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Glazer's Camera

Louie Psihoyos: Weapon of Mass Construction

PhotoMedia's 2010 Photography Person of the Year: Louie Psihoyos PhotoMedia's 2010 Photography Person of the Year: Louie Psihoyos
© Oceanic Preservation Society (OPS)

Made famous by his work in National Geographic and Fortune, Psihoyos also is known for his elaborate photo shoots and for creating images that stand the test of time.

The scene is brief but deeply unsettling. Footage from a stationary underwater movie camera in the coastal shallows shows typical marine life undulating gently with the waves. Then the view slowly darkens from above, as if a cloud is passing over. The colors begin to change, from greenish blue to a milky pink, then quickly to an alarming blood red that fills the entire field of view. Off-screen, wails and screeching can be heard.

Sadly, this scene is not from some fictional aquatic horror film but from a disturbing and absorbing documentary called "The Cove," depicting the annual roundup and massacre of dolphins in Taiji, Japan. Using hidden cameras and other covert recording techniques, the film revealed to the world the brutal practices used to capture the healthiest of these highly intelligent marine mammals for aquatic shows and butcher the rest for meat. After sweeping up dozens of global awards, the film went on to win an Academy Award in March 2010 for Best Documentary Feature.

Even more astonishing than the film's popularity is the story of the director behind "The Cove," renowned still photographer Louie Psihoyos, who had never before made a film, yet managed to take home Hollywood's top prize. The movie helped galvanize a new form of environmental activism, where one person can build a team and change the world. It also saved thousands of young Japanese children from consuming toxic school lunches foisted on them by Japanese industry — lunches containing mercury-laden dolphin meat.

"We decreased the demand for dolphin and porpoise meat in Japan by millions of dollars a year, just by exposing how toxic the meat is," says the 53-year-old Psihoyos, who, despite the grim subject, says he had the time of his already outstanding life putting together this four-year project.

As this article goes to press, the dolphin-hunting season is reopening in Japan. While the slaughter may continue for now, because of Psihoyos and "The Cove" it seems likely that the numbers of murdered dolphins will be dramatically smaller than the 20,000 or more in years gone by.

Rising Sun anger

Psihoyos, who resides in Boulder, Colo., comes across as a brilliant, sweet, sensitive man who is unimpressed with himself. Yet this unassuming photographer sports an amazing roster of friends he has accumulated during his 30-year career (see PhotoMedia's Spring 2006 profile, "In Search of the Iconic," for more of his work). His address book could be a virtual who's who of the rich and famous, of the powerful and the creative.

For example, he tells this story about planning the movie: "When I was thinking about getting into film, I asked Steven Spielberg if he had any advice. And Steven replied, ‘Never make a movie about boats and animals.' " 

But "The Cove" succeeded at exactly that. It's a horror film with a positive purpose — one that viewers aren't always eager to go see, but that keeps them glued to their seats once they've witnessed the first few minutes. Psihoyos' personal appearances in the film are compelling, his stage presence commanding as he guides movie viewers through his method of ecological activism. His first spoken words, in the movie's opening scenes, are riveting: "I do want to say that we tried to do the story legally.

"At Tokyo's 2009 Film Festival, the film received a standing ovation, just as it has at every festival where it has been shown. Fearing arrest as he arrived in Japan, Psihoyos sought protection from American and Japanese attorneys. While the film is not in wide circulation in Japan, the movie has been a sensation in the Japanese press, so Psihoyos was also shielded during his visit by the nearly constant media coverage.

When "The Cove" was finally released to a few theaters in Japan in July of this year, it sparked some protests from Japanese nationalist groups, which called for a boycott of the film, claiming it was "anti-Japanese" and insensitive to local cultural traditions. Some government officials also said the film exaggerated the truth about the extent of dolphin meat consumption in the country and the number of dolphins killed in Taiji each year.

The film has touched off a spirited debate about free speech in Japan, but that doesn't mean Psihoyos expects to return anytime soon. "There are arrest warrants out for me in Japan, for things like conspiracy to disrupt commerce, trespassing and more," he says. "There's a pretty good likelihood I'd be incarcerated."

Making the leap

As many photographers who are no longer able to make ends meet consider ways to reinvent their careers without taking a 9-to-5 job working for "the Man," it's interesting to scrutinize how Psihoyos' unique skills and connections greased the skids for his transition into film. In a number of ways, Psihoyos was the perfect person to jump seamlessly from making award-winning stills to directing award-winning movies.

His nearly two decades of producing epic, high-budget, big-production stories for National Geographic taught him to preconceive sequences and tell visual stories. His lifelong interest in complex productions, heavily lit sets and conceptual interpretations trained him to think and light like a movie crew. And his polished interpersonal skills enabled a smooth transition from working with only one or two assistants on a still shoot to managing the team of 10 or more required for film productions.

