary and cruel animal agriculture will have scaled back immensely. There will be many set-backs until then, but even more positive stories to tell and individuals and organisations having real input on a more sustainable way of life. Fingers crossed and let us all work together a better future for us, our kids and all generations to come!
You want to learn more about Tom Vierus and his projects? Check out the following links:
Copyright of all pictures belongs to Tom Vierus.