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David Doubilet (USA)

A Vision in the Sea

Astronaut William Anders’s image of Earthrise shows us that our planet could have as easily been called Planet Ocean. His famous image taken from Apollo 8 on Christmas Eve in 1968 shows a sphere of sapphire blue. That one picture says a lot, mostly about the water which covers 71 percent of our world.

I have had a long and intimate relationship with the sea. More than five decades ago, I began to dive in the Caribbean Sea, a place then carpeted with dense fields of Elkhorn coral, thick beds of turtle grass, and reefs that appeared to be raining fish. It was a boundless sea, a seemingly endless paradise filled with extraordinary creatures that almost no one knew anything about.

I saw goliath grouper, five times my teenage size, lurking in crevices, and not one or two, but squadrons of sharks patrolling for large reef fish. This world of water, light, and life was like a city in the sea that resembled my own bustling neighborhood in New York City. I became obsessed with going underwater to escape, to dream, and to make pictures. That dream became my professional reality. When I began making images underwater, people thought that the oceans were filled with infinite wonder and opportunity.

We were not just wrong, but wildly wrong. I knew very little about anything in the oceans when I began to create images underwater. Where do basking sharks go? How do whale sharks, mantas, and countless other species give birth? Where do fresh water eels spawn? The sea was my wilderness to be discovered, photographed, described, documented, and shared. Fast forward to today. Seventy years after the invention of the Aqua-Lung, we still know very little. We have explored less than 5 percent of our oceans, yet we have fished, eaten, or systematically destroyed nearly 90 percent of the species in it.

My history in the sea provides me a baseline, and my photographs have become a testimony to a universe lost. I have embraced the idea that pictures are a universal language with the power to honor, humiliate, celebrate, and educate. I enter the sea now not only to document the devastation and advocate change, but also to convey the beauty I find underwater so viewers can feel a sense of hope and build a connection with that world.

For me personally, it is critical to make a picture that transcends journalism—to make an image that goes beyond the reported story and enters the realm of art. If we lose the sense of magic in the sea, we will lose the ability to open people’s minds and inspire change.

David Doubilet


David Doubilet obtained a B.A. in film and broadcast journalism from Boston University in 1970. He has been a contributing photographer and author for National Geographic since his first assignment with the magazine in 1971. Doubilet has logged more than 26,000 hours at sea as a journalist, artist, and conservationist,using photography as a universal language to communicate both the beauty and the devastation present in our oceans. He is a speaker for National Geographic Live on Tour and has written twelve books, including the award-winning Water Light Time (London: Phaidon, 1999). He is a contributing editor for Ocean Geographic magazine,and his work has been recognized by the Academy of Achievement in Washington, D.C., the Lennart Nilsson Award, and the Explorers Club’s Lowell Thomas Award. He was a contributing photographer in-residence at National Geographic, an honorary member of the Royal Photographic Society, and an inductee into the International Diving Hall of Fame. His honors include multiple Pictures of the Year (POY) awards from the BBC, and photography awards from the National Press Photographers Association and Communication Arts.Recent solo photography exhibitions include David Doubilet: Ocean Retrospective (2015), Festival Mar de Mares, A Coruña, Spain; Visual Dreams and Intense Curiosity (2015), Städtische Galerie Iserlohn,Germany; and presentations of the 2012 program Under Exposed with David Doubilet at LOOK3, Charlottesville, Virginia, and in Singapore.

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