When wildlife photographers and filmmakers Paul Nicklen and Cristina Mittermeier saw a starving polar bear in northern Canada last summer, they shot a video that they hoped would shock the world into paying attention to the threat of climate change.
But neither could have predicted that their heart-wrenching video, released last month, would reach tens of millions of people around the world. Or that so much of the reaction to it would be so nasty.
Social media platforms lit up with support for Nicklen’s and Mittermeier’s work, applauding their effort to put a dramatic face on climate change’s potential toll. But those same platforms exploded with accusations that the two photographers—and National Geographic—overstated what can be known about the link between climate change and the plight of this particular bear.
Others questioned why the pair didn’t intervene to save the animal. (Mittermeier quickly wrote a piece for us explaining why trying to help was futile).
When we caught up with Mittermeier and Nicklen recently to ask about their experiences in the month since their video went viral, the frequent National Geographic contributors told us how the experience knocked them back on their heels—and deepened their commitment to conservation photography.
What was it like watching your video become a global sensation?
Cristina Mittermeier: People were stopping us at the airport. A lady ran up to us to say thank you. As a photographer, you cannot expect to make an iconic image and not have repercussions around it. It caught me a little off guard.
As women, we struggled to find our place in a male-dominated profession, so this is certainly great validation. Getting the recognition allows me to have a bigger platform to talk.
At some point it went into the spin cycle. [In the days the followed] I had to deliver a speech, and I had all these voices in the back of my head—it was so hard to concentrate. In the beginning, I tried to answer comments, but then the flood gates opened.
Paul Nicklen: We were in Nairobi last week when someone stopped us and thanked us for the bear. In Rwanda with the gorillas, a woman at our hotel thanked us.
At some point you realize it’s not just a black hole of comments, it’s a debate. You realize there’s a big discussion going on.
Some people told me they couldn’t get out of bed. They were so depressed. Some people told me they were incredibly angry. It’s almost like this slapped them in the face. Anger came out from all different demographics, and some of that anger was directed at us. You see it all the time with war photographers. It’s often a lot easier to shoot the messenger than it is to look in the mirror and process your own guilt.
Looking back, would you have done anything differently?
CM: We made the mistake of not telling the full story, and a good story needs a good ending.
We were standing in this little house in a seasonal fisherman’s hut. We were hiding so the polar bear couldn’t see us, and as we came closer and closer it picked up its head and waddled into the water and swam away. Paul was really worried it would waste energy and die, but it floated and seemed to have an easier time in the water. It just paddled away and bent the corner. We never saw it again.
You received some criticism from people who said this bear was not an indication of climate change. How did the scientific community respond to the video?
PN: The top polar bear scientists have come out and said we’re not wrong. We never said this was climate change, all we’re saying is this is what climate change will look like in the next 100 years or 30 years or 10 years. The fact that we’ve had so much support is amazing, but unfortunately the trolls have the loudest voices.
(National Geographic interviewed a polar bear scientist about the video.)
What is it about photography that helped illustrate your message so effectively?
PN: My realization after this was that we need to get the world talking, and science is obviously not doing that. Science is the foundation, but we need the emotional connection. I knew it was going to hit people in their heart and elicit a response.
CM: Since the beginning of time, humans have passed on information and knowledge through storytelling. We are hard-wired for stories. We all love it. I think the place where we’ve failed in the conservation movement is we’ve focused a lot on the science, and I don’t think we communicated on the same scale the urgency of what was happening.
Spitting facts at people doesn’t inspire anybody, but if you tell them a story that pulls at the common threads of humanity, people understand. People have empathy, you have to tell stories that feel familiar and personal to people.
In interviews about the video, you’ve implied that Inuit hunting could impact polar bear populations. They responded very defensively. Has that relationship been repaired?
CM: The most painful part of the whole experience was the reaction of the Inuit. They felt that I was threatening their hunting rights. My goal is to earn back their trust and respect.
What’s next for you and for Sea Legacy, your conservation organization?
CM: It’s a big ocean out there, and there are a lot of problems. For myself, I’m very interested in gender equality in fisheries. Fifty percent of the workforce in fisheries is women, but we don’t see their work.
[Sea Legacy] is looking for innovative solutions. We have such a massive social media following, so we’ve seen hundreds of thousands of people who are scared and angry and they want solutions that are tangible.
PN: This beat down only energized me. I went from being saddened and scared at such hurtful comments to embracing it and loving it. I think we’re on the right path, and we’re going to do more of it.