At the Water’s Edge

Selections from the life’s work of photographer Cristina Mittermeier, one of Sony’s Artisans of Imagery

The thread of my story, of 20 years of making photographs, has always led me to the water’s edge: the place where the land and we humans meet the ocean. Finding that common thread in my work has been like finding a loose yarn in a sweater: It has allowed me to unravel the mystery of a life’s work with a simple tug. As a scientist, I am motivated by the knowledge that to ignore the health of our planet now and investigate the consequences later is an invitation to disaster. As an artist, however, I want to communicate in an emotional way that humanity is inexorably tied to the fate of nature, much as land is inseparable from water. My own story—as a woman, a Mexican, an environmentalist, a storyteller, a mother—is also etched into my photographs. When I look at my work, I don’t see skin color, age, or gender. All I see are the shared tribulations and worries of a parent, the joy and innocence of a child, the wisdom and compassion of an elder, the common humanity we all share. I see the things we all fear and love and that make us dance, all happening along the water's edge. My camera is an extension of my creative mind, and Sony allows me to translate the world into images that aspire to be ambassadors for the water’s edge.



At Home in the Amazon

Southern Pará, Brazilian Amazon

A group of Kayapó girls runs across the mellow waters of the Rio Pequeno, a tributary of the mighty Xingú River. The Kayapó people, with a population of about 9,000, occupy an area the size of the state of New York along the Xingú. Though Brazil’s government recognizes the right of its indigenous people to pursue their traditional ways of life and the permanent and exclusive possession of their "traditional lands, the idyllic lives they live in these remote forests are threatened by external forces out of their power. Surrounded by loggers, miners, cattle ranchers, and poachers, the Kayapó have to patrol their territories to keep these threats at bay. The construction of the Belo Monte dam, which will be located outside of their territory, will have an enormous impact on their way of life, and they have been helpless to mitigate the potential impact.



The Last Hunters of the North

Thule, Greenland

For thousands of years, the Inuit people of Greenland have eked out an existence in the northern desert of the Arctic. Unlike other Inuit populations across the Arctic, they have maintained much of their ancient way of life, traveling across the landscape by dog sled and using kayaks instead of motorboats to hunt narwhals, seals, and walrus. In this photograph, Naimanngitsoq Kristiansen stands on the edge of the sea ice, waiting for prey so he can feed his dogs and his family. Their village, Qaanaaq, is the northernmost human settlement in Greenland. It was established in 1953, when the Inuit people of the ancient Uummannaq community were given three days to leave their land and relocate 90 miles to the south in order to make way for the controversial U.S. air base at Thule. They already face the challenges of hunting quotas mandated by politicians in far-off cities and mercury pollution in the marine mammals that make up their diet, and now these displaced people are facing a new and unprecedented threat to their culture: global warming.



Saying Goodbye to a Mighty River

Xingú River, Brazilian Amazon

Here is my farewell to a wild river. The mighty Xingú, which gives life to so much and so many, will be tamed forever when the Belo Monte dam—the fourth largest dam in the world—begins operation in 2016. Water will flood vast swaths of Amazon rainforest, and below the dam, thousands of indigenous people and peasants who scratch a living out of the forest and the river will see their main source of drinking water and food disappear. Once the course of the river is blocked and the flow diminishes, people will be trapped in remote communities for part of the year and will have no other choice but to relocate. This will be the beginning of the end of the Amazon region as we know it. One day we may look back at Brazil’s Amazonian legacy and wonder if things could have been different. Until then, the people of the Amazon, the people of Brazil, and the people of the world will be left to deal with the environmental consequences.



Swamp Cowboys of the Pantanal

Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil

Encompassing 140,000 square miles in southern Brazil and parts of Bolivia and Paraguay, the Pantanal is the largest wetland in the world. Thousands of species—including jaguars, caimans, and giant anteaters—have made their home in this swampy landscape for millennia. Horses and cattle are newcomers by comparison: The first horses of the region likely came with Spanish expeditions dating back to the 1500s. It was thanks to their quick adaption to the hot, tropical, swampy conditions that it has been possible for people to engage in large-scale and very profitable cattle ranching in this area. Locally known as “pantaneiros,” the cowboys that work here have a culture deeply steeped in rural traditions with a South American twist. Happily forgotten in this remote part of the world, they live and work just as their ancestors did 200 years ago, in a fascinating culture wedded to this unique, seasonally flooded landscape.



Renaissance of Hawaiian Ocean Culture

Makaha Tide Pools

Just a few decades after the beginning of U.S. occupation of Hawaii, a time when Hawaiians were not allowed to speak their language, practice their traditions, or use Hawaiian names, the Hawaiian people had almost completely been robbed of their culture. Ancestral traditions like navigation, tattooing, and dancing, were all but lost. The 1970s saw a revival of those traditions, and since then, despite the historic deterioration of their culture, there has been a dramatic recovery of their language, culture, and spirituality. A huge part of that spirituality is their connection to the sea. The belief in Nā ʻaumākua, or family gods represented by animals like sharks and dolphins, the mastery of surfing, and of course, the Aloha spirit are just a few examples. Here Anu DeSoto inspects a small crab in the tide pools in her homestead of Makaha Beach, a Hawaiian enclave near Honolulu in Oahu, Hawaii.



Cod Fishing in Greenland

Thule, Greenland

Rasmus Avike, a traditional Inuit hunter from the small village of Qaanaaq, fishes with a hand line while Qillian Danielsen and Gedion Kristiansen look on. As the fish started piling on the ice I was surprised to watch Rasmus taking photos of the fish with his smartphone. In broken English he explained that they had never seen this kind of fish before. After closer inspection I realized that the fish were European cod, a common species in the Atlantic, but one whose distribution previously had been 1,000 kilometers south of where we were standing. Climate change is affecting the lives of the northernmost inhabitants of our planet in significant ways, but perhaps not all of those changes are bad.



