Meet the Photographer Behind the Viral Seahorse Photo

When the 2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year finalists were announced by the Natural History Museum, London, a tiny sea creature in Indonesian waters made a massive impact. You've probably seen the image by now. It almost looks fake. We wish it were. The man behind the camera does, too. With a seahorse clinging to a plastic cotton swab, Justin Hofman delivers a reality check through a poignant juxtaposition of beauty and fragility. There is no 'away' in a world shaped by humans, especially when those humans are addicted to a material that lasts forever.



The seahorse image is such a perfect capture, it almost looks staged. What's the story behind the photo. Can you describe what led up to that moment in Indonesia?

I was working on an expedition through Borneo and we were at the very end of the trip. Most people went off to see the buffalo races on Sumbawa, but a few stayed behind to snorkel. We were limited in our location by the need to take people into the town, so our snorkel site was a bit more urban than usual. After about an hour or so of bobbing around, the tide started to turn and the wind picked up. My good friend and expert wildlife spotter Richard White found this tiny seahorse drifting near the surface. I thought it was too small to film with my wide-angle setup, I almost didn't go back to the boat for my camera. I was bored, so I started shooting. After a while debris started to drift in. At first it was seagrass and wood. The seahorse grabbed onto a few pieces as they drifted by. Next it was small pieces of light plastic. The whole time trash and sewage were filling the area... I couldn't believe the scene unfolding in front of me.

I knew this would resonate with people so I stayed a few more minutes. Time was limited and I was shooting from the hip. I only have a couple of frames that are in focus, because we were both bobbing around so much and this seahorse was tiny. I ended up with stomach issues the next day, which I am certain were from water splashing into my snorkel as I strained to shoot the scene. You can actually see plastic bags as white blobs in the background of the image.

What do you hope people take away from this photo?

People have been shattered by the image. Everyone loves seahorses. If you don't think these fluttery creatures are cute, then you probably don't have a pulse. There's something about their pose that makes them so loved by people all over the world. There is also something so fragile about them, and I think seeing a little seahorse with a piece of trash of known size is very striking.

How have your experiences traveling the world influenced your interest in conservation photography?

At first I used to focus on taking pretty pictures and cool wildlife photos, and I still do that, but as I have seen more and more death and destruction of the natural world, I know that pretty pictures will only go so far. I have gone from being hopeless to hopeful and back again a million times. I try to harness that emotion and sense of wonder and helplessness in my photos. Don't get me wrong, beauty shots have their place in inspiring change. Much like how people curate their online lives to show only the good parts of it, if we only showed the pretty pictures it wouldn't be telling the whole story. People need to know what's going on out there and since I have the ability to access remote places, I take it as my duty to share this with everyone I can.

When did you first become aware of the threat of plastic pollution? Did you have an ‘aha’ moment?

When I was a little kid we would cut up the six-pack rings. I would think "well, if that is going into the ocean, then all this other stuff in the trash can is presumably going in the ocean too, so this doesn't make sense.” Presumably is a big word for a kid, but I was that sort of child. So it has always been on my mind, especially for marine life. 


A big 'aha' moment came in the Solomon Islands years ago. We were using a remotely operated vehicle in hundreds of feet of water. We had high expectations for seeing unusual marine life and deep water creatures. The very first thing we found was a plastic bag caught on a deep water sponge. I was crushed to see that nothing has been spared our impact.

From what you've seen and experienced, do you believe people will join together to find and execute solutions to make our oceans and environment healthy again?

I really, really hope so. I oscillate between total cynicism and cautious optimism. I think anyone who thinks we are totally fine is being willfully ignorant to the issues at hand. Almost everywhere I travel I have seen community programs to battle environmental issues. That gives me hope. I think once people realize there are billions of dollars to be made from a healthy ecosystem, things will change for the better. We are already seeing it in places that set up community-based marine reserves and ecotourism. I just hope this trend continues.

At Parley, we see the key to solutions in creativity and collaboration. Our Parley AIR Strategy (Avoid, Intercept, Redesign) is about taking practical steps forward, but it's also about inspiring and harnessing imaginations to create the future. As a photographer, a creator, do you feel a sense of responsibility to use your skills and talents towards the protection of the oceans?

100 percent. I know the impact of visual media. When I was a kid it was the documentaries of David Attenborough and National Geographic magazines that set me on my path. Without compelling pictures of sharks and other marine life, I wouldn't be the person I am today. I want to pay that forward.

What do the oceans mean to you? What brings you (and your camera) beneath the surface?

I literally make my entire living off of the ocean, so I guess it means stability. I take people all over the world on expeditions and once-in-a-lifetime trips. The fact that they are willing to commit so much time and money towards exploring our marine environments means that it must be an important part of who we are as a species. We are drawn to the ocean. I use my camera as a tool for education when I'm out on expeditions and I think it is the most important thing I can do. Not everyone wants to go diving in the Arctic, so I take my camera underwater to capture interesting pictures and videos of the life down there, do a quick edit, and then show it to the clients. By showing people what lies just beneath the hull of the boat they're sitting in, it creates an intimate connection to a place they would otherwise never see or care about. I do this with another degree of separation on social media, but it is all driven by that need to educate someone and create a dialogue.

What do you hope to see as our next step forward as a community?

I think there needs to be an honest conversation about overpopulation. That will ruffle feathers, but that is the #1 contributor to resource use and climate change.


See more on Justin's website

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