Photographer David Doubilet on His Work

Brian Handwerk
National Geographic News
March 18, 2003

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David Doubilet is one of the world's leading underwater photographers. He has traveled to the Red Sea, Pearl Harbor, the South Pacific, and beyond, capturing groundbreaking images of great white sharks, flashlight fish, shark-repelling flounders, creatures of the undersea desert, fluorescent coral, World War II wrecks, and more.

Born in New York City in 1946, Doubilet began snorkeling off the New Jersey coast when he was eight years old. By the time he was 12, he was scuba diving and taking pictures using a Brownie Hawkeye in a rubber bag as his first underwater camera. He spent his summers diving, taking pictures, and working as a dive guide. Since 1972, he has shot more than 60 stories for National Geographic magazine.

His most recent book, The Great Barrier Reef, was published last year.

Many people consider your job to be one of the greatest in the world; do you?

It's one of the most wonderful jobs in the world, it's certainly not the easiest job in the world. At times it's downright crazy. It's a job that combines the need for exacting detail with a certain amount of strange physical work—swimming underwater. It's not as strenuous as mountain climbing, or bicycling around the world, or trekking through a jungle. It is a combination of paying attention to what you need to make a picture underwater, and the diving itself.

That means when you are there and thinking about all of those things, the scuba diving world kind of becomes second nature. You're just there, you're swimming, and you don't really pay attention to it—but of course you do have to pay attention to your time, your depth, and how you feel.

And then, you leave this world as a trespasser, and go briefly into another. It's a world that's most of our planet, yet we see it only so briefly. We've had people in space for maybe a year and a half I guess, but yet underwater I think the longest that people have been able to stay down there is 30 or 40 days. We're just beginning to assemble an idea of what this most beautiful, most mysterious part of our planet is.

Do you see a conservation aspect to your work?

The problem with any biological entity on our planet, any environment, is that as fast as we discover it we tend to destroy it at the same time. It's as if we can be compared with the conquistadors, who discovered an entire civilization, killed it, and took everything away from it until there was nothing left.

There was a symposium at the University of Georgia a few years ago and I was one of the people who gave a lecture. The lecturer before me dealt with the ethics of the conservation movement. Why are we doing these things? Not just what's good and what's bad—but 'why?'

You can delve into all sorts of ideas: We must preserve a species to preserve the world; we must preserve a species to continue our life on the planet; we must preserve a species simply because we should preserve it. But when you ask 'why?' you get a very strange answer, which I think ultimately is the most important answer—because it is beautiful.

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