Profile: Michael Aw

Published on 26 June 2017

Credit: Michael Aw

Underwater photographer Michael Aw uses art to inspire change. 


A polar bear precariously scaling cliffs in search of morsels of food says more about human-induced climate change than 100 pages of scientific findings. “I’ve always believed that art and science complement each other — the arts must interpret science so that science is spoken in a language everyone can understand,” says Michael Aw, a Sydney-based Singaporean underwater/wildlife photographer who has won over 65 international awards and authored 35 books on the sea.

In 2015, Aw led an international team of 65 scientists and artists to the Arctic to document the effects of climate change. The resultant exhibition, Elysium: Artists for the Arctic, made its world premiere in Singapore in April. He believes the photographs, paintings and music compositions birthed from the expedition can draw attention, elicit emotional responses, and inspire action.

Aw is as much a photojournalist as an artist. “I won’t manipulate reality to tell a story. If you know what you want to say, you have to find that scene and shoot it — not create it artificially — and that entails spending a lot of time waiting. An amateur takes a photograph; an artist composes a picture.”

And for underwater photographers, it’s even trickier. “The conditions are challenging because of light conditions and water movement, and your subject is always on the move. My first 500 rolls of film were almost all black!”

An alumni of Anglo-Chinese School and the University of Bristol, where he graduated with a degree in economics and marketing, Aw only started pursuing underwater photography when he retired from the advertising industry in the 1990s. Since publishing his first coffee-table book in 1993, his works have been featured in magazines such as BBC Wildlife, National Geographic and Discovery. In 2007, he founded Ocean Geographic, the official journal for the Ocean Geographic Society.

Although he’s won the London Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year, and clinched Underwater Photographer of the Year four times, Aw says awards do not drive him; causes close to his heart do.

In 2002, Aw founded Celebrate the Seas, an annual festival that launched the No Sharks Fin campaign. After a decade of campaigning, he celebrated a major milestone on 8 June 2013, when Brunei Darussalam became the first country in the world to ban all shark products — a bold declaration that caused a ripple effect around the world.

And it was Aw’s concern for climate change that birthed the Elysium project. There are already plans for Elysium Coral Triangle in 2018 and Elysium Vision 20/20 in 2020. “The underlying message of my work has always been to inspire greater affinity for the natural world, for marine animals and the ocean.”

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Credit: Michael Aw
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