The first atrium in the Southampton Arts Center — home to a new exhibit from Shawn Heinrichs, “Light on Shadow” — is an ode to the photographer’s first love.
And the place that would break his heart.
The gallery transports him back to his childhood, gawking at humpback whales charging up the Wild Coast, his backyard while growing up in Durban, South Africa, and afternoons spent mesmerized by billions of migrating sardines with a parade of creatures chasing them — thousands of sharks, tens of thousands of dolphins, and innumerable Cape gannets on their tails.
The tiny fish would bubble up on the shore, cuing the fishermen to run out and scoop them up with their buckets, relishing in a bounty literally overflowing with life.
This is the ocean Heinrichs knew and loved, and left at eight years old, when his family moved to the United States. His memories of it are visceral, romantic and, now, physically unreachable — a reality that devastated him, and is still hard to bear.
“It was only just before I went to college that I started diving again, and the ocean that I returned to didn’t resemble anything I’d seen as a child,” Heinrichs recalled. “The reefs were suffocated and crumbling. Where once there were masses of large schools of fish, there were just dwindling numbers. There were no predators to be found — no sharks, no rays — and, overall, it just looked like a tiny little snippet of what once was an incredible, thriving ocean.”
He sighed. “And that, honestly, that broke my heart. I had always, as a small child, been deeply connected with nature. You read stories about the loss of the bison and the loss of other species, and you think, hundreds of years. For me, it was a decade and a half. What I’d seen as this endless bounty had been taken.”
Something had to be done, he resolved. The hobbyist photographer traded his amateur camera for more sophisticated gear, and captured all he could — showing what was left, and why it needed to be saved.
He created imagery, stories and film, diving with the giants of the sea — whales, manta rays and whale sharks — their wing tips, teeth and faces grazing right by him and his lens. It was an exercise in humility, awe and gratitude, he said.
“To realize how tiny we are and how vulnerable we are in their presence, and how magnificent they are, it starts to make you appreciate them on an entirely different level,” he said. “And I thought if I showed people this, they would fall in love and want to protect it. But behavior wasn’t changing, so I thought, ‘Okay, well if I can’t have them fall in love, I need to show them the destruction. I need to tell the truth.’”
For the better part of a decade, Heinrichs went undercover to some of the darkest and most remote places around the world — from Africa to South America to Southeast Asia — exposing the wanton and often illegal destruction of these species at the hands of triads, mafia and large-scale industrial engines.
The photos were published internationally by outlets such as the BBC and National Geographic, and Heinrichs said he thought, “Wow, I’m gonna wake everyone up.”
Instead, they turned away, he said, and the destruction continued.
“It was at that point where I sort of had a sense of personal loss and depression and hopelessness, because I thought, ‘I’ve showed them the beauty, I showed them the destruction, and nothing’s changing,’” he said. “And then I realized something that was missing, and it was connection.
“I, as a small child, had formed a very deep personal connection with the spaces, the habitats and the species, and as a result, I was defending them as one might defend their home or their family,” he continued. “But for the most part, the rest of the world had no connection. Very few people had spent any time in the ocean or, literally, below the surface.”
And so, he took them there. With the help of performance artists, models and divers, Heinrichs shot them dancing, swimming and floating among the goliaths — framing them in the context of human connection.
To say it resonated would be an understatement.
“It was then my work took a massive jump, and instead of millions, it was tens and hundreds of millions of people engaged in the imagery. The story was on a whole different level,” Heinrichs said. “It was sort of like the story of the Grinch, where his heart grew 10,000 percent. Suddenly, that seed inside of people started to explode. And I realized I’d found something.
“If we’re gonna protect the oceans, we need to connect people in a very real, profound, heart-centric way. And if I’m gonna continue this work, I had to be able to nurture that same childlike curiosity that was inside myself, and not go black and go dark,” he said, adding, “‘Light on Shadow’ is really letting me bare my soul. It’s my personal journey.”
That quest once dumped him in the middle of 15 tiger sharks, each a minimum 10 feet long. It landed him in the middle of a heat run with 18 whales, representing a total 500,000 pounds of mass, charging by. It even encouraged him to jump on a pod of feeding orcas, only to have the largest female scan his entire body with sonar as he bobbed in front of her, holding a small camera and wearing nothing but a bathing suit.
And, through it all, not once did he feel nervous, he said.
“I’ve never had a behavior that came out in an attacking, aggressive manner,” he said. “I believe that if we are open and connected, but also treat the oceans and its creatures with respect — don’t stick your hand in their mouth; look them in the eye, connect with them — even some of scariest animals, even great whites I’ve swam out in the open with, you can interact with them in a very respectful and safe manner.
“More than anything, the greatest fear I’ve ever had is always when I’ve been interacting with humans who are engaged in the process of destroying these animals — because they’re often carrying weapons and knives, and they have a strong interest in keeping those stories hidden,” he continued. “As a result, those are when I’ve had the nervous moments, because I know my life is actually now under threat.”
Heinrichs’ work on the documentary, “Racing Extinction” — which will screen on Friday, June 1, at the Southampton Arts Center — took the film team to Hong Kong, where they gained access to a rooftop overlooking the city.
Below them, shoppers went about their daily lives, buying clothing and jewelry, but on that roof, everywhere they looked were thousands upon thousands of neatly organized shark fins.
“It was absolutely shocking. Out of sight, out of mind,” he said. “I climbed above on a wall, hanging off the side of this rooftop, and I was able to get my camera out, and I took this image. It’s a square, and it’s wall-to-wall shark fins. If you look at that image and then you stand back from it, it looks like a flock of birds or something random like that. You can’t really tell what it is. But as you draw closer and closer to the image, the horror reveals itself.”
This photo, “Shark Fin Square,” will be on view in the exhibit’s third atrium, one in a series of images that represent a journey into the darkness — “a little sharp poke in the stomach that says, ‘This just feels wrong. I just fell in love, I just connected, and now you’re doing this to me,’” Heinrichs said.
That feeling comes from passing through the second atrium, which connects the first and the third. It explores the themes of human connection, the same message that Heinrichs discovered when he had lost all hope himself. It is the key to survival, he said, and perhaps the ocean’s only shot.
“We have to be honest. We are in desperate states,” explained Heinrichs, who is also the founder of the New York-based Blue Sphere Foundation. “We’ve lost 90 percent of the large fish in the ocean. We’ve lost half the coral reefs and, by all accounts, the predictions are if things don’t change by mid-century, we’re going to lose all the rest of the reefs. And by later in the mid-century, most fisheries, if not all, will be in collapse. That presents not just environmental issues, that creates all kinds of social, trade security and national security issues that everybody should be concerned about.
“Given that context, it’s less about optimism and more about the reality that we must do something. So each and every one of that gets on board is part of that reality,” he continued. “Enough hoping. Hoping’s not a strategy. It’s just about do and do and do and do.”
Contributed to first place Writer of the Year award, New York Press Association, 2018
As published in the Sag Harbor Express