Mammalian

Kazakhstan born photographer Natalie Karpushenko’s body of work serves as a visceral reminder of our connection to nature and the vital need for positivity and admiration to be interwoven into our fight against the climate crisis
photography – natalie karpushenko
location – bali, indonesia

There are multiple challenges that arise during any underwater photography shoot. The clarity of the water, the currents, the light [or lack thereof], the cold and, of course, jellyfish. But for Natalie Karpushenko, capturing the right shot isn’t about luck. Rather, it’s about making a series of intentional but often snap decisions to capture ocean life – that which connects us as mammals, and whose very existence is under threat.

The Kazakhstan born photographer uses her art to incite appreciation and passion for taking care of the planet and its people. Inspired by the colours and composition of Renaissance paintings critiqued over years of studying fine art and design, Natalie bought her first camera at the age of 20 and began travelling the world. She has held solo exhibitions in Korea, Indonesia and Kazakhstan and she now resides in Bali, where she also works as a whale guide and ocean advocate.

“I found a way to show problems in a beautiful way,” she said of her work. “I think the message [of environmentalism] should be sent through positivity and admiration. I don’t think it’s right to tell people what to do and how to live. I think it’s better to show it in a beautiful way and make them choose for themselves… and make them care.”

The ocean is intrinsic to our life on earth. But pollution is reaching record levels – with over 17 million metric tons clogging the ocean in 2021, a figure set to double or triple by 2040. In Bali alone, an almost unfathomable 300,000 tonnes of plastic waste is generated each year, with a significant amount of that leaked into the island’s waterways and the ocean.

Natalie draws attention to this existential threat by working with models, sometimes wrapped in plastic or washed ashore like beached whales, to capture people’s attention to the harms of plastic pollution. She wants viewers to reconnect with the natural world, wherever they are, especially through the element of water: an important muse in her work.

Many people who live in cities sometimes feel disconnected from the world. When you live on the islands, you really live with the moon, because you depend so much on the tides. And as a woman, we are all connected to the moon. We have our periods, mostly on the full moon and most of the women give birth on the full moon. So it’s all connected together.

An experienced freediver, she describes the importance of the mammalian dive reflex: a protective physiological reaction that occurs in mammals, including humans, in response to water submersion.

“When we put our face underwater, when we let the water touch our eyes, our natural response is to calm down. Our heart rate becomes slower,” she explains. “There are so many things that bring us back to connection. I like to talk about this and show it in my images; how we are connected with each other and how we are deeply connected to the ocean.”

In declaring this the Ocean Decade, the UN has emphasised the importance of ocean science for sustainable development. But art also plays an important role in offering a deeper understanding of our ocean, by telling stories to help people see the ocean in new ways. As Natalie describes it, “my art is a movement to inspire appreciation and passion for taking care of our planet and ourselves.”

Below is a selection of Natalie’s photography, along with selected quotes from her conversation with us on environmentalism, and the role of art in preserving and raising awareness of ocean health.

If you see something and you start thinking, analysing, then maybe if you feel something deeper, you would want to be a part of a movement. And when many people are doing it, this kind of energy becomes bigger and bigger. I think when we are together, we become more powerful.
I get my inspiration mostly from Renaissance works. So shooting scenes from far away, the shades of yellow and gold. The [artists] capture a lot of angels flying in the sky, and with freediving, it’s like flying. So I had this idea of shooting an angel underwater, and I thought it's like a Renaissance painting.

A note: Each month, we update our site as part of our efforts to reduce the environmental impact of our digital estate. The global emissions from the digital industry are on a par with those from the aviation industry, at almost 2% of total global emissions. What’s worse, this is increasing year on year. In an effort to lessen our impact, each month we compress and archive previous features and update our site with new content. Throughout the month, our current features are available to all to enjoy; our full digital archive is accessible to boom saloon members, in thanks for their support to use creativity to inspire and empower those facing challenges. Support our work and become a member by clicking here.