Shawn Heinrichs

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A committed ocean activist, talented artist and inspirational conservationist, ahead of his exhibition at Monaco Yacht Show entitled ‘Inspiration over Devastation’ Heinrichs gave us a snapshot of the life behind, and in front, of his lens…

‘My work may be message driven, but education is not the focus,’ Shawn Heinrichs candidly corrects us during our entertaining and enthralling conversation. It’s a statement delivered with the conviction and confidence of someone who not only sees the bigger picture, but who has devoted considerable time to analyzing the efficacy and consequence of his life’s work. ‘The goal is inspiration. When we love and feel an emotional attachment to something–a child, your family, pet, home–you don’t need to be taught to protect it. It is instinctive.’ A devoted ocean activist and marine conservationist, the imagery that Heinrichs creates is so beautiful and engaging that viewers are impulsively drawn into the water, the purity of his still photography and videos pour into one’s soul in waves of cleansing digital saline. Heinrich’s art requires no explanation, no subtitle, no script; it is simplistic, powerful and a communication of human and marine life interaction in its cleanest form. His juxtaposition of a willowy model, clad in billowing fabrics, fearlessly interacting with some of the ocean’s most magnificent and awe inspiring creatures convey a unmistakable depth of connection. ‘The images strip away the macho paraphernalia of tanks, masks, spearguns and cages usually associated with shark diving,’ Heinrich points out, ‘and instead show the intelligence and beauty we can experience with these sentient creatures when we tear down that barrier of fear. In reality we don’t need protection from them, but they certainly require protection from us.’ Born in Durban, South Africa prior to a move to the USA at the age of 8-years old, being brought up on the shores of one of the world’s richest and diverse marine habitats left an indelible mark on Heinrich’s soul. ‘Seeing the oceans teeming with life from age zero was such an experience. Seeing the sardine shoals pile up on the beaches, shark fins thrashing in the water, dolphins by thousands playing off the shore, humpback whales leaping out of the water… the wild coast was a last glimmer of what our great oceans once were. I grew up believing that’s what the oceans were all about, later on coming to the realization that everything I believed was there was rapidly disappearing, it was simply heartbreaking.’ After taking up diving in 1990 Heinrichs began experimenting in combining his love for this new sport with an existing passion for nature photography. ‘I instantly fell in love with this incredible underwater world and tried to figure out ways of recording what I was seeing. Back in those days underwater photography was pretty rudimentary, you’d shoot three rolls of film and pray for one decent shot, two if you were super lucky! It was with the advent of early digital cameras that I started to get more serious in the late 1990’s, the technology opened up the underwater world and seeded my passion and career.’ Heinrichs also took every opportunity to explore the underwater world of South East Asia when his employment as a successful entrepreneur in a tech start-up company dictated regular business trips to the region. ‘What spurred me on was every time I returned to the same spot, I’d see less and less marine life. South East Asia may be one of the most beautiful parts of the world, but it is also one of the most exploited and polluted. The sharks were disappearing, there was less fish, the corals were dying… Indonesia is the fourth most populated country on earth but is spread over thousands of islands, so resources are spread thin, exploitation–domestic and international piracy–is rife and there is no centralized system capable of managing, controlling, educating, disposing or policing their waters.’

Shawn Heinrichs
Shark finning is one of the most severe threats to the continuation of the ocean habitats as we know them today

