Last week I had a chance to do something not many people can claim they’ve had the opportunity to do: I had dinner with my idol. Former National Geographic photographer, Oscar winner, activist, vegan, and visionary Louie Psihoyos was in a Brooklyn studio making some final edits to his upcoming documentary, and gave me call. The film – titled “Racing Extinction” – delves into the reality that is the current sixth extinction, unique in that it is the only wave of species loss where humans are present (and arguably the cause). Louie and his team of guerrilla journalists at the Ocean Preservation Society (founded by Louie) go behind closed doors, risking their lives just as they did for “The Cove” (Louie’s first documentary), to reveal the haunting truth behind the mass extinction of species large and small, familiar and microscopic, and how all species – humans included – face an unknown and unsafe future if the killing continues. Car racing, black market deals, shark diving, projections on national landmarks – Louie takes viewers on a captivating adventure that sends chills up the spine, tugs at the heartstrings, and motivates all at once. It was at a screening of “Racing Extinction” this spring that I first reached out to Louie asking if I could pick his brain. I was floored when he said yes.
Famished and exhausted after a full day of work, he was in the mood for a hearty meal. We met at Pure Food and Wine – his suggestion – much to my delight (it’s been a personal favorite ever since our fall photo shoot for Blindfold Magazine). Sitting on the famous back patio decorated with strings of tiny white lights, I asked Louie if he’d always been a vegan. He said he’d been a pescatarian for decades but, after finding out he had dangerous levels of mercury in his blood, made the switch to vegan a few years ago. Coincidentally one of the key points Louie focused on in “The Cove” was mercury poisoning (known for causing extreme and permanent cognitive damage) and how the levels of the element in dolphin meat are causing the people of Japan to become fatally ill – a reason that should be enough for the government to shut down the trade, if not for humanitarian or environmental reasons. But Louie’s own experience with mercury wasn’t what inspired the documentary. It was a combination of passion, talent, and luck.
Louie’s activism dates back to his college days at the prestigious University of Missouri, where his knack for photo journalism led to national recognition and into a crowd of young innovators who would turn out to be some of the most influential players in the history of technology. In fact, the founder of Netscape, Jim Clark, is a close friend of Louie’s. Louie told me how the two of them would take off on Clark’s yacht on diving adventures, exploring some of the most pristine habitats in the world. It was on one of these excursions in the Galapagos that the diving partners witnessed some illegal and inhumane fishing practices that disturbed Louie enough to take action, and it was through protesting and petitioning that he met Ric O’Barry, the future “star” of “The Cove.” O’Barry, the former trainer of the famous Flipper, was on a mission to expose the slaughter cove of Taiji – and Louie’s story was born. He admitted to me that he’d never done film before, despite snapping some of the most talked about photos to date, including one of Michael Jordan for Fortune that sold more copies of the magazine than any other issue, still to date. He took a 3-day filmmaking crash course and began rolling for “The Cove.”
This humble confession was a glimpse into Louie’s character that moved me the most during our conversation. He never intended to win an Oscar, or make millions, or even see the film go into theaters – in fact he almost left Sundance after it premiered, oblivious to the fact that awards were given and major production companies were looking to distribute the winners. For him, he simply witnessed an atrocity that the general public was both unaware of and ignoring, and knew he had the skill set and support to do something. His compassion for the environment and his brilliant ability to both understand and explain how the wellbeing of humanity relies on the health of the planet obligated him to make “The Cove” and start a movement. And now with “6” Louie is using the same tactics – a relatable story within the genre of documentary – to stress how immediate change needs to be.
While swapping bites of asparagus and pear crepes and “Hen of the Woods” tacos over glasses of biodynamic Sauvignon Blanc, Louie told me stories about the people he’s met and places he’s seen that shaped his life, and left me in awe. We discussed city life (he lived in TriBeCa for 10 years) and how the pace and pressure combined with noise and air pollution can “suck your soul dry.” He told me about his self-sufficient home in Boulder, CO where natural springs bring water to his house and solar panels charge the ranch so well that electric companies cut him a check every winter. Whether the conversation was uplifting or taking a dark turn, he always spoke with a firm sense of hope and optimism, especially for the current generation of young adults. It was the most intelligent, inspiring, and life-changing conversation I’ve ever had.
As we closed down the restaurant I asked Louie what he had planned next, after what will be the obvious success of “6.” He said, appropriately enough as we cleaned our plates of every last bite, deconstructing what it means to be a man and a vegan. Louie is frustrated by society’s accepted mentality that “real men eat meat” and how meat-eating is associated with masculinity and strength. What people don’t realize is that the “meat” is really the product of animals eating plants, which is where all of the nutrients come from. Yet, we’ve created an industry that, arguably, is the root of environmental degradation, and is neither safe nor beneficial to human health. In fact, Louie added, some of the most successful and admired male athletes in the world are vegan. He wants to work on transforming the notion that meat = man and expose the ugly side of the meat industry while shedding light on the environmental and health benefits of going vegan. Another day, another movement for Louie Psihoyos, a man who’s already left his legacy and has just gotten started.