By Melissa Wiley
Photographing the birth and hunt of Canadian seal pups was more than a pet project for world-renowned fashion photographer Nigel Barker of America’s Next Top Model fame. Titled A Sealed Fate? his collective photographs and documentary film of the seals’ violently abbreviated fate are an extension of his lifelong passion for protecting endangered animals and the fragile balance of life on our planet. A Sealed Fate? is currently touring North America. Ecotourism—which enables local economies to profit from preserving rather than ravishing endangered animal populations—is at the top of Barker’s tongue as he discusses the best way to move forward from here, in Canada and everywhere animals are losing ground.
What motivated you originally to get involved in photographing the Canadian seal hunt?
There are many animal causes, and I don’t think that one is necessarily more important than another. I’ve always had an interest in marine biology. I’ve always had an interest in oceanography. In fact, when I was a kid that was my dream to do that. I had high hopes of actually studying either marine biology or oceanography or the two at university in England. But my parents were under the impression that if I did that, there wasn’t a career for me. They kind of pushed me into doing medicine. But look what happened. Now I’m a fashion photographer, so how wrong could they be? It’s one of those things where when the Humane Society approached me with the seal campaign. I felt an affinity. I’d actually been an active supporter of the Humane Society seal campaign back in the ’80s and late ’70s, and I hate to say it’s been going on that long, but it has. So when I heard about it and they came to me and asked if I would be interested and said that Sir Paul McCartney and Heather Mills are stepping down—they’d been doing it for a few years and we’re looking for someone else—obviously it was an honor to step into where those people had stepped. But also I thought, What can I do that’s different? I’m not a rock star. I’m not an actor. I’m a photographer.
How was photographing animals different from photographing people?
Animals are always the easiest things to shoot. There really isn’t a bad angle. Whereas with human beings, we’re always thinking we look ugly from this way, bad from that light. But with dogs and cats and animals, in all their glory, no matter how you shoot them, the photograph of an animal is special no matter what. You shoot the back of them, and they look pretty. They’re not judging the picture. It’s up to us whether we like it or not. But ultimately an animal is an animal, and we are a lot more accepting of their appearance than we are of our own. So there’s an element of being able to go to town with it. We shoot the animals in a very different way. That being said, when we went up to the ice, I took my film crew with me, my photo crew as well. We even took lights and equipment up to the ice that had never been seen before up there ever. We really wanted to do it specially. We really wanted to up the ante a little bit. And I certainly wasn’t the first person to go up there with a camera.
As a fashion photographer, did you approach shooting the seals differently than other types of photographers might have?
That’s the thing. We decided to take our lights with us and all the crew. There were like 10 different cameramen who went up there who were like seasoned writers and photographers from major newspapers and publications. And they kind of chuckled when they saw what we were bringing, and most of them were actually intrigued, but we had to literally boot someone out of the helicopter because we couldn’t carry all the equipment out there we wanted. We had to take one less person just to carry our stuff up with us. That being said, if you look at the pictures, there’s something special about them. There’s sort of a magical quality. And some of them almost look like they’re shot out of a Disney movie. They’re that surreal. There are mothers kissing babies and perfect blue skies and pristine white. And that’s partly because we took what nature gave us, and then we applied our own trades and talents to make something a little extra.
What made you want to film the actual hunt in all its brutality?
I’m the spokesman for the Humane Society. The previous people before me, Sir Paul McCartney, Bridgette Bardot, and various other people who had this position, had never been there for the hunt. They had only ever been there for the birth. So I was the first one to do that. The Humane Society never even asked me to do it. They just sort of said that the hunt’s going on, and I said immediately, “Well, I’ve got to be there for the hunt.” And they just looked at me bewildered and said, “Really?” And I said, “Yes, I think it’s important.” And not to mention, if you read about everything, all the complaints and all the issues that pro-seal hunting people have, and people who ask questions, the question was that the people who were spokespeople really didn’t know what they were talking about. They had never seen the hunt. It was all hearsay. It was all somebody else’s opinion. It was, the Humane Society is an animal-activist organization. You really can’t trust them. They’re exaggerating. They’re not telling the whole story. Whereas I was like, “Look. I’m going to go up there. We’re going to tell the whole story.” This is an uncommissioned piece. I paid for this out of my own pocket. It wasn’t paid for by the Humane Society in any shape or form. They flew us there, and other than that—everyone’s day rates, the whole editing of the film, all the photographs, every aspect of it came out of my pocket. And we committed to doing this, and we decided we were going to tell the whole story. We were filming and speaking to sealers and trying to get the full picture. I had to film it, because if anyone was to question me, I needed that proof.
You chose not to display the graphic images of the hunt in your exhibit or film. Why was that?