We asked Heinrichs what is the most effective means to affect change on a local level in his opinion? ‘You can pontificate and educate all you like, but I’ve noticed that when you can demonstrate a measurable improvement in the income for the local population, that’s when they’ll get onboard.’ Heinrichs points to the whale shark population that featured in his ‘Mermaid Among Giants’ campaign, shot in the Philippines in 2012. ‘The local community in this village used to be spotters for Whale Shark hunters, they literally used to make their income off the destruction of the species. Now, if you even think about harming a Whale Shark in the area you’re in serious trouble.’ Heinrichs went on to explain how he established a relationship with the local community. ‘I was in the area engaged in other conservation activities when some guys came up and mentioned that some fishermen in another village had ‘made friends with whale sharks’. Of course I was totally disbelieving, but decided to check it out anyway. Sure enough, there were these fishermen out in wooden dugout canoes with whale sharks following them around! I grabbed my camera bag and asked my guides to pick me up the following day, I swam out to the guys, stayed with them while they were out fishing, ate with them, slept in their huts that night and everything grew from there. Over time this community who had participated in the killing of these beautiful creatures, now were benefitting from tourists who paid good money to experience swimming with the whale sharks. But then that brought them under fire as some objected to their interference with nature.’ ‘It was about a year later I returned with Hannah Fraser and the crew to shoot the ‘fashion’ series, we needed some impactful imagery to highlight the story, combining fashion and nature was an incredible success–it ran in thousands of media outlets worldwide. I’m a practical conservationist, we must connect people with nature and put aside our western sentiments, creating a new conversation that connects the global community to the realities and urgency for immediate conservation, but in a way that inspires, rather than shames or guilts them.’ Backing up a little in Heinrich’s story, we enquired as to the moment when he made the decision to take this direction and make the cause of marine conservation his life’s work? ‘From the late 1990s’ I was becoming increasingly aware of the threat to our oceans and was witnessing first-hand their degradation. Like many others before me I became an ‘armchair conservationist’; signing petitions, reading reports, following newsfeeds, etc. trying to discover what was going on but feeling powerless and not knowing how to make a meaningful impact. I guess the ‘Road to Damascus’ moment came in 2006, while still employed by the tech start-up I was working with a group to establish a network of protected marine reserves in Indonesia, in the heart of biodiversity; Rajam Ampat, Papua.”I took on an assignment for two-weeks to document the life in the oceans in the regency of Rajam Ampat. During the shoot I’d witnessed mesmerizing schools of fish, a stunning abundance of coral species, groupers, this insanely productive ecosystem… but I hadn’t seen a single shark during the fortnight. I kept telling myself it was the wrong season, the waters were too warm maybe, but then on the last day I noticed a fishing boat out in a neighboring lagoon. Curious, a couple of us motored over and as we drew closer you could see swarms of flies buzzing over the decks. We were met with this grizzly scene of blood soaked juvenile shark fins drying on the deck. I noticed a reflection in the water below, pulling on my mask I dove down to the reef and found dozens of juvenile reef sharks, freshly finned, rolling around helplessly on the reef condemned to a painful death. I was shocked. I’d read a lot, but coming to face to face with it in such a remote and supposedly protected haven… it was like someone running into an orphanage with a machine gun. My mask filled with tears.’ As Heinrichs continues telling us of his experience, we begin to understand how each of us can make a difference. ‘I instantly knew I had to document this and show the world, so as disgusted as I was I turned on the camera and shot stills and video. Returning home, still not really knowing what to do, I simply edited the film and uploaded it to Youtube. Today that film still remains the #1 most viewed video on shark finning and has received millions of hits. It was during that moment that I decided that being an armchair warrior wasn’t enough and I needed to become a full-time activist.’ Using the talent at his disposal, in 2006 Heinrichs turned his back on the corporate world and has gone on to inspire millions through the media he shoots underwater. ‘When you witness such an important truth, you cannot turn your back on it,’ is the way he describes his conversion, ‘Financially the decision makes no sense, but the personal rewards have since far outweighed anything I could have expected.’

