By Erica Cirino
In February I interviewed documentary filmmaker Christine Ren, who at the time had just finished a dramatic underwater photography and film project that brings attention to two major ocean issues: overfishing and plastic pollution. This month she released her most recent edition of the project, called “Silent Killers,” which helps publicize the issue of “ghost fishing,” or the unintended capture and killing of marine life by lost and discarded fishing gear. Safina Center Fellow Eric Gilman has estimated that ghost nets make up about 10 percent of all marine litter by weight, about 640,000 tons. While exact numbers of the animals caught and killed in these nets is difficult to estimate due to the sheer size of the oceans, Gilman and other experts say it’s a problem that’s likely worsening with the increasing size of commercial fisheries across the world.
Ren’s “Silent Killers” project, like her previous work, pairs a serious ocean issue with stunningly beautiful underwater images. I asked her about the success of her last project, her experience working on her latest project and her plans for the future.
What was the outcome of your Kickstarter campaign to fund projects after “Blind Spots” and “Jellyfish Soup,” and how were the funds used to further your work?
The Kickstarter campaign was not successfully funded. I raised only about half the goal, which was great, but I didn’t get to keep it because we didn’t meet the goal. The outcome was that Jose found me and flew me out to New Zealand to work with him because he was inspired and moved by what I was doing.
Crowdfunding for a non product based campaign is extremely difficult without a large following. And while mine is growing, it really was too soon to run a Kickstarter. I anticipated this, but also saw no other way to continue forward with the series. I feel a strong obligation to pay artists what they’re worth and it’s difficult to continually ask people to donate pro bono time—including myself.
I took a chance anyway to put myself out there, even though I knew it might not get funded. And by some struck of luck, this time, I was rewarded with a talented photographer who wanted to pitch in to help. While we move in a world that measures success by the dollar, I’m learning through this work that it sometimes really is more about bringing people together to create something larger than themselves, and finding new ways to collaborate and give back. Where that leaves me with continuing my full-time unpaid job in these endeavors, I’m not quite sure. But I can’t live without doing this thing that utterly fulfills me and brings together all my gifts. So I move forward into the unknown certain only that I can’t stop creating the same as I can’t stop breathing.
Has there been a measurable impact of “Blind Spots” and “Jellyfish Soup” on conservation? Have people in the conservation field reached out to you about these works?
Science and art share as many similarities as they do differences. The scientist and artist similarly value inquiry, exploration, experimentation, and innovation. Yet science validates its success primarily by replication and measurable outcomes. While art necessitates its disciple to cultivate the unknown, to surrender to something larger as well as the deepest core within them. Often irreplicable, with quite unexpected results.
As an artist, you have to let go of knowing the exact impact what you did had on every single person who saw your work was. There are too many viewers for me to be able to reach to even know. As a scientist as well though, this creates discord within me.
In short, I can’t answer this question. The question of how you track impact online is one even the largest NGO with tons of funding grapple with. How does online viewership then translate into offline action? Again, nearly impossible to measure unless I had access to survey the specific group of people that view the campaigns.
What I can say is that blind spots was much more widely spread, liked, and picked up by the press than jellyfish soup was. This tells me something about both the issue (an easy black and white fix—people can stop plastic pollution by literally doing something in their daily lives and see the difference), as well as messaging (conveying something in satire vs metaphor, that is more shrouded). Young people, in many schools, picked up the plastic free challenge of blind spots and I Skyped with them to answer their questions. Young people and millennials are the primary demographic that engages with these campaigns.
I am flooded with personal emails from individuals that the pieces inspired, and as I continue in the work, I see more online news sites and publications wanting to feature the work, such as KQED.
What did you set out to achieve when creating “Silent Killers”?
In the video I start by conveying that a single abandoned fishing net can last for up to 400 years in the ocean—tangling and killing marine life and coral reefs. And that they call them ghost nets—but I call them silent killers. Fishing vessels abandoning or losing their nets, lines and other gear in the ocean causes major problems for marine life and ocean ecosystems. This derelict gear continues to fish for centuries, in the sea. Centuries!
Our aim with this campaign was to showcase ghost nets as the silent killers they are. Most of us have seen sad photos of sea turtles, manta rays, sharks and other creatures struggling in the confines of ghost nets. But my work in this underwater photography performance realm is to use my body and my movement as a human canvas for these issues. Because I believe, quite simply that ocean conservation is a human issue.
As such, the idea of this shoot was to use people to highlight the struggle, pain, and resignation that these nets cause in the ocean—whether tangling life or being ingested. To create emotionally-evocative, eerie yet awe-inspiring, underwater photos to bring mass attention to this issue, and its solutions.
How did you bring your ideas and concept to life?
To raise awareness about ghost fishing, I partnered up with the photographer Jose Cano in his newly built underwater photo studio in Nelson, New Zealand. Jose had found me through a Kickstarter campaign I was running for the series—which didn’t get fully funded. Just when I thought the series was dead in the water and I wouldn’t be able to create anymore content, Jose offers a few shoot days and to fly me out to New Zealand. It was a dream.
This shoot in particular was the one I was most nervous about though. The idea of being tied and tangled up in nets underwater is incredibly scary. But you just have to push yourself past your fears sometimes to make things that matter to you happen. For silent killers, we had a team of amazing people all donating their time and effort to bring the concept of to life. Kung, the makeup artist spent the day expertly creating costumes for myself and the other two models, Emma and Moana, by tying up in bandages from multiple trips to many different drug stores. And in this series, we worked with two different nets—a green net and a white one. Creating images featuring a single person struggling in the net and then group shots, where others were attempting to untangle me. And then a final idea where I was vomiting up a net, as so many creatures in the ocean eat these nets and die from suffocation that way.
Being both art director and performer in these series can be challenging, but the results we created were so magnificent. I couldn’t be happier. And we have a second series launching end of July, called the “11th Hour,” raising awareness about climate change.
So, ultimately, what’s the call to action for this campaign?
To stop derelict gear being left in the first place, requires international policy change and regulations and monitoring of the fishing industry.
But as consumers, we have the ability to ensure the incentive for economic solutions related to ghost nets. Because what works really well for this issue is net buyback programs. There are companies hard at work training and paying fisherman to reclaim lost gear, and regenerating nylon waste from ghost nets into new material to create products—everything from swimwear to skateboards. For this series, I’m asking people to commit to a 30-day challenge to spread the word about businesses that are turning reclaimed ghost nets into sustainable products. I’m highlighting the following solution partners and asking people to share and champion these ocean heroes:
Global Ghost Gear Initiative
Where will this series of photos and video appear?