Award-Winning Journalist Erik Olsen Has Underwater Storytelling In His “Genetic Code”
Erik Olsen is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker, formerly of Quartz and The New York Times. His tagline, “Always Creating”, is evident through all of the work on his website. He’s traveled to Germany, Indonesia, the Bahamas, the Chernobyl sites and Sri Lanka (which he said is his favorite place his work has taken him) all for the sake of telling stories, many of which revolve around science and the world’s diverse ecosystem. He’s particularly drawn to capturing images from the depths of our planet’s waters.
I talked with him about how he discovered this passion for underwater storytelling, how other freelancers can get into this field, and what change he notices in the world’s oceans every time he goes out to report.
JW: What initially drew you to underwater photography? What keeps you coming back to it?
EO: I grew up on the ocean in Southern California and spent many days in the waves, exploring tide pools and, eventually, diving. Love for the ocean, I think, is deep in my genetic code. Space is great too, but you can’t get there. The ocean is the most lovely and mysterious place we can get to. And that’s what keeps bringing me back.
JW: Do you ever get nervous about being so close to these massive, yet magnificent creatures?
EO: Never. We were on a kayaking trip in Baja and I was the first one to leap out of the boat to swim with a whale shark. That said, I did go cage diving in South Africa and had a great white shark swim inches from my face. I’ll confess that was somewhat frightening, but also exhilarating.
JW: Is this field rewarding to you for any particular reason?
EO: The underwater world is fascinating, lovely, mysterious and a place where few journalists dare to tread. Being underwater is the closest thing we have to exploring another planet, and as humans (and journalists/filmmakers), we have some deep-seated need to explore and tell stories. That’s why I am drawn to the ocean.
JW: Have you noticed a difference in the state of the world’s oceans due to pollution and climate change?
EO: I see the impacts of climate change and pollution nearly every time I go out on assignment. Certain areas around California have lost a tremendous amount of life because temperatures have changed and led to disease that has wiped out certain species of starfish. Recently in Indonesia, I was diving and filming for a story about cephalopod behavior and couldn’t believe the amount of trash that was in the water around these once pristine areas. It redoubles my desire to do stories about these issues so people can visually experience the problems we are causing. I’ve got a big story planned on ocean pollution, not just plastics, but the whole assortment of stuff that ends up in the ocean and even at its greatest depths.
JW: What’s the most interesting place that you’ve visited?
EO: Probably the most interesting place I’ve ever reported from is Sri Lanka, the small, tear-shaped island off the Southern tip of India. I was there to do a story for the New York Times about a young female Sri Lankan scientist named Asha de Vos who was at the start of her career studying an unusual population of blue whales that was increasingly threatened by a rapid rise in shipping traffic from Asia. I spent several days going out with Asha on a research boat as she conducted biological and photographic surveys of these incredible animals (blue whales are the largest animals to have ever lived on the planet).
For hours each day we would follow the whales as they came up to the surface to breathe, and Asha would collect fecal samples and take other measurements to try and better understand their movement patterns. One day, I hired two young Sri Lankan men to take me out alone in a zodiac so I could get underwater shots of the whales, and I will never forget watching these huge (but shy) animals swim past me. I have done a lot of reporting on marine science — in the Bahamas, Belize, Indonesia, and, of course, California, where I live — but nothing has been as spectacular as being alone with these 50–60 foot-long animals in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean.
JW: What preparations are involved when working on marine-science themed projects?
EO: I do a lot of reading and make a lot of phone calls in order to find the story. Once assigned, there’s a tremendous amount of work that goes into making sure all your equipment is working properly and that you have everything you need. $15,000 of state of the art equipment can be rendered useless when you are at sea and forgot to bring a battery charger.
JW: What special types of equipment are needed for underwater photography?
EO: Aside from all the diving equipment you need, generally the biggest thing is special housing for underwater shooting. Because they have to have a different configuration for nearly every type of camera, and because they have to be good, so you don’t flood one and lose a $2500 camera, housings are ridiculously expensive. Also, depending on if you’re shooting animals or corals up close, you may need a good light kit. They are also very expensive.
JW: Do you have a camera that you’d recommend to other freelancers looking to get started in this field?
EO: Currently I have the Sony A7Sii, but have been looking seriously at the new Panasonic S1H. That said, you would be amazed by the quality of footage you can get with a GoPro. The Hero 7 gets as good shots in some cases than my old Canon 5D. Get yourself a cheap stabilization rack that you can mount a light (or two) on and in many cases you are set, for wide shots, at least. Lume Cube makes cheap, small lights that can work really well at shallow depths.
JW: What advice do you have for other freelancers who want to pursue marine wildlife photography?
EO: There are so many stories waiting to be told about the underwater world. Get some basic equipment — start out with a GoPro and some Lume Cubes — find a good story, a good character and get out there and shoot. Take the time to practice what kind of shots work best for the story you’re trying to tell.
By Jake Watkins, Content Marketing Manager