Storyteller in Residence: Meet Henley Spiers

Henley Spiers is a highly decorated wildlife photographer, writer, expedition leader and our first ever Storyteller in Residence. An avid waterman, he started out as a dive instructor, before falling in love with underwater imagery and making the transition to full-time photo-journalism. Henley lives in Devon, UK, with his wife, Jade, and their two young daughters. In this Q&A, he speaks about the Storyteller in Residence position and his plans for 2023.

Interview by Oceanographic Staff
Photographs by Henley Spiers

Oceanographic Magazine (OM): Henley, congratulations! How excited are you to have been chosen as Oceanographic’s first ever Storyteller in Residence?

Henley Spiers (HS): I am absolutely thrilled! Just learning of the news already ranks as one of my life’s highlights and there is so much more to come. The excitement is mixed in with a healthy dose of anxiety and stress, however, as the work really starts now. I am both profoundly recognisant of how special an opportunity this is, and passionately eager to deliver stories which do the role justice.

OM: What was it about this position that most appealed to you?

HS: When I declared the intention to become a professional underwater photographer it raised a great many sceptical eyebrows. In the court of mainstream opinion, to make your career from ocean storytelling lies firmly in the pipe dream category. In truth, as with almost any discipline, if you can execute it at a high level and are prepared to work very hard, you can make a living from it.

Nevertheless, the path to profitability for an ocean photojournalist often requires diversification in a manner which compromises the purity of the storytelling. This works commercially but as a result the intrepid and clear-minded pursuit of a story is hindered. Opportunities for funded assignments are limited and as ocean storytellers typically work freelance, it is a potentially career-breaking risk to invest heavily in a project and hope to turn a profit on the back end.

The Oceanographic Storyteller in Residence position makes this kind of career materially less of a pipe dream. This fund will enable me to pursue ambitious projects with financial security, and a top-notch team at Oceanographic Magazine supporting me all the way. It is a rare and highly valued opportunity which can serve to enable the most powerful form of ocean photojournalism – the myriad threats to our ocean and planet make it all the more important to have as many of these voices as we can.

OM: Without giving too much away at this early stage, what can readers expect from you over the coming 12 months?

HS: It’s going to be a journey, one which I hope offers many vicarious adventures to readers. Any adventure worth its salt involves ups as well as downs, so readers should expect to embark on the emotional rollercoaster behind each story – the things which leave us an awe, and those which leave us deeply concerned. Without wanting to spoil the surprise, there will be a diverse set of locations and animals which take centre stage – and as we are dealing with the natural world and all its inherent unpredictability, there will probably be some unexpected twists and turns along the way!

OM: What impact do you hope your stories will have?

HS: As a first instinct, my hope is that the stories go beyond entertainment and serve to benefit the environments and wildlife they document. I’m wary of making grandiose claims as we are just at the beginning, and I am very conscious that the most heroic change-makers are the scientists and conservationists working on the frontline. Even so, when it comes to raising awareness to a tipping point which leads to change, there does appear to be an outsized impact to be had through photojournalism and media exposure. This is by no means a blanket statement, but we do have some incredible real-life examples to draw inspiration from: just look at Paul Nicklen and Thomas Peschak, two scientists who abandoned their training once they realised they could have a greater impact through pictures and stories… I’m not putting myself in the same bracket as such luminaries, but their life stories do serve as a source of inspiration.

OM: You’re an award-winning photographer who has shot all over the world in a variety of conditions. How are you going to challenge/push yourself in the months ahead?

HS: When creating my application I was very conscious of both how strongly I wished for the opportunity, and how impressive the other candidates would be. As such, even at the application stage I pushed myself very hard to find the most relevant and ambitious stories. The assignments I’ll be shooting range somewhere in between the ‘tricky’ to ‘almost impossible’ so I’ve certainly got my work cut out to deliver on those promises. Beyond that, striving for imagery which breaks new ground is an omnipresent, self-imposed pressure so that sense of challenge from a picture perspective is a switch I can never turn off.

OM: We’re at the start line now, but let’s look ahead to the finish. When the time comes to hand over the SiR baton to the Storyteller in Residence 2024, what do you hope to have achieved? And how do you hope to feel about your 12 months in the role?

HS: There’s always something special about being the first, and I guess that one way or another, I will be a reference point for the next in line. My hope is that the stories told during my time as Storyteller in Residence set a high bar for what this grant can serve to achieve. I also hope this incredible opportunity will not just be of benefit to me, but also those who share the journey over the next twelve months – ocean photojournalism cannot function in isolation, and I will need a lot of help to execute these stories.

It’s full steam ahead now, but I hope that after my time as SiR comes to a close, I’ll also be able to sit back and reflect on how incredibly fortunate I was to have this life and career-enriching opportunity.

Photographs of Henley by Irene Orozco Heinze (top), Jade Hoksbergen (middle) and Laurence Spiers (bottom).


Photographs by Henley Spiers

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