From the Alumni Pool to the reefs of Belize, MIT students learn how to illuminate the deep
  • Duncan Wheeler photographs his team's constructed underwater world
    Duncan Wheeler photographs his team's constructed underwater world
    Keith Ellenbogen
  • Pavlina Karafillis testing her teams construction of an Open ROV
    Pavlina Karafillis testing her teams construction of an Open ROV
    Pavilana Karafillis
  • Photographing objects in the Alumni Pool
    Photographing objects in the Alumni Pool
    Maha Haji
  • Pavlina Karafillis, Maddie Burgoyne, and Sasha Chapman photograph Nathan Tyrell using the underwater ROV camera
    Pavlina Karafillis, Maddie Burgoyne, and Sasha Chapman photograph Nathan Tyrell using the underwater ROV camera
    Keith Ellenbogen
Monday, February 8, 2016

I first interviewed professional underwater photographer Keith Ellenbogen, Center for Art, Science and Technology (CAST) Visiting Artist at MIT, and Allan Adams, Associate Professor in the Physics Department, three days before they were due to depart for Patagonia for a conservation photography project. In October, it was just the two of them.

In January, it was Ellenbogen, Adams, and 16 MIT students. After months of intense planning and preparation, Ellenbogen and Adams’s co-taught 8.S10 (Underwater Conservation Photography), an IAP class sponsored by the Edgerton Center and the Department of Physics. The students spent three weeks learning on campus and then traveled to the Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) Glover’s Reef Research Station to carry out their own conservation photography projects.

The IAP course was an intensive crash-course in underwater conservation photography covering everything from underwater optics to hacking simple ROVs to building custom imaging devices to explore the ecology of coral reef ecosystems and the behavior of their inhabitants. The topics were covered in lectures, in lab work, on local field trips, and in team design and construction projects. The final week was spent putting these skills and devices to use at the Wildlife Conservation Society's Glover's Reef Research Station (GRRS) off the coast of Belize. Students from the University of Belize were invited to join by Skype in Cambridge and in person on Glover's Reef.

The course was the result of long months of planning, design and imagination by Ellenbogen and Adams, who raised enough funds to not only provide all equipment but also ensure that the class and expedition was completely free to the students, so that cost was not be a barrier to entry for anyone.  They also invited a student from the University of Belize who joined the field expedition as the class’s 17th student.

On paper, the class was 8 to 5 every weekday; in reality, it often ran late into the night. To be sure, they had a lot of material to cover in the three weeks of instruction before the field expedition. In the first week, students learned how to use DSLR cameras, underwater housings, and strobe equipment, putting those lessons to use in underwater artistic challenges at the MIT Wang Alumni Pool. (In the classic studio tradition, the majority of class time was spent in lab or the pool, creating and learning by doing.)

By week two, they were in teams building and programming underwater ROVs to learn how to challenge the limits of existing equipment to photograph more creatively and effectively underwater. By the third week, with the students increasingly adept with their underwater imaging equipment, the focus turned to composition and storytelling – how to imagine and create images that tell a conservation story.  The students also benefitted from the strobe-photography expertise of the Edgerton Center’s Jim Bales, instructor of 6.163 (Strobe Project Lab), who supported the class on its field expedition to Belize.

No wonder classes took up the whole day!

I grabbed Ellenbogen for a phone call one night, after he had finished a long day of class, to ask him about the course. He has a contagious passion for both conservation and photography that effuses and moves the listener, even over the phone.

For such an intensive course, I wondered what the most important objectives were to the instructors.

“They’re threefold,” responded Keith, “First, to learn how to communicate complex environmental stories through the art of photography. Also to think about how to use engineering craftiness to build components that lead to what we want to create in an image, not just using what exists. And last, optimistically, we want to offer a course that can be life-changing, in the sense that students can now see how to use the skills of their current discipline to address real-world conservation issues.”

Impressed by these goals, I wondered whether the students in the course came in with extensive understanding of conservation already or merely interest in learning more.  Keith replied that there was a range, from undergrads interested in learning how to influence conservation through pictures to Woods Hole Ph.D. students whose research interests are closely tied to underwater conservation. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute is a private, nonprofit institution, in partnership with MIT, dedicated to marine science research and engineering.

For Adams and Ellenbogen, instructing 16 motivated and curious MIT students was pure joy. It was a quintessential Institute class in its mix of disciplines included and reach of opportunity offered for the students. The students travelled to Belize the last week of January to photograph a conservation project of their own choice at the WCS Glover’s Reef Research Station. Video and still images from their recent expedition will be collected into a traveling exhibition to be exhibited at the Bronx Zoo, the MIT Weisner Gallery, the Boston Museum of Science, SUNY/FIT, and beyond.