Some of that does appear in the film, A Sealed Fate? But what we show in the film is right up until the moment the seal is about to get clubbed on the head, and as that club comes down above his jaw we stop frame, and then we move onto the next thing. So you don’t actually see connection, but you see a centimeter before it actually cracks the skull, and then we stop. It’s a bit like an Alfred Hitchcock thriller, when the knife goes in behind the shower curtain, but you don’t actually see the murder. You don’t need to see everything in order to understand what’s going on. We’ve all lived enough, and we know what happens when you swing a baseball bat into someone’s head. Let me tell you, the stuff we saw was so graphic, was so horrendous and disgusting and disturbing, that there was nothing we could use. It was an unusable horror. No one would watch it. And I wanted to get the message across. There was no point in me filming all this stuff and no one being interested because they’re so horrified by it.
But that being said, at the same time our idea was not just to point fingers and condemn Canada and everything else. It was to provide a gallery, an exhibition of photographs celebrating this extraordinary animal that comes down in the millions from Greenland to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. In fact, it’s the largest mammalian migration on Earth, greater than the wildebeests crossing the Serengeti. It’s an extraordinary sight. They come to the same pristine ice spot off Prince Edward Island year after year at the same time.
I wanted to show the full life cycle, so we were there for the full two weeks. So we recorded the whole thing, and I’m there saying, “This is what I’m seeing. This is what’s happening. This is what’s going on. This is not hearsay. This is not someone else’s opinion. This is not exaggeration. You as the viewer make your mind up.” And now, and part of this is to the fashion industry, if you think this is all right, then you need to reconsider everything in life.
Do you think that beautiful imagery is ultimately more powerful in affecting social consciousness than disturbing imagery?
I think it depends on the audience. In life you make decisions, and you can choose to be shocking. You can become known for that. I’m a photographer who enjoys shooting beautiful pictures. That’s just the way I am. And I say that because in fashion there are very well-known photographers who have made a living and are highly successful and acclaimed and have galleries and all the rest of it who take pictures of people who actually don’t look very great. But my take on life is always to sort of find what I think is the most beautiful part of you, and that’s my schtick, so to speak.
And the same way with this. I’m like, you know what, these animals are stunning, in all shapes and forms. They don’t have to be just white coats. Even when they’re beaters and they’re ragged jackets, the photographs we took of them are at the same moment comedic, at the some moment charming, at the same moment precocious. You see all these different sides to things, and I think we can identify with them in many different ways. And I sort of think you can find beauty everywhere. And if we can learn to celebrate our planet, if we can learn to respect our planet, then we have something for future generations. That’s what we need to do, and part of that is not treating animals with such disdain and disregard that we club them to death, or actually not to death, because 40 percent of the seals are skinned alive at the time when they do this thing, because they haven’t actually ascertained whether they’re dead or not at the time of skinning them. They sort of rive around without their skin, which is the most horrible thing you’ve ever seen in your life. That really is barbaric.
Do you see ecotourism as a viable replacement of the seal-hunting industry?
Think of the young men in this area who go out and club seals and then to go home to their family and try and have dinner. I think that’s a horrible job. How about we turn this into an ecotourism opportunity? My message was to say, look, as with whales—we got rid of whale hunting, which was a million-dollar business in the ’70s in Canada, and there’s now a multi–million dollar whale-watching business in Canada, which brings in way more than the whaling industry ever did before. A similar thing can be done with seals. I mean people pay thousands to go see polar bears, tens of thousands to go see penguins. These tours and these extreme tour companies already exist.
What are some of the best models you’ve seen of ecotourism?
There are many. There are many different types. I’m not here to plug any one tourism company. There are several, and I applaud them for doing so. There are some people who say even that disturbs the wildlife, that we should leave them alone. But I think we also have to be realistic. Yes, it would be fantastic if we could leave everyone alone and not do anything. But the reality is we live in a world where people go on vacation and want to see things, and in one way getting people to appreciate wildlife is actually getting them to go and see it and enjoy it. Otherwise, we could say let’s not ever have any dogs. We should try and release them all and not have any domesticated animals. Where do you end with that argument?
You’re also committed to ending shark finning—the process of cutting off the fin of a shark and discarding the body at sea—as a way of maintaining the marine ecosystem. Killing an animal as seemingly threatening as a shark seems easier to swallow for most people than killing a kitten, for instance. What do you think is the best way to alter this perception in the general public?
One of the things we did with the Humane Society with the seal campaign was design T-shirts to help raise awareness and money and support the cause. We also designed T-shirts for the protect sharks campaign. And we drew a shark on the T-shirt, came up with a tagline, “A shark is a shark, a human can be humane.” And the idea behind that was that is a shark is a shark, as in it’s got sharp teeth—it’s a predator at the top of the food chain. And if you fall in front of it, there’s a chance that it can rip your leg off and you can bleed to death and die.
The thing is that we have to grow up. We have to start forgetting about Hollywood films and all the rest of it and realize that life is life, and there are animals out there—tigers and hippos and various other animals that you wouldn’t necessarily think are the most violent animals but can cause serious problems. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you wipe them out, because if we do so, the ramifications are huge.
