“Ikigai”: the Japanese word for the purpose of one’s life. To National Geographic photographer and SeaLegacy founder Cristina Mittermeier, this is the intersection of what you love, what you are good at, what makes money and what the world needs. On Friday, May 10, Mittermeier spoke as part of UC Santa Barbara’s Arts and Lectures “Earth, Air, Fire, Water” series, sharing with audiences her experiences as a photographer and how they led to her life-long dedication to ocean conservation — her ikigai.

Ocean and environmental conversation is a pressing topic for today’s generation. Issues like climate change and rising sea levels have become part of daily conversations, and conservationists like Mittermeier are seeking to address them.

Mittermeier started her journey with what she calls a “traditional Mexican woman’s upbringing” in Mexico City. She came from a family with little interest in the environment, but found herself fascinated with the ocean from a young age. 

This fascination stayed with her, and Mittermeier went on to study at the Tecnológico de Monterrey in Mexico, gaining a degree in biochemical engineering in marine sciences. Although she had gone to school intending to learn more about how to protect the ocean, she later realized that she was actually learning “everything you need to know about how to extract enormous amounts of biomass from the ocean.” Mittermeier quickly realized this was not what she wanted to pursue, but she knew she had a desire to be involved in ocean conservation. Despite her scientific background, she decided to approach the issue through storytelling.

Not knowing where to start, she settled on borrowing a camera and began shooting. She attended Corcoran School of the Arts & Design’s fine art photography program, where she honed her skills. Over the course of her career, she has traveled to 133 countries as a photographer on assignment and her work has been featured in National Geographic, TIME Magazine, CNN and many other publications. Mittermeier’s goal is to build awareness of people’s responsibility to the environment, and our duty to protect it.

Mittermeier is adamant about the importance of storytelling in enacting change, particularly in ocean and environmental conservation. According to Mittermeier, “without stories, the ocean dies in silence,” arguing that “the right story can change everything.”

Telling the right story is just what Mittermeier has set out to do throughout her career. She described her first assignment photographing Indigenous peoples in Brazil who were going to be displaced due to the construction of the world’s fourth largest hydroelectric power plant, the Belo Monte Dam. Mittermeier hoped that her photographs would bring attention to these peoples, and perhaps halt the dam’s construction.

Mittermeier was unsuccessful and the dam was constructed. However, she said her job was “to tell the story of the mothers, the children, the families that were going to lose their homes.”

Mittermeier did exactly that, detailing the peoples’ connection to the Amazon. She described their tattoos made from semi-permanent ink, derived from the genipap fruit, which indicates their marital status, household and much more. Every two weeks this has to be reapplied, with children sitting for hours as their mothers paint them. Mittermeier even described the people’s desires to paint her, and her struggles in communicating with them about it.

According to Mittermeier, it was incredibly difficult to speak with the Indigenous people, even with a translator. But one term she did pick up was “maykonome,” a common greeting meaning “I see you.”

Mittemeier emphasized the significance of the word’s meaning, explaining that “your life depends on being seen by the rest of the community, on being accountable”.

It is this ideology and ingenuity of Indigenous peoples that Mittermeier believes we need to learn from in order to address current environmental and oceanic issues. She wishes to implement their techniques and approaches to problem solving for conservation.

Despite being highly successful and sought after, Mittermeier decided to leave her position as a professional photographer for National Geographic at the height of her career and founded the nonprofit SeaLegacy. SeaLegacy’s mission is to “inspire people to fall in love with the ocean, amplify a network of changemakers around the world, and catalyze hands-on diplomacy through hopeful, world-class visual storytelling.”

SeaLegacy aims to tell stories in the hopes of  saving the ocean and help the world meet the seven recovery wedges that comprise the UN Sustainable Development Goals. These recovery wedges are steps meant to restore the ocean’s health and ocean wildlife. They include protecting more of the ocean, preserving biodiversity, restoring degraded habitats, stemming the flow of ocean pollution, rethinking how food from the ocean is sourced, viewing the ocean as a solution to climate change and achieving ocean equity and justice for coastal communities.

Mittermeier believes that following these wedges would allow marine life to rebuild in a single generation. However, she says we have to do so ourselves, because “No one is coming to save us.”

To realize this, Mittermeier has been raising funds and working to protect the environment. For example, when the Canadian government refused to protect a subspecies of gray wolves specific to British Columbia from hunting, Mittermeir and a group of photographers took matters into their own hands. To protect them from being hunted, the group raised funds and bought all of the hunting licenses for these wolves.

Mittermeier emphasizes the importance of not only the work by conservationists and nonprofit organizations, but also efforts at an individual level. She describes Americans as “the most philanthropic people on planet Earth,” donating 480 billion dollars per year on average. Yet of this, only 1.8% goes to the environment, 0.25% to the ocean specifically. She urges people to donate more towards the environment, stating that “our lives depend on it.”

Mittermeier also described her newest crowdfunded project, “Hope”, a book featuring a collection of her work throughout her career. Proceeds will be donated to the communities photographed within the book. 

“Hope is a choice … the minute we lose the hope we have lost the fight,” Mittermeier said.

To close, Mittermeier emulated the beginning of her talk, and the accountability we owe each other. Mittermeier urged the audience to say, “I am accountable to you, I’m going to do everything in my power to keep our planet alive.” As, according to Mittermeier, “That’s what I’m doing the rest of my life … maykonome to all of you.”