Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Nigel Barker

Maybe you know Nigel Barker from his amazing fashion photography work, or perhaps you know him from his role as a judge and photographer on America’s Next Top Model. But he’d like you to know him for his passionate commitment to protecting and saving animals – a passion that started when he was a young boy and dreamed of being a zoologist. Although life took him in a different direction, his success as a model and photographer allows him to return to his love for animals and help them on a much bigger scale today. Nigel works with The Humane Society of the United States' Protect Seals Campaign and Protect Sharks Campaign. He is also a spokesperson for a charity out of Haiti called EDEYO, as well as for the Make-A-Wish Foundation and Do Something charities.

Raised in a big brownstone in London, England, Nigel’s mother instilled her passion for animals in him.

I grew up surrounded by animals. My mother loved dogs, and we had many, many dogs as kids. And when I say many, I mean dozens of dogs. And now thinking back, I’m thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, why did we have that many dogs!?’ But as a child, you don’t question anything, and I’ll tell you what, I loved it. My mother reminds me how I would literally sleep in the alcove under the stairs with all the dogs.


I was just fascinated and was fascinated by the Jungle Book story and growing up with wolves. In pictures, you can see me with some kind of lizard, or beetle, or stray in my hand or in my arms; I wanted to become a zoologist. I think my biggest hero at the time was David Attenborough, who is well known as the voice behind most of the fantastic English documentaries about wildlife, and all the behind the scenes of pretty much every wildlife show. I really wanted his job, but my parents were paying for a rather expensive education at a boarding school in England and my dad taught me that if I went on to (study) zoology, surely the only job I would have would be a zookeeper, which he didn’t think was, quite frankly, a good enough job for me to have. At the time, I was upset by that.

Nigel applied for medical school and was accepted into Guy’s Hospital in London, but took two years off to model.

My mother and my girlfriend at the time entered me into a modeling competition in England, and I didn’t win, but I got into the top three. I thought that I’d take a year off and see how I do, make some money, and that would help pay my way through school.I had a taste of the fashion world that I’d never thought of before

Nigel enjoyed photography and after the fashion industry changed in the 1980s to a more grunge and heroin chic looks, Nigel moved on to become a well-known photographer, but his passion for animals came calling again and he decided to work with The Humane Society.

I felt like this was my calling. People are interested in listening to what I have to say. I thought, ‘Wow, I can actually do something that will help these animals that I’ve always loved so much.’ Using photography, I can take pictures and not just talk, but use imagery as a powerful tool in helping to persuade and educate people in what they are, who they are, how they live, and what needs to be done. And that’s really how I got to be where I am.

How did it affect you when you saw see the seals for the first time?

I’ve always been aware of the hunt, but you forget because it was banned in America and in so many places. The main places you find seal fur are in Norway, Russia, China, etc. When I first went onto the ice it was a massive event for me, and for my whole team. It’s an incredible sight to behold. There are five million seals birthing – the largest mammalian migration on earth. It’s the most extraordinary sight. You fly over it, find an area to land and you’re wearing a survival suit just in case you fall into the water and freeze to death -- just about everything to get your pulse racing. And it’s certainly more exciting than shooting any number of supermodels, I gotta tell you that (LOL) -- (the seals are) very nice to photograph, and pretty much beautiful from every angle, too.

(But) despite how attractive these seals are, (awareness) doesn’t seem to be working, and nothing seems to be helping them, because this hunt is still going on decades later. So it doesn’t really matter how much massive clout you’ve got, so you have to do something else. So I thought well, what can I do? And I thought that young people have the power to do things, to change things. So let’s motivate these people, let’s move them, and then see what we can do, and attempt to use the young fan base I’ve garnered from a show like Top Model.

And I felt very responsible because being in the fashion industry, it’s the industry that uses this fur. So it’s even more reason why I need to make a stand. Being a father, I have a little boy and we are expecting a second and I wanted my son to grow up in a world where we treat animals, and our planet in general, with respect, that they deserve and it needs.

Do you find you have a harder time convincing people about saving sharks?

Yes and no. The bottom line is you’ve got to know your subject. If you’re just going to talk on something because it’s cute, like seals, you’re going to get a certain number of people who are going to agree with you just because they just love animals and love very cute things. But if you know your subjects, and the facts are there, then it’s actually much more powerful than just having a pretty picture or being connected with a cute thing. And with sharks, the facts are there.

Nigel talks about this New York Times article.

And they said that this is due to the lack of top predators, and over-fishing of top predators in the ocean, (such as) blue fin tuna sharks and swordfish. These are the repercussions of taking out sharks. For example, hammerheads are almost completely endangered.

The Humane Society asked me to design t-shirts. For the seals, we designed one that said, “Make a fashion statement, save a seal.” For the shark it says, ‘Extinction bites, save sharks.’ On the back it says, ‘A shark is a shark. A human can be humane.’ The Society said the shark had too many teeth. I said to them, I’m not here to pretend that something is not what it is. This is life. And just the manner in which we deal with life and understanding it, I think if we pussyfoot around and pretend that things aren’t what they are, then you don’t garner respect. And we need to be real about this -- this is a serious thing that we’ve got to solve, because our world’s oceans are in a serious state right now. Stuff we’ve had around for literally millions of years is disappearing -- cod supplies are almost bottoming out and bluefin might be extinct soon.

I realize they aren’t killing all of the sharks --probably 300 sharks or something were caught during that tournament. It’s about what it does to people when you see sharks treated in this manner. (The whole point of this tournament) is to capture the biggest shark, bring it back, hang, draw, and quarter it in public, in a very kind of carnival, sort of festival scene where everyone gathers round to watch this animal being weighed, strung up, and then butchered in front of everybody. It’s very macabre. Children want to go home and the dad is fascinated, just like they were fascinated by Jaws. Some of the people who were protesting were the actors and actresses from the original movie, who are now in their 70s.

Somehow as humans we have this hierarchy as to what’s more important than something else. But for me, it’s about treating animals as a whole and with respect. They don’t realize the kind of harm these tournaments causes. As a result, people don’t like sharks, because they’re scared of them. We need to protectthem, because if you take them out, it has a cascade effect on the ecosystem.

And I just want people to know what they are for what they are, and understand that yes, they could attack you. And yes, it’s possible that there are going to be shark attacks, but ultimately, there was only one shark death last year in the U.S. It’s no great number. With the Monster Shark Tournament, or any shark tournament, is the sort of villainizing of sharks, and the lack of respect for these animals. Not to mention, of course, they’re looking for the biggest sharks, and the biggest sharks are the sexually mature sharks. With depleted supplies of sharks out there, we really need to be protecting these mature ones. Sharks take up to 15 years to reach sexual maturity, so when you take one of them out, it has a much worse effect than just taking the babies out, unfortunately.

Nigel's blog is a worthy read. For more information click here.

Nigel and I will talk once again about his trip to Haiti...look for that in the near future.

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