Psihoyos has always been inspired by movie production and by still photographers who mastered complex lighting in the field with portable studios, like Gregory Heisler. "I learned to surround myself with people who are better than I am," Psihoyos explains. "My job, as director, was to foster teamwork and collaboration between editors, producers, music and sound supervisors, and writers. One famous director said that making a movie was like painting a picture with an army."

As the story of "The Cove" unfolded, Psihoyos attracted his own outstanding army to help him complete his project. It helped that his initial idea and early footage was so powerful, and that the first member of his army was a man who funded much of the $4.5 million required to create, print and advertise one of the most expensive documentary films ever made.

Meeting of the minds

When Psihoyos' highly productive tenure with National Geographic ended in the late 1990s over a dispute regarding electronic rights to his photography, Psihoyos reorganized his life. He took on smaller assignments for other publications, such as Fortune magazine, as well as certain mega-projects that were privately funded.

Two of those special projects were for Jim Clark, the visionary founder of three, count 'em, three billion-dollar companies: Netscape, WebMD and Silicon Graphics, the company that created the first digital 3D graphics engine. Clark asked Psihoyos to document the construction and early voyages of his two gargantuan sailing yachts. At the time, in 1998, Clark's yacht, Hyperion, was the largest single-masted sloop in the world. Six years later, the title of largest privately owned sailboat was claimed by Clark's second yacht, Athena, a 289-foot, three-masted schooner.

In the process of photographing the birth of those glorious boats, Clark and Psihoyos became close friends and confidants. "I think people with money and other resources identify with people who are perfectionists, who aspire to be the best at what they do," he reflects. "I believe that's why Jim Clark and I found each other, and quickly discovered we had similar goals."

The two men realized that they shared a mutual love for oceans and a passion to save them from destruction. "The extinction of life in the ocean is happening five times quicker than on land," laments Psihoyos.

After being photographed by Psihoyos, Clark asked if Psihoyos could teach him how to be a good photographer. Psihoyos responded, "I'll teach you how to be a great photographer if you'll teach me how to be a billionaire!" Psihoyos adds, "I think he got the better end of that deal, but I feel like I'm the richest guy in the world because Jim enabled me to create something I couldn't have done by myself."

In 2005, with Clark's funding, Psihoyos launched the Oceanic Preservation Society (OPS) and set out to change things. "When he provided the money for OPS and ‘The Cove,' Jim Clark gave me only one condition," Psihoyos recalls. "He said, ‘Just make a difference.'"

Finding funding

Once again, serendipity led the way for Psihoyos. With no script and only three days of moviemaking training, Psihoyos set out to Japan on his quest to change the world, bringing along a video camera, a sound technician and an assistant to coordinate things. "I discovered the cove on that first trip," recalls Psihoyos. "It was like walking into a Stephen King novel … and finding a movie set that was already built for us. It has all the components of a great story, including this wonderfully tragic character, activist Ric O'Barry."

O'Barry, one of the main protagonists in the film, was the dolphin trainer in the 1960s TV series "Flipper." Since the show ended, O'Barry has spent his life trying to rescue captive dolphins from the cruelty that abounds in an industry he once symbolized.

Psihoyos plunged into filming and the movie's scope gradually came into focus, but expenses soon grossly exceeded the film's budget. As production costs approached $3.5 million, Psihoyos secured a loan from Clark in addition to his outright grant. Copyright attorney Richard Schadden contributed another $1 million to cover minimal advertising and distribution prints. Still more money was required, however, forcing Psihoyos to raid his own personal resources. "We borrowed money from my son's college fund and emptied our retirement account, even though the first rule of filmmaking is to never use your own money. Until we started winning awards, my wife, Viki, thought that I was delusional," he says with a chuckle.

At the time of this interview, Psihoyos said the film was still $2.4 million in debt, and he doubted it would ever break even. "We're doing really well on DVD sales, but that's not enough. … The business model for documentaries is quite broken," he said. "We were competing with commercial films that had 100 times the advertising budget to get people into the theaters for a good first weekend of ticket sales."But there's good news, too. Psihoyos' next film project is budgeted at $10 million, and half of that has already been secured with the help of the critical acclaim and emotional impact of "The Cove." The project's working title is "The Singing Planet — Extinctions." If Psihoyos has his way, which demands that he remain on the leading edge of everything he does, it will be released in 3D at the end of 2012.

