Shark Conservation on Camera: Interview with Shin Arunrugstichai
Sirachai (Shin) Arunrugstichai is a Thai conservation photographer, whose work helps shine a much-needed light on marine conservation issues. Initially using a camera to document his work as a field biologist, Shin then focused on his photography career after realising the power of visual communication to the public.
Shin is now a freelance photographer for National Geographic Magazine (Thai edition), and has worked with organisations such as IUCN Asia, Save Our Seas Foundation, WildAid, and others. Shin’s work has also been featured in renowned publications including The Washington Post, The Guardian, and BBC Earth. He has also given a TEDx talk on conservation photography back in 2017.
We caught up with Shin to discuss his important work with sharks, and the need for conservation photojournalism in the modern era.
You’ve spent a lot of time working with sharks – what is it that draws you to them?
It is a bit hard to explain. But I think that it is common for most young boys to be attracted to large predatory animals – the cool toothy ones, such as crocodiles, lions, tigers, bears etc. For me, it is the sharks that attract me the most. During kindergarten, I had a dead baby shark which I kept in the freezer at home to look at every day, until my mom threw it away when the fridge got too stinky. My old love and interest of these marine predators kept persisting after all those years until I got to work in marine biology, and later in conservation photojournalism.
But when I got into it as a career, the story of sharks just kept attracting me, such as their ecological importance, or the threats that they are facing resulting in their massive population declines. There is still much that is unknown about sharks yet to be unravelled. We are still discovering new species every year, in addition to the gap in information related to biological aspects and conservation. There is still a lot to learn about these marine predators, and many stories to tell.
Shark conservation is a big part of your portfolio. Covering the exploitation of sharks in Southeast Asia must have been a challenging yet memorable experience. Can you recall any particular standout moments that stay with you today?
It is definitely challenging since the people in the shark fishing industry are usually well-aware about population declines of sharks and the global efforts to protect these overexploited animals, but working on the story while I was an innocent-looking young researcher definitely helped a lot!
The stand out moment is probably when I first visited the landing site at Ranong province, the largest landing site of sharks from the Andaman Sea, Thailand. There were about 300 Scalloped hammerhead sharks laying in a massive pile, which left me stunned when I saw it.
The species has long been assessed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List, meaning it is threatened with extinction. I could barely believe what I saw on that day; the sheer number of endangered species laid on the sidewalk.
From your series on sharks, which image(s) do you feel are the most powerful in communicating their plight?
It’s the Spot-tail shark that was arranged in pieces with a missing body. I think it can evoke quite a strong feeling and be a good symbol for the disappearance of sharks from the world’s oceans. I took this image while I was conducting research at the fish market, which involved collecting some body parts of the sharks.
The sharks were later cut up by the local fish traders for cooking. This image just somehow randomly popped up into my head, so I grabbed those body parts to make this image. Quite lucky that this just popped up in my head – maybe I have been watching too many horror films!
Sharks are often represented in films and television shows as dangerous beasts – having worked with them, would you say that the reality is different?
Having worked with quite a number of shark species, I can say that they are not mindless man-eaters; far from it. I think the majority of the general public now understands this fact much better than in the past.
On the contrary, I find it is quite challenging just to get close enough to the sharks for decent shots, since most shark species tend to be very wary of humans and keep their distance from us, especially while using a SCUBA unit.
To photograph or dive with sharks is generally safe for most species, but some caution should be taken for some larger species such as Bull sharks or Tiger sharks, where you should be mindful of their position, while minimizing the risks.
Shark bites are very rare, but it is important to keep in mind that they are not cuddly puppies that you can just mindlessly play around with either. They are predators that should be treated with respect.
Do you find it upsetting covering some of the things you see? How do you deal with being around such difficult scenarios so often?
Of course, it gets in my head once in a while, but that happens less often than when I started shooting. I try to keep my head focused on making the images, occupying my thoughts with things like lighting, composition and being in the moment; I’m just doing my job.
Once I’m out of the location, I might go for a few drinks later in the evening to wind down if it gets into my head and I’m not too exhausted.
Are you hopeful about the future of shark conservation in South East Asia, and what can the average person do to help out?
I think the situation is getting better, but there is still a lot of room for improvement, especially on the scientific-based fisheries management in this region. There is still a lot for us all to work on.
Shark finning is well known as a major threat to sharks, but unsustainable non-selective fisheries are also particularly severe in Southeast Asia, where sharks are caught as by-catch. Consumers have a choice to a certain extent: being aware of where your food comes from and making smart choices in selecting sustainably-sourced products is what you can do in individual level.
Being aware of these issues and helping tell stories, talking about these issues, sharing messages like these to your peers is another way that we could amplify the impact. I hope that through all of our efforts, through our voices, when the public has enough concern it could help drive the policy-making towards the sustainable usage of our marine and coastal resources – not only for sharks.
You started out your career as a field biologist before transitioning to photojournalism – do you feel photography has more power to communicate issues to the public, or was the move just personal preference?
I think for reaching out to the masses, yes. Scientific text can be pretty hard to read and not easily accessible for the general public. It can’t be said which one is more important though, since they are totally different things. One is for finding out the truth; the other is for passing on the message.
I still have my passion for doing scientific research, but I prefer to play my role in getting the message out with my images. Selling scientific or conservation narratives in an attractive package – it is science communication.
Your style ranges from sweeping underwater landscapes to intimate close-ups. What’s your go to gear for underwater photography in getting such a captivating range of shots?
I use two bodies, depending on what I’m shooting. For topside, I use a Nikon D850 with either Nikon 70-200mm or Nikon 24mm 1.8G for general situations. Otherwise, I use a Nikon Z6 with 24-70 f4 if I need to be discrete, as a smaller camera does really help in that regard.
For underwater work I use a D850 in the housing made by Nauticam with two underwater strobes by Sea&Sea, and a Nikon 16mm Fisheye for most of my underwater shots. I use a Nikon 16-35mm f4 for skittish subjects that I may not able to get close enough to. For underwater close-up macro, I use both a Nikon 60mm Macro and Nikon 105mm Micro VR, depending on the subject that I am seeking.
Do you have any advice for conservation photographers starting out in their careers?
Photograph issues that resonate with you, something that you really care for that is accessible in your area, and you are willing to spend significant time on would be a good start. Seeking out conservation groups or scientists that are working on issues related to your project is another step that should be taken to make the most out of your pictures.
You should be able to get an in-depth insight into the story, with up-to-date and credible information, and the opportunity to photograph actual work being done. Finally, you can then get the conservation message across to broader audiences, whilst also supporting the work of the people who are researching.
What are you working on at the moment?
I have a few projects going on. One is with cetacean researchers in Hong Kong, and another one with local community and conservation NGOs in the Andaman Sea. I can’t disclose too much information at this stage, though. Watch this space!