And what we’ve seen with sharks is that we’re killing around 200 million sharks a year at the moment, and this extraordinarily massive kill is having devastating effects on shark populations. Sharks have to get to about the age of 10 years old, 10 to 15 years old, to give birth. It takes them that long. That’s something people don’t realize. And when they give birth, they only often have maybe one to six pups, not many. And so what happens is when you go out there and kill the adults, it takes a long time for these populations to recover. And then half the time people are finning them. They’re just throwing the bodies back in again. Sharks are dying in a very horrible manner. Often it takes them up to a day to die, just bleeding to death whilst being attacked by other animals at the bottom of the ocean. They’re certainly not going to recover. They’re bleeding alive. They’re bleeding to death. And people don’t care about sharks. They’re like, oh, they’re fish. We don’t care about fish; we eat fish. But I think of the farmer. If you care about your flock, if you hope that your children in the next generation will also be able to fish, will also be able to farm, then you have to make sure that you don’t actually don’t decimate the population so that fishing is actually possible. People are scared of sharks because of Jaws and things like that. But I actually met one of the women who acted in Jaws and the actual writers of Jaws, and they wish that they had never ever written Jaws or had anything to do with the film. And they are actively campaigning to get people to be aware of these animals, because what has happened with hammerhead sharks is that the population is disappearing. They were one of the most popular sharks on Earth. Now they look like they might be extinct within the next five years, and there are only two large pods left.
Has ecotourism been generated around sharks as well?
People love to go shark watching and stuff like that, but that has its own issues. It’s really countries like China that are making shark-fin soup. They are the main importers of shark fins, and it’s finning that’s the major issue that’s causing this massive annual kill. And the issue here is that you’ve got a population in China that’s becoming increasingly wealthier. And one of the status symbols of life is to eat shark-fin soup. So we have to get there and educate the populace. Otherwise, we’ll have a billion people wanting shark-fin soup. You just can’t have that. Everyone can’t have that.
So shark-fin soup is analogous to how fur used to be, and sometimes still is, in our country. I’ve read that you do not photograph models who wear fur. Is that correct?
I go out of my way to make sure that doesn’t happen. I can’t say that it never happens. I certainly try my hardest to make sure that it doesn’t happen. It’s often more difficult to identify than one imagines, because it can be inside, in the lining, in the interior. It can be pervasive, but I make large efforts to do this. I notify editors. I notify designers. I’ve said no to many people, and most people I know are actually very interested in knowing why. And when I tell them, they actually get into that. They actually kind of understand. I think there’s a big change in tide right now.
So much of it is education. People don’t necessarily make these decisions because they’re bad people. They make them because they’re ignorant. And if you stand in the position where you’re not there to educate anyone, you’re just there to tell them and be angry, then, one, you’re not going to sleep very well at night, and two, no one actually listens to you if you’re the angry man. You’ve got to have some kind of reasoning and sensibility about it.
I read that you developed your love of animals as a child with your own pets. How many pets did you have?
Many dogs, at one point in the twenties. I don’t think there was ever an official count, but I think there were about 23 or 24 dogs.
And did you live in the countryside?
We lived in a mixture of the countryside and the city. My parents just took in essentially every stray on the street. And we had a few sort of official dogs, the ones that somehow came from a pet store, but even there, they were some kind of muttlike dogs.
Do you have any pets now?
I live in the city. I have a small apartment. I don’t have any dogs or anything like that. But there’s a dog that’s often in the studio that belongs to my studio partner here, and she sort of roves around the studio eating food that she finds all over the floor, sort of pestering models and stuff like that. The girls love her. And she’s a Weimaraner. And then we have fish. I’ve always loved fish, so we have fish at home and at the studio. I have a nice apartment, but at the same time I grew up with a house and a garden in England, and my parents had a house in the countryside as well. Having dogs in that environment was fine. I mean they just loved it. They roamed around. There were never issues. They had free reign of the house and the garden and the grounds. When I’m here, I can’t imagine what I’d do with a dog. And I see people with dogs, and it doesn’t seem like a dog’s life to me, not the kind of life I would want for my dog, anyway.
Finally, I know that you have two young children, and they’ll more than likely ask you for a puppy at some point. What are you going to say to them when they do?
I’m sure they will, and I’m sure I will have to get them one. I grew up with dogs. I love them to death. The reality is that if they ask for one, if they really want one, they’ll probably get one. I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t. I’m not pushing the idea, because at this point, I’m the one who will have to look after the dog.
And when I was a kid, I was very much the dog walker. I was a bit like one of those crazy New York dog walkers who go out with a thousand dogs down the street. I would wander around with this pack of dogs, and I remember feeling extremely protective of my animals, and they were very, very good. It’s weird how you can have such a large number of animals and they can actually be pretty well trained and obedient, and they were very under control. I could pretty much control any one of them. It’s amazing the love you have for these animals. And I used to often sleep with them at night. I remember smelling myself like a wet dog.