Hussain Aga Khan. A prince in love with turtles and sharks

The second in Aga Khan’s line of succession, Hussain is an underwater photographer and in defence of the environment. He opened an exhibition at the Natural History Museum that tells the images and stories of his passions.

Maybe looking at a shark head-on helps you lose your fear, realizing that it is an extraordinary animal, and that we have to save it from extinction - some of the 350 species are already reducing their numbers by 90%. Perhaps calling a proper name like Matilda a green Bahamas turtle, or Crazy George a small whale in Tonga, will help raise awareness of the harm we are doing to nature. Perhaps telling in a photograph the story of an underwater love between two turtles in the Bahamas helps the viewer feel connected enough with those animals to decide to change habits. And save the environment.

These are all the convictions of Hussain, son of Prince Aga Khan, second in line with the succession of the Ismaili leadership, an ultra-progressive branch of Shi’ite Islam. So, he decided to turn what was a hobby (heir to one of the world’s greatest fortunes) into a civic action between activism and art. “I do this so people get a close look at how extraordinary these animals are and how our actions are endangering them,” says Hussain, on a private visit, before the opening of his exhibition “The Living Sea”, at Museum of Natural History. His underwater photographs - and the accompanying stories - are now on display in Lisbon. They are part of your project Focused on Nature, the foundation that bears his family name. And they are beautiful. Large format, in a black room with dramatic light and sand on the floor, transport us to those seas that the prince fell in love with. And guided by him and his lens, we share “the emotion, these special, privileged moments, as if people could see it all through my eyes ...” Mission accomplished.

This is not Hussain’s first exhibition - he has been diving for over 20 years, since he was 14, traveling to the tropics, where he began taking photographs of fauna and flora in 1996, on a trip to the Brazilian Amazon. He has exhibited in the US, France, Switzerland, Kenya and published two books, ‘Animal Voyage’ in 2004 and ‘Diving into Wildlife’ in 2015. Some of his photos can be seen on various ‘National Geographic’ blogs.

But this is perhaps the most emblematic of its exhibitions. Because he brought it to a “Natural History Museum, something that gives him a scientific point of view, which is the knowledge we need to save the oceans,” he says. The name of the exhibition contains a kind of irony: those seas that are still alive now are in serious danger of dying. “With acidification, the plastic, the rubbish. Ten years ago, when I started diving, there was no plastic. Today there is not a single place where you don’t see debris. From Agadir to Egypt, from the Bahamas to Indonesia. We have to stop the plastic,” says Hussain firmly, who has spent more than 45 minutes wrapped in sludge and trash to see anything worth photographing. Also, for this reason, the first core of the exhibition ends in an area where plastics are scattered in the sand that the prince himself caught on the beach of Alges, with young Portuguese.

Known as the Aga Khan family’s connection to Portugal - a country where it has a community of a few thousand people, many of them already born in Mozambique but from India and Pakistan, and here will be the head of Imamate organization and the large philanthropic organization - and being a sea country and where the effects of global warming will feel the most, it made a lot of sense to debut this exhibition in Portugal. This is what Philippe Mendes, the curator of this work, Portuguese-French, star gallery owner, thought that in November 2016 managed to integrate a Portuguese painting in the permanent exhibition of the Louvre, by Josefa de Obidos, and more recently discovered a lost painting by Eugene Delacroix. Portugal even has a Ministry of the Sea, Philippe thought. And did. “Two days later he was talking to us. It seemed like an excellent idea,” says Marta C. Lourenco, the museum’s director, who took the opportunity to do a cycle dedicated to the “climate crisis”, with lectures and, there, looking down scientific knowledge about the problem. But the potential of Prince Hussain’s exposition is precisely the passing of this scientific sense through the emotions, which are always what drives the world. And they increase when he himself tells the stories of those animals he knows almost one by one. And anthropomorphising helps. He knows the names and specifics of many and visits every year. The story of the couple of “lovers” common turtles is one that most that moved him. “I was photographing a turtle. And suddenly another came out from behind the reef. I stood between them. They circling around each other. And letting me stay there. I turned around and they approached, they made this gesture of affection. it was a truly remarkable moment. I am privileged. I know it. not everyone has the time or willingness to see what I saw.” That’s how a prince fall in love with... a turtle speaks. Or a crazy small whale who “pushed him several times in the Tonga Sea”, the ‘Crazy George’. Hussain has a handy-cap: a leg and an arm almost paralysed by a jet-ski accident he suffered a few years ago. He talks about it smoothly, saying that it only bothers him when he needs to adjust the lens to a new distance. And sometimes the animals are “extremely fast”, such as dolphins, the hosts of the exhibition. In Sataya, Egypt, Hussain got some of his most striking photos because of the dolphin’s habituation to human presence. It can describe exactly the situation in which each photograph was taken - such as the one that opens the exhibition, an incredible group in a ballet that is both coordinated and free. He has been there several times and lately has gained a sense of urgency. “Will they be here another ten years?”, questions.

The area where the effects of human action are most noticeable is in sharks - which are Hussain’s favourite species. “We wanted to put them in a place between the sea lions and the dolphins, so that they could realize their importance,” says Xénia Geroulanos, a co-curator. In the photographs they see the effects of hooks on shark mouths, and, says Hussain, he has seen one marked by “a bullet”.

The prince explains: “They are one of the most interesting animals in the world. And they have a terrible reputation. Unfair. They only kill six to eight people a year, all over the world. And we kill over a hundred million of them a year. They are beautiful. more than 350 species.” Hussain dives most of the time without oxygen because the bubbles drive animals away. “I almost never felt threatened by a shark. Only three times,” he says. The human shark saga is both rational and symbolic - its teeth are considered magical by many peoples of the world.

Between the irrational damages and those justified by our development model, it is unanimous that something must be done urgently so that the environment in the world does not change irreversibly. “We were complete idiots”, says the prince without question, in the text he wrote for the exhibition.

And asks for some favours: “Can we stop using plastic?”, For example. Others: buy glass. Insist on reusable straws. Plant more, everywhere. Buy locally. Not have pets. Travel less, and do it by train. Switch to an electric car. Eat less meat. The prince has no doubt: “It is an emergency”. And he knows what he is talking about.

‘The Living Sea’
From September 27 to December 29, 2019
National Museum of Natural History and Science