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August 2000
Images From the Edge

The Satya Interview with Gavin Newman



Gavin Newman is a photographer and videographer whose work has been invaluable to many activist campaigns of Greenpeace, the internationally renown environmental organization. Originally trained as a photographer and filmmaker in the U.K., he worked for several magazines before going free-lance, specializing in adventure sports and expedition photography and filmmaking. Satya caught up with him recently between projects.

What exactly does your work for Greenpeace entail?
I was originally approached by Greenpeace to document a fisheries campaign in the Mediterranean. This involved diving on driftnets in the middle of the night, measuring the nets and documenting the by-catch. It was an interesting introduction to Greenpeace, diving in the middle of the Mediterranean in the dark whilst surrounded by fishing boats somewhat less than pleased to see us! My early work was almost exclusively photography work both above and below water, whereas these days I now do more video. I find that versatility is the name of the game when it comes to making myself useful to the various campaigns. On campaigns that are of a documenting nature rather than action-based, it’s often possible to shoot both stills and video. My interest in computers and digital imaging, as well as my background in adventure sports and expedition photography where we constantly have to invent new ways of getting interesting shots and then often as not design and build the gear needed to get those shots, has proved a real bonus in working for Greenpeace. Greenpeace’s public image is based largely on its media image and we constantly need to provide the media with interesting images of the work that we do, often shot under very difficult circumstances, in order to get that public exposure.

How has your work been used?
My work gets used in a number of different ways. Obviously news/current affairs is the biggest target for the images. Greenpeace needs to get its message out, to show the world what is going on, often from behind closed doors or very remote locations where certain organizations feel they are away from the public eye. Greenpeace tries to be that public eye. The advent of digital video and stills imaging and satellite communications has revolutionized the way we work. We are equipped with the latest imaging and communications technology. It’s expensive but in an increasingly technology-led world, to fall behind the capabilities of other media organizations would effectively gag the organization. These days news is expected to be instant.

Beyond the news aspect, we are increasing use of the Internet to spread information. All the campaigns have websites linked through the Greenpeace website ( These websites carry all the background information and images about the various campaigns as well as live images and even video as big actions unfold. Webcams and streaming video are increasingly being used to exploit the immediacy of the web. The technology to do this from remote locations can often be quite challenging but that’s what I most enjoy about the job—doing the ‘impossible’ on a daily basis!

On a recent campaign we were working on a nuclear waste discharge pipeline on the bottom of the English channel. The nuclear company had been making a big issue of the fact that they had 10 webcams placed around their site and were open about what they did. But, they omitted to show the world how they dumped a large part of their nuclear waste into the sea. So we went and put a webcam installation on the end of their nuclear waste discharge pipe. We designed a special underwater camera and mount to fix to the end of the pipeline that fed the images up a cable to a platform 35 meters above. From there, the signal was transmitted via a solar-panel powered microwave link over six kilometers back to a receiving station on the shore where it was processed and sent via satellite to the Internet. The signal was also sent live to a major government conference on ocean dumping that was taking place in Copenhagen.

This is a classic example of how our images can make a difference. Its very easy for people to talk about dumping nuclear waste into the sea as it’s such an unseen thing, but live video images of nuclear waste pouring out of a seabed pipeline projected onto a big video screen are a pretty powerful reminder of what it means in reality.

What inspired you to do this kind of work?
Originally it was purely just another interesting job, a challenge. However, the more I’ve worked for the organization the more it becomes far more than just a job. I still get paid for what I do (I have to earn a living) but I’ve become far more involved in the campaigns and what the organization stands for. When you actually go out and see first-hand what’s going on in this world, it’s very hard not to become involved.

Have you ever found yourself in any difficult, dangerous, or illegal situations? What happened? How do you cope?
I guess that depends on what you consider to be difficult, dangerous or illegal! Diving on fishing lines and nets in the dark in a rough sea can get pretty ‘interesting’ and obviously diving around nuclear waste discharge pipes needs to be done very carefully. However, Greenpeace is aware of the risks involved in coming into contact with many of the substances we may encounter during such actions and appropriate safety protocols are strictly followed. Equipment is always of the highest standard and safety is never compromised to save money. For an organization with such an open public image to be seen to be taking "kamikaze" risks would only be self-defeating.

Obviously sometimes things go beyond our control and you can never be 100 percent sure of the reactions of those we are seeking to expose. I’ve been threatened with knives and guns and been shot at with rocket flares from a few feet away which can be pretty scary, but my job is to get the image and that’s what I always try to do. In nine years of working with Greenpeace I’ve never been arrested—it’s always a difficult balance between getting in a position to get the most exciting and intimate images of the action without putting yourself in an arrestable situation which then means we lose the images. We always have to consider that if we are in a remote location away from the eyes of the regular press and the cameraperson gets arrested, the images won’t get seen. Then in the eyes of the world’s media and subsequently the public, the action may as well have not happened. Here again versatility is often the name of the game—watching the situation and knowing when to leave and then being able to get away. Being a climber, a diver and being able to drive fast boats can often become an advantage!

What effect do you think the videos have? What do they achieve for the environmental cause that maybe words alone do not?
The images that we produce often make the difference between a story hitting the headlines or not. Often a political story about an issue that the public had never even considered can be brought right into peoples’ living rooms. Nuclear waste barrels on the seabed are something that most people know about but don’t give much thought to. If we can present them with images of these things lying on the seabed, broken open with their contents spilled all around, people start to realize that maybe there really is a problem here that could actually affect them. One of the Greenpeace slogans is that ‘Actions Speak Louder Than Words’—I firmly believe the same is true of our images.

Any particularly memorable/special/inspirational moments on-the-job that you would like to share?
So many! Free swimming with whales in the Antarctic—seeing them free and wild, how they should be. Seeing the aurora borealis (Northern Lights) in the Arctic and realizing that despite all our techno wizardry we still can’t match such naturally produced visual images. Moments on campaigns when things have been hard but we then get either political or public results which make you realize that it is all worth it. On a personal level I get an immense amount of satisfaction from getting images from places which most people believed we could not do. Finding ways of getting specific images, such as mounting radio controlled cameras on kites to get close-up aerial images of installations where there are no fly zones for aircraft or helicopters. Recently I’ve been working a lot with radio and microwave video transmitter systems to enable us to get images out of potentially very difficult situations. I’ve always had a passion for bolting remote controlled cameras onto things! People have become used to the standard images of environmental activists whizzing around in inflatables—it’s my challenge to keep coming up with new angles—those seemingly impossible images.

Visit Gavin Newman’s website at to see samples of his work. To learn about Greenpeace and current campaigns visit


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