An update from Marine Conservationist Tom Vierus – About working and living in Fiji, the COVID-19 crisis and more

By Nuri Max Steinmann.

It has been three years since our first interview with Tom Vierus. Time for an update!

Tom is a photographer, filmmaker, writer 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.

Hi Tom! It has been three years. Back then, you were still living in Germany, and you were still at the very beginning of your career. Since then, you have not only found a new home, but also worked on some interesting projects. Can you give us a brief summary of what you have done since 2018?

Phew… That is a tricky one Nuri, but let me give you a few highlights. I left Germany in 2018, and it took a few months to get settled in Fiji. I reached out to a lot of people, introduced myself and my work and established working relationships, of which many are still in place today. I did quite a bit of tourism work back then, spend several weeks in Fiji and Vanuatu on tourism-related assignments. I also documented the Kokomo Manta Conservation Project, an interesting merge between local manta conservation efforts and private industry resulting in an outstanding sustainable ecotourism project. One of my highlights of 2019 was the chance to photograph and film a three-week WWF-led expedition exploring Fiji’s Great Sea Reef, the third-largest continuous barrier reef in the world and completed another assignment for WWF UK, documenting the immediate effects of climate change on communities and farmers in Vanua Levu. The same year, I shot a film about My Fiji Shark, a shark adoption program here in Fiji. At the beginning of 2020, I founded my company Pacific Media House, which took several months of the administration and lots of headaches, but yay, there I finally was. The same year, I followed the German NGO Urgewald to Guyana, where I filmed and photographed for their campaign on offshore drilling there (and a movie about the topic CARBON BOMB). A few months later, I joined the Wildlife Conservation Society on a dive expedition to document the recovery process of corals that were hit during the Severe Tropical Cyclone Winston, a category five storm that made landfall in Fiji in 2016. The results were promising and much needed great news for nature conservation – I published a short summary article in The Guardian. At the end of 2020, I followed Fiji’s first local NGO NatureFiji-MareqetiViti into dense cloud forest here in Fiji to document their quest to find the Kulawai, an endemic bird that hasn’t been since for over thirty years. A few weeks later, I team up with Fiji’s Alliance Française to create a documentary about “Closeness” and what it means in the Fijian context. The resulting documentary will premiere later this year at the Wildlife Conservation Film Festival in New York and can be seen here.

Unfortunately, in April 2021, the Delta variant of COVID-19 finally made its way into Fiji after the country had been COVID-free for an entire year. That also meant that all my projects were either put on hold or cancelled. Luckily, I still had a few video editing jobs that needed finishing and kept me busy for a while. The silver lining of the forced lockdown in Fiji’s capital was definitely that I had the time and focus on working on my photo book about Fiji’s first National Marine Park, the Shark Reef Marine Reserve. I have been photographing Fiji’s sharks since 2016 and have been actively working on this book for about three years. I am beyond happy that it is currently in the proofing stage, and pre-orders will soon go live. For now, you can get a good preview of what to expect here. The best news I received this year was surely my acceptance in the Emerging League of the International League of Conservation Photographers. The iLCP is a collection of the world’s best nature and conservation photographers that all share a common goal: driving positive change with real impact on the ground utilizing the power of visuals. I am extremely happy and proud to be part of the fellowship, and I am very excited for what is ahead in the future.

It’s great to see how things are developing and you can really see how you and your projects are progressing. One can say: You’ve established yourself as a freelancer! Are there still difficulties or doubts that you sometimes have to deal with?

In the age of social media, most of our lives look perfect from the outside, but we all know that is not true for anybody. I can tell you that I have been and I am facing many difficulties and challenges in my life and dealing with and overcoming them is not always easy. While I love what I am doing and appreciate being my own boss, it also comes with lots of tasks one might easily forget: procurement of jobs (and that is a big one), taking care of finances and bookkeeping, sorting out insurances, establishing and maintaining business relationships, pitching projects, writing proposals and so on. And these are all the tasks BESIDES the actual filming, photographing, and editing! I massively underestimated what it means to be a freelancer, and I increasingly find it difficult to “ring doorbells” over and over again. Ultimately, I don’t have a choice, though: either I put in the work and move forward, or I don’t and stagnate as a result. Being a freelancer also (likely) comes with bleak times, where there is no (paid) work, and to me personally, that was mentally very hard. If those times extend too long due to unforeseen circumstances such as this pandemic, it can really start to play tricks with one’s mind. Did I make the wrong choices? Am I still good enough? Do I need to get xyz in order to stay competitive? What will I do when the situation doesn’t improve soon? And so on..  Waking up day by day and staying motivated and focused is a real challenge. What is important is to keep in mind that all of our lives are filled with ups and downs and that this is normal and also important for self-improvement and reflection. It is almost crazy to have to mention that, but I feel the more our societies shift towards this social media-based lifestyle exacerbated by the pandemic and towards the constant instant gratification through likes and comments, the more we need to remind ourselves to get enough “off-time”. I certainly feel how social media can have a detrimental effect on mental health, while of course, at the same time, being an incredibly powerful tool in spreading information and driving positive change through visuals and storytelling. With so many things in life – it is about maintaining a balance.