Shawn Heinrichs
The devastating result of mankind’s actions

His stills and films have graced thousands of pages of print and digital outlets, TV and cinema screens, across the world. Indeed, the day after our conversation his images were writ large in a projected installation on the Empire State building, part of the inspirational campaign for the award-winning documentary ‘Racing Extinction’ that he collaborated on. We’re planning a ‘behind the scenes’ feature on Racing Extinction in a forthcoming issue, but be sure to look out for it during it’s imminent limited cinema release around the USA, or in December during a worldwide release on the 200+ country footprint of the discovery Channel. We asked Heinrichs to recall his most memorable underwater interaction. It takes some time as he mentally scrolls through a decade of unbelievable experiences, but eventually he answers. ‘My favorite marine creature is the manta ray. The reason being they are incredibly intelligent, interactive, large, charismatic and gentle creatures. They are so completely vulnerable, they have no teeth, no sting, yet they still come up and engage with us. They are far more interactive than anything I’ve experienced with whales or dolphins. On one dive on Magic Mountain in Rajam Ampat I spent eight hours, returning with tank after tank, just dancing and playing with oceanic mantas 16’ (5m) across in 50m visibility. It was a seminal experience and you got a unique insight into each creature’s personality. It was a solo dive, so incredibly personal on a spiritual level. From that day on I’ve known I have to protect this species.’ Then asked to juxtapose this experience, Heinrich’s tone drops and his voice almost chokes as he describes what he witnessed a year later in Lamakera, Indonesia when tracking down the world’s largest community of manta ray hunters. ‘I finally made my way onto one of the fishing boats and had to watch the fisherman ram this rusty barbed spear into the back of the head of a beautiful manta ray. Over the course of an hour they wrenched the poor animal to the side of the boat, hacked away at it with a machete and finally ran a length of rusty wire down into its brain to kill it. Sitting there documenting it, watching the life drain out of an animal that can live between 50 and 100-years–purely for the supply of its gills for some totally ineffectual pseudo-medicinal tonic in China–it made absolutely no sense to me.’ Before wrapping up our conversation, we asked Heinrichs about the logistics involved in shooting underwater and the intricacy of freezing such stunning moments in a (literally) fluid environment. Perhaps without coincidence he uses the ‘Manta’s Last Dance’ campaign shot in Hawaii with Hannah Fraser as an example. ‘Before we blew the cover off the manta ray gill trade nobody even knew they were being hunted, so our team went out and conducted ten primary field studies around the world, documenting the slaughter and exploitation of the species. We then demonstrated the unequivocal tourism value of $100-million annually through manta diving and snorkeling. It was part of our successful push to get Manta rays listed on Appendix II of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), but few of the delegates even knew what a manta ray was–most thought it was the stingray that killed Steve Irwin.’

Shawn Heinrichs
The inspirational beauty of creatures interacting with mankind

Realizing they needed to move quickly Heinrichs and Hannah Fraser conceived the project ‘Manta’s Last Dance’ and hastily assembled a crack team to shoot in Hawaii. “It was our best effort to make people understand what it is to interact with these creatures. It was one of the most challenging, yet important shoots we’ve done to date. It involved assembling a team in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, then getting them into a place where 12,000 feet of cold winter water slams into a remote island chain.’ This however proves to be just the start, Heinrichs continues: ‘We were down there for three to four hours at a time, with poisonous viper eels wrapping around Hannah’s ankles; oh and she’s weighted down to the reef by her ankle, with a diver feeding her a lungful of air every couple of minutes. Add to that we need an extensive lighting array, without fixed cables that could harm the creatures, shooting assistants, safety divers, videographers and still cameras, like a dozen people underwater, swirling around in the current and trying to stay out of the shot… plus of course unpredictable animals as the primary protagonists. It was like trying to compose and shoot images inside what becomes a machine with as many moving parts as a Swiss watch, but we still produced this stunning imagery. The result was so very rewarding, both in personal satisfaction and the role the imagery had in protecting manta rays and inspiring a whole generation.’ The value of Heinrich’s images in conservation efforts is obvious and so is their artistic merit. Carefully selected from the photographs he shoots are those that are offered as part of his fine art collection. ‘These have  to be perfect in interaction, communication and composition,’ Heinrichs explains. ‘I may get only one or two from each shoot.’ Perhaps the best quote we can find about Heinrichs comes from Erik Olsen in the New York Times: ‘If you were an endangered species up for listing, it would be hard to find a better friend than Shawn Heinrichs.’

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