Where Art Meets Ocean Activism

Lora Shinn

A vocal advocate for empowering women to claim seats at the decision-making table to contribute to real solutions, Carmen Danae Azor uses photography and video to communicate about the ocean she loves and the perils it faces.

Image © Carmen Danae Azor

Lora Shinn

Image © Carmen Danae Azor

Carmen Danae Azor’s “environmental ARTivism” (art and activism), as she calls it, crystallized as a passion in her twenties—soon after the fifth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report was published.

She returned home to Samaná, Dominican Republic, and visited a favorite, remote beach (Playa Rincon) she’d remembered as pristine. The pale sands were littered with soda bottles, candy wrappers, tiny Styrofoam pieces, and cigarette butts.

“I was shocked and alarmed,” she remembers.
Carmen’s photos of plastic waste and other detritus in the Bajo Yuna Mangrove National Park, in the Dominican Republic, sparked a heated debate · Carmen Danae Azor

Carmen considers Mallorca and the Dominican Republic her two true homes. Roaming the Dominican Republic beaches and spotting octopuses in the coves in Mallorca inspired a lifelong fascination with water and wildlife. As a child, Carmen moved every few years to a new country—Costa Rica, Mexico, Uruguay—with her father, a diplomat from Spain, and her mother, a model from the Dominican Republic, before going to college for art and film in California.

Carmen grew up between many different countries, but she considers the Dominican Republic her true home (along with Mallorca) · Juanca Paulino
Worried about her Caribbean “mother island,” Carmen moved to the Dominican Republic in 2018.

There, she started a local chapter of Parley for the Oceans, an arts-centric environmental organization focused on the ocean and plastic pollution. She collaborated with governmental ministries and a local network to partner on a series of over 200 beach cleanups and recycling opportunities, coral reef driftnet removals, mangrove reforestation, and an ongoing fishers-led plastic interception in national parks.

Carmen has been active in organizing hundreds of beach cleanups and recycling opportunities in the Dominican Republic · Carmen Danae Azor
From government ministries to local fishers, Carmen reaches out across the spectrum of stakeholders in her work as an activist · Carmen Danae Azor
As well as focusing on plastic pollution, Carmen is involved in mangrove reforestation efforts · Carmen Danae Azor

Carmen uses photography and video to communicate about the ocean she loves. For one project, Carmen went on a two-week Parley expedition intended to gather whale DNA from the mucus exhaled by humpbacks when surfacing in the Samaná Bay. Over the course of two weeks, Carmen used a hydrophone to record hours of underwater whale song.

She then combined the songs with selections from a 1970 album called Songs of the Humpback Whale by Dr. Roger Payne, who helped launch the Save the Whales movement. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Wind Ensemble traveled to the Dominican Republic to play the resulting piece, “In Praise of the Humpback,” live at the Santo Domingo National Conservatory of Music. Three weeks later, the work was premiered and introduced by Dr. Payne at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium for MITWE’s 20th anniversary

“It was a very special moment to see it all come together,” Carmen says.
One of Carmen’s “environmental ARTivism” projects involved recording hours of underwater whale song, which were then combined with selections from a 1970 album called “Songs of the Humpback Whale” by Dr. Roger Payne, who helped launch the Save the Whales movement · Shawn Heinrichs

The peril of plastic

In July 2018, Carmen bore witness to what she refers to as “ecocide,” or ecosystem destruction that is committed with knowledge of the risks. Her videos of plastic waves crashing into Montesinos beach have been viewed by over 30 million people around the world, and can also be seen in the film Aquaman.

Carmen’s videos of plastic waves crashing into Montesinos beach, which she views as evidence of “ecocide,” have been viewed by over 30 million people around the world · Carmen Danae Azor

Today, Carmen is deeply involved in advocating for a ban on single-use plastic.

“Plastic pollution is drowning mangrove forests and beaches in the Dominican Republic and around the world,” she says.
Mangrove forests are incredible ecosystems, capable of absorbing up to 10 times more carbon than terrestrial forests. Yet they are increasingly drowning in plastic pollution · Carmen Danae Azor
Carmen uses photography and video to communicate about the ocean she loves and the perils it faces, such as overwhelming quantities of plastics washing up on beaches · Carmen Danae Azor
Agricultural plastic waste is just one of many industries reliant on plastics, which then pollute the world’s ocean and beaches · Carmen Danae Azor

Carmen believes that “we’re in a battle against greed.” Both U.S.- and Canada-based oil companies extract raw material from lower income destinations, she notes, “over-exploiting resources while damaging the local public health and ecosystems.” These actions are a chief threat to oceans, Carmen states, and in numerous ways: drilling-related air and water contamination, fossil-fuel-based plastics, and underwater sound pollution that interferes with mammal communication.

“There needs to be more accountability on the systemic neocolonial issues of the many companies performing extractive and contaminating operations that are not aligned with the Paris Agreement’s set goals,” she insists.
Lasting eight hours, “Bandera Blanca” was a performance-art piece created by Carmen. She walked into the ocean and stayed there, in silence, until past sundown, waving a large white flag for the seas and for all those we are losing to pollution and extinction. The performance was seen only by passers-by and her brother, who stayed with the tripod and camera · Carmen Danae Azor

Companies do things in small island developing states (SIDS) that would never be permitted—by the government or the people—within their own country’s boundaries. For example, one Canadian company has been awarded an oil exploration contract in a Dominican marine mammal sanctuary and marine protected area.

A Canadian company has been awarded an oil exploration contract in a Dominican marine mammal sanctuary and marine protected area. This is something that would never be permitted—by the government or the people—within their own country’s boundaries. Contracts such as these are unfortunately the rule, not the exception · Carmen Danae Azor

Standing up to the status quo

 “If we continue with business as usual, we’ll face 3 to 5 degrees in warming by the end of the century and lose 90 percent of coral reefs,” says Carmen. “Eventually, oceans could be functionally dead, unable to hold life and soak up the vast amounts of carbon we’re emitting.”

Half a million people worldwide directly rely on coral reefs for food, income, tourism, coastal protection, and more. Yet if we do nothing to tackle the climate crisis, they could be the first entire ecosystem to collapse · Cristina Mittermeier

Many women are involved in the fight for preservation in the Dominican Republic, and Carmen believes their strength will soon be felt worldwide. Millions of women live near the ocean, and we need to shift from the idea that “fishermen and conservationists are only men,” she says—and empower women to claim seats at the decision-making table to contribute to real solutions.

“They lead and feed the family,” she says. “Going forward, I think women of color will play a key role [in conservation], although white men have gotten the media attention so far—Jacques Cousteau, Richard Attenborough, and such.”

One thing Jacques Cousteau never had to deal with? Online trolls. After her photo of plastic polluting a scenic beach in the Lower Yuna Mangrove National Park won a British Vogue photo competition in 2020, Carmen was the recipient of racist and sexist harassment, even death threats.

“I’m not scared,” she says, her voice strong. “I’ll continue to share the truth whether they like it or not.”

Carmen believes we must work harder to empower women to claim seats at the decision-making table, so they can contribute to real solutions in the ocean space · Carmen Danae Azor
Learn more about Carmen

Instagram · Twitter

Contributors
Lora Shinn
Journalist

Help shape our shared future

Get 10 extra trees if you sign up today  🙌
Your all-in-one membership to help save the planet
  • Grow your own forests and reefs
  • Remove plastic and carbon pollution
  • 100% of your funds go to impact
  • Plans from $9.00/mo