You have been living in Fiji for a few years now. What is it like to live there? Can you give us some insights?

Sometimes it is hard to believe, but it’s been more than 3.5 years by now. I first came to Fiji in 2015 to conduct the fieldwork for my ISATEC Master’s Program and stayed for seven months. After returning to Germany, finishing my degree, and working as a freelance photographer for a few months, my partner and I decided to move our bases to Fiji in September 2018. Fiji is an incredible country in the South Pacific, consisting of over 300 islands with a population just short of one million. Fijians are incredibly friendly and welcoming people, and the Fiji Islands are generally absolutely stunning. But besides all the beautiful beaches, five-star resorts and amazing diving, countries like Fiji are also at the forefront of climate change. Despite contributing as little as less than one per cent to global greenhouse gas emissions, Small Island Developing States (SIDS) bear the brunt of the impacts caused by the climate crisis: increasing cyclone intensity, rising sea levels, and eroding shorelines, saltwater inundations and so on. As a major part of my work focuses on climate change and ocean-related topics, I feel I am at the right place at this point in time in my life. Both my partner Amanda, who is a coral reef ecologist and lectures at the University of the South Pacific, and I are incredibly happy to be here, but at the same time, it can be very hard to be that far away from family and friends. Overall, Fiji is a beautiful country that has a lot to offer, from wonderful people to incredible diving in the Pacific Ocean. For those of the readers who are interested to hear more about Fiji, head over to my blog and search for “Fiji”.

Fiji has long been spared from the COVID-19 crisis. Now, unfortunately, it seems to have arrived after all. What is the current situation? How do you deal with it?

The COVID situation isn’t great. Fiji has gone from one of the few countries that were COVID-free to the country with the highest weekly average of new infections per million population. Crazy! Most of the spread was concentrated in Fiji’s central division, where the capital Suva is located (and where we currently live). For more than four months, we have been in lockdown in the city, unable to leave. Additionally, we have a curfew from 6pm to 4am every day and have been living under nightly curfews with slightly shifting times since the pandemic started in March 2020. Fiji was also among the first countries in the world to make vaccinations mandatory. Unfortunately, despite all the efforts by the government, the numbers are still rising, with around 22.000 active cases and more than 400 people have lost their lives. While Amanda, our dogs, and I live on the university campus in Suva and are definitely lucky to be safe and sound and have green areas to walk in (which is actually rare here in Suva), the situation isn’t great. Especially on a professional level. Projects were stalled or cancelled. Luckily, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and it seems like the government is preparing to open their border at the end of this year. Fingers crossed, as I haven’t been home for over two years now! In terms of dealing with the lockdown situation, I followed the advice of my friends from around the world: I focused on a rigorous sport routine consisting of running and strength sports and consistent daily walks with our two dogs Kaia and Lewa.

Do you think COVID-19 will have an impact on marine conservation efforts in Fiji?

That remains to be seen, but likely yes. Due to the difficulties faced by communities in Fiji, many turned to farming and fishing. This might have resulted in an increased fishing pressure around Fiji’s coastlines, but we have to wait for more recent assessments and studies.

It has perhaps never been so difficult to look into the future and plan things. Nevertheless, life goes on, and the world keeps turning. What is on Tom Vierus’ agenda for the foreseeable future?

In the immediate future, I see the publication of my photo book on Fiji’s Shark Reef Marine Reserve. As I mentioned earlier, I have been working on this project for a good three years, and it consumed hundreds of hours of work literally. I can’t wait to make it a reality and put a “tick” on it!

In the midterm, I plan to work on two documentary ideas – one involving the Shark Reef again and another about climate change in the South Pacific and shifting baselines. One of my long-term goals is to shoot a feature-length documentary and get it on Netflix! Over the past years, I have increasingly delved into moving images and welcomed a new cinema camera, a Blackmagic Ursa Mini Pro G2, into my home at the beginning of the pandemic. My first shoots with it went great, and I am looking forward to putting it to great use once Fiji’s (and the world’s) situation improves. Who knows what is to come.. many projects come in quite spontaneously, and I find myself on assignment a few days later.

Stay safe, and all the best!

Check out Tom’s work:

https://www.tomvierus.com/

https://www.instagram.com/tomvierus/

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