Stories > Shooting for Change

2018 • Issue 1

Shooting for Change

Armed with a camera and fuelled by a passion for nature, photographer Michael Aw is working with friends around the globe to save the world.


Self-taught underwater photographer and marine activist Michael Aw has made it his mission to document the impact of climate change on sea life.


n the 1980s, Michael Aw worked in the advertising industry, a sector he describes as “loud and noisy”. “I wanted to learn scuba diving. My first experience was off Pulau Hantu, a small island off mainland Singapore. The moment I went underwater, everything went quiet,” recalls the Sydney-based Singaporean.

Aw enjoyed the peace, not knowing the chain of events resulting from that moment would lead to him becoming an award-winning underwater photographer and a champion in the ongoing global fight against climate change.

Photography, he says, is a tool for sharing his passion for the ocean. In his early days, he drew inspiration from Light in the Sea, a book by American underwater photographer David Doubilet. In the late 1990s, he met Doubilet. They have since gone on several expeditions together.

“I had no mentor when it came to picking up photography skills. I just learnt by trial and error. Light in the Sea provided me with a lot of guidance on how to shoot well underwater,” says Aw.

American marine biologist Dr Sylvia Earle, who was named the first Hero for the Planet by Time magazine in 1998, is now a friend too. “I was introduced to her by a mutual friend. She took me under her wing after she found out what I do.”

Through them, Aw learnt not only photography skills, but also to explore different ways to use those skills to further his causes.

There’s no denying that a picture paints a thousand words. Art can influence feelings and perspectives, and thus decisions and actions, by allowing viewers to experience something through an artist’s eyes. Aw has been running with this truth since he discovered his passions – fighting the shark’s fin trade and working to mitigate climate change.

In 1995, he led an international team of 25 on a 24-hour dive to the Great Barrier Reef, to document the ecological richness of the famed coral beds. His 1999 24-hour dive in Maya Thila in the Maldives, also to showcase the area’s diversity of life, was broadcast live as a National Geographic documentary and attracted a team of 44.

In 2002, he launched Celebrate The Sea Festival, which promotes appreciation of the oceans’ beauty and spotlights challenges faced by sea life. It does this via feature documentaries, a children’s art competition, an underwater photography competition and exhibition, and a poster display highlighting marine environmental issues. The festival is hosted in different countries in the Asia-Pacific each time, and draws a large international following.

“I Like To Think My Work Has Inspired My Peers, As Well As The Next Generation Of Conservationists And Photographers.”

Michael Aw, Marine Photographer And Activist

Aw sees the festival as a means to inspire and encourage national leaders to prioritise the sea and its ecosystems. To that end, he wrote to President Gloria Arroyo of the Philippines in March 2008 – that same year, she made an official proclamation declaring June as Celebrate The Sea Month in the Philippines, and every second Saturday of June as Celebrate The Sea Day.

In 2010, he led 57 team members from 14 countries on an expedition into the Western Antarctic Peninsula and South Georgia to scout and record its flora and fauna, and document evidence of climate and ocean changes in that fragile ecosystem. The project resulted in a successful exhibition that ran from April to August 2013 at the Australian National Maritime Museum.

The photographerʼs storytelling approach occasionally entails injecting a touch of whimsy into an otherwise serious message.

“In 2014, I successfully campaigned for Singapore Airlines Cargo to stop transporting shark’s fin as freight. The year before, I successfully persuaded Brunei Darussalam to ban all shark products,” Aw says. This made Brunei the first country in the world to declare such a ban, opening the way for others to follow in time.

In 2015, he led 65 scientists and artists from 19 countries to the Arctic to document the effects of climate change. The resultant exhibition, Elysium: Artists For The Arctic, premiered at ION Art Gallery in Singapore in April 2017. The exhibition and its accompanying film and photo book were extremely well-received by the public.

Aw shared many of these stories when he spoke in Lithuania in September 2017 to 500 corporate leaders about the effects of climate change on their businesses, and vice versa. The platform was Tipping Point, an annual leadership conference in the Baltic. His sharing of personally documented evidence of Arctic melting and other important geological changes was impactful, and is likely to have far-reaching trickle-down effects in the participants’ countries, as they put what they have learnt to use.

He is now planning the next chapter in the Elysium series, this time to the Coral Triangle in the western Pacific, in 2018. He ensures that participating teams for Elysium expeditions are a mix of the young and the experienced. “I like to support the younger generation, providing them with a platform where they can mix with senior colleagues to learn and add to their credentials. I like to think my work has inspired my peers, as well as the next generation of conservationists and photographers,” he says. Asked for other markers of his message being welcomed by the public, he quips: “I have contributed to over 100 books, co-authored five, and written 35 of my own. Somebody must be buying my books.”

Does it break his heart to see the destruction caused by climate change? Aw is sanguine about the issue. “When I talk about it with my friends, we have lots of bottles of Scotch (whisky) with us. At the end of the day, hope is all that we’ve got. Hope is very important.”

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