Quiet. Slow. Still. Meditative. All these words come to mind when one thinks of the depth of the oceans. But in reality, oceans are noisy, crowded, chaotic places — their creatures vying for every bit of space they can get and striving every day for continued survival. We know more about parts of outer space than we know what the deepest waters hold. Most of the species that live below the surface remain undocumented, unstudied and mostly unknown not just to us common folk, but even the scientific community. What we do know is that the fragile ecosystems within the oceans are in danger from overfishing, pollution, plastics, radiation, climate change, acidification and other problems caused or exacerbated by humans. Reports of oceans heating up have become so common that the urgency they may have once inspired has slowed to a crawl.
Christian Vizl’s beautiful black-and-white photographs of sea animals contained in his new book Silent Kingdom: A World Beneath the Waves act as a much-needed call to action. Vizl’s association with the oceans started in his childhood and his awe for its abundance, its fragility, and its ethereal beauty remains unabated. “The ocean is a world that has so many things to say, so many stories to tell, so many lessons to teach, but its voice can only be heard by our hearts,” Vizl writes. “The images in this book are a reflection of what I hear beneath the waves.” He calls the exploration and contemplation of the beauty of the ocean the purpose of his life.
That comes through in his haunting images throughout the book. Life below the surface is known for the richness of its colors, its shades, and the shapes on animals rarely seen on any living creature on land. Yet, Vizl chooses to present only black-and-white images, inviting the viewer to go beyond striking colors to focus on form, texture, shape and the natural rhythm of the creatures, elements that a viewer might take for granted looking at color images. The many shades of grey Vizl works into his frames almost lend the images a sense of the surreal.
Sharks of many kinds, clown fish, Chinese trumpetfish, Goliath groupers, sea turtles, many varieties of jellyfish, happy dolphins and playful sea lions, schools and schools of little fishes, the majestic mantas, coral here and there, crabs and clams, eels, sea snakes, and crocodiles all make appearances in Vizl’s book. The images are interspersed with an introduction by Dr. Sylvia A Earle and short essays by Michael Aw, Ernie Brooks, David Doubilet and Nora Torres — photographers and fellow passionate champions of the marine world. The texts urge viewers to recognize the dangers facing the ocean and how it’s time we started paying attention to it. They place their hopes on Vizl’s images leaning on the power of photographs to inspire and rouse people to action.
Indeed, the images are designed for such reactions. Be it a sea lion sunbathing under the water’s surface, or the silhouette of a spotted eagle ray seen from below, two giant mantas touching the tips of each other’s wings or the cannonball jellyfish near the surface with the sun on its back, Vizl’s photographs are beautiful, sensitive, and visually stunning. But more often than not, it is not their aesthetic that impacts the mind first. The sharp blacks and whites lend a starkness to the photographs that serve to draw attention, repeatedly, to the state of the marine world. Many of the sea creatures are presented against plain backgrounds, eliminating the ambience, thus emphasizing the sharpness of the form, grace and beauty of that creature. Also, invariably, the tension this creates, by highlighting their vulnerability without cloaking the frame around a busy ambience, reiterates the urgency of needing to protect and conserve the fragility of it all.
Silent Kingdom draws attention to biodiversity being a finite resource and how we are quickly getting to a tipping point beyond which having hope will be futile. Vizl does not include images of fish or turtles stuck in plastic rings, nothing explicit or direct to draw attention to the need to conserve — perhaps it is a deliberate choice not to duplicate photos of the kind that are usually used to show had bad things are below the water. Instead, a jellyfish swims up near the surface on a cloudy day — the dark black of the water contrasts with the white from the clouds above. Another swims along in the open ocean, looking partly like torn lace blobbing along. Some sea lions rest, perhaps after a heavy lunch, watching over two of their group play below. In presenting these sea creatures in their everyday activities, just going about their lives, he manages to make the viewer develop a connection to these animals. And from such quotidian connections come the desire, the wish to save, conserve, help.