Psihoyos waxes poetic about the scope of "The Singing Planet," which he says is about saving not only the animals, fish and plants but also all of humanity. He speaks with urgency about the warp-speed diminishment of our environment, especially beneath the waves. "Nearly every life form has been singing, from insects to blue whales, but we just haven't been listening," he says. "I dive with a rebreather. The equipment is much quieter [than scuba]. The only thing I hear is my own breath, and everything else down there is talking, singing."

Still doing still

But what about still photography? Psihoyos continues to pursue it on the same massive scale that made him famous. Jim Clark and Simon Hutchins, director of expeditions at OPS, are working with Psihoyos on the "Underwater Still Project," which aims to document dolphins, sharks and the most dramatic coral reefs and charismatic mega-fauna on earth before they vanish.

With Clark's funding, Hutchins and Clark have developed a one-of-a-kind underwater camera: a 65-megapixel behemoth with perfect optics. Dubbed "The Beast" and typically used with massive lighting, the camera produces 200MB images that would make Ansel Adams and  his f/64 club members proud.

"Jim, Louie and I were sitting down to dinner one night, and Jim suggested that we build the best possible camera for underwater work, after not being satisfied with the Hasselblad," Hutchins says. "After three years working with it, we're on the Mk III version and still improving upon it." The Beast's images are "hyper-photorealistic," says Psihoyos. "The technique we've developed is so advanced that the prints make you feel like you're actually on the reef."

The images are now being printed as fine art that will sell for $3,000 and up. David Doubilet, National Geographic's superstar underwater shooter, describes the Beast as "the holy grail for underwater photography." Doubilet recently signed on to help OPS complete its global still-image coverage, and Psihoyos is thrilled to have him on board. Defending artistic valueI asked Psihoyos about the state of our industry, and expressed my concern that more and more still photographers are having a hard time making ends meet. "There's this pervasive feeling out there that all of the arts are free for the taking, from photographs to video to music," he says. "And on the whole, we've passively allowed the culture to steal our intellectual property."

Psihoyos has done far more than most photographers to raise public awareness about the value of still images, and now movies. He's adamant that images need to be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office in advance of publication whenever possible, in order to be fully protected. Statutory damages and attorneys' fees are the only sizable awards available to compensate photographers for stolen images. Without sizable penalties, there's no reason to stop stealing pictures.

"If, when you press the shutter release, your camera automatically registered each of your images with the copyright office, copyright protection would become a multibillion-dollar enterprise," Psihoyos says. Presumably, he adds, a digital fingerprint of each image, along with the necessary registration data, could be transmitted by your Canon or Nikon or Sony to a collection point, and then periodically submitted en masse to the copyright office. (Hey, why didn't I think of that?)

As a matter of fact, Psihoyos funds his projects partially with healthy earnings from his stock photography and copyright infringement cases. "Thank God people tend to steal iconic images," says Psihoyos. "My copyrights are registered, and statutory damages have been the lifeblood of my career over the past few years while I've been trying new things. Along with my attorney Dan Nelson [of Nelson & McCulloch LLP], I've aggressively pursued copyright infringements and have made several million dollars on those cases in recent years."

"Louie is a remarkable visionary," Nelson says.  "He is ahead of his time in his keen recognition about the future value of, and importance of protecting, his intellectual property."

Perhaps Psihoyos has shown the way for photographers, filmmakers, musicians and other creators to survive on a professional level. Could the answer be as simple as saying "no" to being ripped off, and saying "no" to microscopic pricing and outrageous rights grabs for intellectual property that takes time, inspiration and cash to create?

"If you don't fight the good fight, who's gonna do it?" Psihoyos asks. "If people don't take a stand, nothing moves."

Taking that stand has paid off for Louie Psihoyos, but not just in a monetary sense. Years ago, when he worked with National Geographic, he says he didn't think his life could get much better. "I felt like I was at the height of my career, like I was the happiest, luckiest guy in the world, but that was all a walk in the wilderness compared to what I'm going through today," he says. "‘The Cove' and what I'm doing right now has been the most spiritually rewarding work of all. I no longer feel any limits on the amount of joy I can let into my life."Movies can change the world," he adds. "They are my own personal weapon of mass construction."

Roger Ressmeyer
Story Author: Roger Ressmeyer

Roger Ressmeyer is the CEO and chief photographer of Science Faction Images (sciencefaction.com), the Mercer Island, Wash.-based photo agency that represents Louie Psihoyos and other photographers. Ressmeyer has been in the photo industry for 35 years, and held senior management positions at both Getty Images and Corbis, which purchased his Starlight Photo Agency in 1995. Ressmeyer was also a National Geographic and Time/Life assignment photographer for nearly 20 years. To view his personal portfolio, visit ressmeyer.com

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