Meeting someone who’s been inside the mouth of a whale might sound like something out of a Herman Melville novel, but for National Geographic explorer Gemina Garland-Lewis, it’s one of the perks of the job.
Garland-Lewis is a scientist and an artist. Her work marries visual storytelling to research in order to more fully engage audiences with fieldwork findings. And audience engagement is a must when the information you’re trying to relay is about the intimate relationship between humans, animals, and the environment.
Garland-Lewis explains that it’s not very easy to get people thinking about issues of conservation and biodiversity, as they often take on an “ambiguous” and “far-away” role in people’s lives. Especially in an age of online activism, she tells me, “What’s getting harder these days is finding creative ways to get people engaged beyond just the quick scan.”
Hard facts and data just aren’t covering it when it comes to educating the public about environmental issues. “I just think there’s a much better way to get people excited about the environment and conservation and social issues, and photography is really the way that I think it’s possible to communicate to a larger audience,” says Garland-Lewis, who “grew up” in her high school’s dark room. “I’ve been a photographer since I was 12, so it’s always been a way that I saw the world or a way to express my story.”
Take the explorer’s “Everything to Me” project. The project focuses on documenting the stories of Seattle’s citizens struggling through homelessness with their pets. The visual-storytelling is coupled with efforts to establish a clinic where those experiencing homelessness can seek treatment for themselves and their pets at the same time. With such a clinic people wouldn’t have to prioritize their animal’s well being over their own, which is often the case.
Personal statements come together with photos and data to give a voice to those suffering from homelessness and enact change within the broader community. One technique that the photographer relies on in order to build such affecting and personal narratives is participatory photography, which is exactly what it sounds like: handing the camera—and thus control of the narrative—over to the subject. “At its heart is the understanding that there’s no real way to be unbiased as a photographer…or as a human being,” explains Garland-Lewis. It helps keep the project truthful to the perspective and lived experiences of those being documented. Participatory photography also helps capture life’s most raw and spontaneous moments. “There’s just moments that I can’t be there for as a photographer, you know?” Garland-Lewis adds. “How many people take selfies in bed with their animals?”
According to Garland-Lewis, with an issue as heavily stigmatized as homelessness, storytelling becomes particularly powerful in changing how people understand homelessness. “I’ve found that people who are housing secure have approached me after finding this project and relayed that it’s been a great entry point for them into the conversation because they can identify with the love of an animal, and they can understand that relationship,” she points out. “That’s really where you can build support for something like the clinic.”
As rewarding as Garland-Lewis has found the experience of connecting to her own community in Seattle through “Everything to Me,” she’s still an adventurer at heart. Her work as an explorer has brought her to 29 different countries across all the continents but Antarctica. Her work with National Geographic in particular focused on whaling culture in Portugal’s Azores islands and its cultural transformation overtime—whaling has become whale watching and boats that were once used for hunting are now use for sailing. There’s almost an anthropological and ethnographic quality to Garland-Lewis’s work on whaling, as it mixes photography with long form interviews and research to weave together a rich history. “It’s piecing together some central characters, some individuals, to have an audience really engage, maybe make a connection with a specific person and hear their story a little bit more, but also put that in the context of the larger environment.”
Narrative and context come together particularly beautifully in a story she tells me about a man who had been knocked out of a whaleboat by a sperm whale he was hunting. “The man, once he flew up in the air, landed inside the whale’s mouth and punctured the side of his abdomen on one of the whale’s teeth…He was getting dragged down into the water. He thought he was going to die; he was saying his goodbyes. But finally he realized he was hooked up to some rope, the rope on the harpoon that was attached to the whale. So, he was able to untie himself and swim to the surface. And the whale actually came back up and hit its head on the side of the boat again, but somehow through all of this he was able to make it out of the water and to a hospital.”
The story in and of itself is remarkable, but what really touched Garland-Lewis was the bigger picture: “We were at a whaleboat regatta…He had gotten me a glass of wine, and we’re just sitting out in the sunshine watching these whaleboats race… And it was just insane for me to think that I was having a glass of wine with this 70-something year old man who had been inside the mouth of a sperm whale, and was sitting here telling me this story…and having it be at the regatta, looking at the boats, the same boats in some cases that he might have been going out on decades ago.”
Whales and homelessness might seem far off from each other, but Garland-Lewis doesn’t think her work is as eclectic as it might seem. “My work can come off to some people as people not necessarily understanding the connection between people experiencing homelessness in Seattle and whalers in Portugal, but for me the reoccurring theme in all the projects that I focus on is that relationship between people and animals,” she acknowledges. “But in my mind they’re all related in this larger idea of the different ways in which we connect to animals and what that means in our lives.” And that’s precisely the message Garland-Lewis drives home with every photo essay and research project: “No matter where you look, humans and animals are connected all these different ways.”