Laundry Day on the Mandrare River

Southern Spiny Desert, Madagascar

The “Great Red Island,” or Madagascar, is a mosaic of ecosystems that range from lush rainforests to arid deserts. I traveled through the southernmost region of the island to photograph the Antandroy people, who have been carving out a living in the harsh desert environment for hundreds of years. The “people of the thorn,” as they call themselves, are a hardy people who have learned over the centuries to survive in a constant state of drought. There are no sources of water available other than the Mandrare River, where people take advantage of the trickle of silt-laden water to satisfy their water needs. This poverty-stricken country is said to have lost 90 percent of its forest cover. As a result, massive erosion is carrying their precious red soils into the sea, turning the rivers red and making the entire island seem like it is bleeding.



Miskito Lobster Fishermen

Gracias a Dios, Honduras

The Miskito Indians from the La Moskitia region in Honduras have little to no training and minimal equipment to help them harvest seafood from the ocean floor. Decompression sickness, caused by diving too deep and staying submerged for too long, kills roughly 20 divers every year and cripples many more. These divers are paid by the pound for their catch, which encourages them to ignore minor symptoms and to be concerned only when they feel significant pain, are too weak to keep on diving, or can no longer walk. Initiatives and programs from local and international organizations are helping them revise their business models and protect the divers’ lives, while also ensuring the sustainability of their fishing.



Inuit Hunters Scout the Sea Ice

Thule, Greenland

When the Arctic sun shines on a clear blue day, the light can be so blinding that everything becomes a white, blurry mirage. Searching for a high point from which to better scan the vast, frosty landscape, my two Inuit guides climbed on top of an iceberg. As the afternoon sun melted the ice around it, the dimples and wrinkles on the face of this ephemeral ice sculpture reflected onto the surrounding still water. Now that northern latitudes are warming up earlier and earlier in the year, the ice, which melts from underneath, has become ever more unstable and dangerous to travel on. This has dire consequences for a culture that depends on solid sheets of sea ice to reach their hunting grounds.



Fishing in the Xingú River

Brazilian Amazon

A young Kayapó Indian girl looks back to check if I am still coming. I had spotted her father from the bank of the Xingú River as his small dugout canoe approached the village of A’ukre in the Brazilian Amazon. He efficiently tied up the vessel, grabbed the catch of the day—a handful of large, shiny peacock bass and a couple of tasty piranhas—and started walking. The child met him on the trail and carried his hunting rifle back to their hut, glancing back every few meters to see if I was still following them. Loaded with all my camera equipment, I struggled to keep up as the three of us hiked across the village. The bounty of the river is always amazing and the generosity of the people no less so: That evening, I sat around a small fire with a family with whom I shared no language or history but who were more than delighted to share their humble fish dinner with a stranger.



Hyacinths in the Alley of the Baobabs


Ancient baobab trees have stood sentinel in the arid landscape along the road from Morondava to Belon'i Tsiribihina in Madagascar for thousands of years. When a local mill diverted water to this area, the local Sakalava people used the water to grow rice, but that caused the giant trees to start drowning. The baobabs' fate turned when authorities moved in to protect the area and stopped the water diversion; the rice paddies have since dried up and been replaced by marshes covered with purple-pink hyacinths.



Spear Fishing in Abrolhos

Caravelas, Bahia, Brazil

Zé, an artisanal spear fisherman from Bahia in Brazil, searches for fish in the clear waters of the Abrolhos reef. The reef is located just a few kilometers from the shore off the town of Caravelas and is the main source of protein for local communities. As many as 20,000 fishermen make their living from the Abrolhos reef, which is the most biologically diverse area in the south Atlantic. Declared a Marine Protected Area in 1983 and an area of Extreme Biological Importance by the Brazilian Ministry of Environment, Abrolhos has both no-take zones and areas that allow fishing. As fish numbers increase in the no-take zones, they spill out into the regions where fishermen like Zé are allowed to fish. Since 2000, fish abundance has increased by up to 300 percent, a boon for local fishermen.



Cliff Jumpers on the Rio Pequeno

Southern Pará, Brazilian Amazon

During the rainy season in the Amazon, many small creeks that stop running entirely during the dry season suddenly swell into large rivers that give rise to beautiful waterfalls. In the very remote Kayapó village of Kubenkrajké, the Rio Pequeno forms a beautiful curtain of water that provides a playground for the children of the village. Starting in the early morning hours, the kids clamber up the ridge and find a good spot from which they can safely clear the rocks below. Envious of their fun, however, I too climbed up the cliff. I watched them jump, over and over again. I couldn’t’t muster the courage to jump, and they made fun of me as the minutes passed. I was terrified when I finally leaped, willing myself to clear the sharp ridges of the rocks below, but I will never forget their laughter and cheers as I swam out of the turbulent waters with a huge smile on my face. At Home in the Amazon



Kayapó Indian Water Babies

Southern Pará, Brazil

One of the most surprising things I have encountered during my travels to remote indigenous villages is how well behaved and socially adapted children are. As a mother of three, I am well aware of how stubborn and opinionated young children can be. I have seldom, however, witnessed a tantrum or act of selfishness or rudeness from an indigenous child. By the same token, I have never seen an indigenous parent spank, humiliate, or diminish a child. It is not uncommon to see older siblings taking care of babies as young as one or two years old while the parents busy themselves with household and hunting duties. In most villages there are no schools, and children like these Kayapó kids taking an afternoon bath in the tepid waters of the Xingú River have to find ways to entertain themselves. They often learn how to swim even before they learn how to walk.