Racing Extinction: An interview with Leilani Munter

22 March 2016 posted by: Zoe - WPY Comms Officer

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Leilani Münter is a biology graduate, professional race car driver and environmental activist with a passion for protecting the natural world. With a team of scientists, photographers and filmmakers she recently took part in Racing Extinction, a new film by Louie Psihoyos.

 

The film uses wildlife photography and image projections to expose threats to endangered species and features WPY photographers David Doubilet, Paul Hilton and Joel Sartore. We asked Leilani some questions about about the signigicant part played by wildlife photography in exposing the vital messages of the film.

 

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Images of endangered wildlife are projected onto the Empire State Building in Racing Extinction

 

When you were driving the car for the Racing Extinction stunt in NYC, what was the reaction like from the public? Did it spark any interesting or challenging conversations?

006 always draws a lot of attention from the public. 007 is our nickname for the mobile projection Tesla, because she is very much like a James Bond car, however because we are raising awareness for the sixth mass extinction, we changed 007 to 006. Not only is the Tesla Model S a beautiful car to begin with, but with all the modifications we have made to the car, she looks very weaponized - especially when we have the FLIR camera up and the projector coming out the back. Of course, she only shoots photons of light - harmless, but powerful. We use her to spark conversations about the impact of humans on the planet, so many of our conversations with the car were about the future and if we can still turn this thing around. I think we can.

Because of your job as a racing driver, do you feel a responsibility to spread sustainability messages?

It has nothing to do with me being a racing driver, I carry these messages because I am an environmental activist. The racing amplifies my activism messages and brings it to a demographic of people that most environmental groups don't reach. I hold a degree in biology, specializing in ecology, behavior, and evolution from the University of California in San Diego so science was a part of my life long before racing was.

In 2006 I started bringing environmental messages to race fans and in 2007 I made the commitment to adopt an acre of rainforest for every race I run to offset the fuel I use in the race. I started lobbying for clean energy on Capitol Hill in 2008. These are issues I fight for every day. One down side is that I don't race very often because I do not work with any companies that produce fossil fuels, test on animals, produce meat or dairy or use fur or leather. Every partner on my race car since 2007 have been specifically focused on making the world a better place - I've had solar power, wind power, several clean energy advocacy groups, LED lighting, recycled products, and two documentaries - Blackfish and The Cove - on my car. The two race cars promoting documentaries were crowd funded and we gave away free DVDs of the films to the race fans at the track. I go to a lot of environmental events but I know I am making the most difference when I am at the racetrack because I am not preaching to the choir. If we only speak to people who already agree with us, who is going to change the minds of those who don't?

 

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Paul Hilton's WPY50 image of a sea of fins covering the roof of a building in Hong Kong features in Racing Extinction

 

If people can learn one thing from the stunt, what should it be?

The goal was to inspire people to understand the magnitude of what we are losing and hopefully motivate them to protect it. The #StartWith1Thing campaign is all about empowering people to become a part of the solution. I try to live in a way that reflects what I hope the world will look like one day - that's why I'm vegan, why I drive an electric car, and why I have solar panels on my roof and a veggie garden in my backyard. Individual actions multiplied by millions, make a big difference. It's also very rewarding. I haven't been to a gas station since September 2013 ! With the solar panels on the roof of my home, I am driving off of sunshine! I will never again own a gasoline powered car - it feels good and it feels right.

Which image from the stunt resonates most strongly with you and why?

One of the final shots of the film is a time lapse of us projecting "Start With One Thing" onto the side of a canyon in Utah. That was during a 5000 mile road trip home from the Empire State Building projection in New York all the way to San Francisco and we did projections across the country. We were driving long hours during the day and projecting at night, so all of us were pushing our limits to make it happen. For that particular shot I was sleeping in a tent next to the camera filming the car and I was waking up to check on the camera every 20 minutes to make sure it was still working properly. I was completely exhausted and delirious the next day but I knew it was going to be incredible footage. To me, it was one of the most beautiful projections we did during the entire film.

How have people reacted to your appearance in the film, either positive or negative? And have there been any developments for you, professionally since filming?

It's all been very positive and I was pretty happy to see a lot of the racing community tune in and watch it when it aired on Discovery in December. It's sort of like I live in two worlds and it was nice to see the racing world take notice and pay attention to my activism - I think we opened some eyes in the racing garage that night. I've had a lot of messages come in through my social media from people telling me they are going vegetarian or vegan because of the film. It brings me a lot of joy to see people inspired to change their behavior, that's always been the goal.

I actually haven't been in a race car since Daytona in February 2015, I've been so busy with all my activism work that I just haven't dedicated much time to finding sponsors to keep myself on the track. I hope to get back behind the wheel again but until then I will focus on my environmental work.

 

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David Doubilet's WPY51 image of the endangered Hawksbill turtle features in racing Extinction

 

Why do you think nature photography has such power to inspire people?

I think when an animal looks you in the eye and you are faced with the reality that we are the reason that they are going extinct, that is incredibly sobering. When you look any animal in the eye (endangered or not) you are faced with the fact that they look different than us but they think and have emotions just like we do. I don't think it's human nature to want to hurt other living things - it's a learned behavior. If you put a child in a room with a carrot and a rabbit, they will pet the rabbit and eat the carrot, they will not tear the rabbit into pieces for food. I've never understood why our society chooses to knit sweaters for one species and then turns around and treats another with such horrific cruelty. The funny thing is many people who eat animals say "I love animals" when really what they mean is "I love certain animals, others I totally disregard that they are living, feeling creatures because I like how they taste." If people had to look all those animals in the eye, things would be different. I think if everyone had to kill the animals they eat or wear, we would have a lot more vegans and vegetarians on the planet!

 

ABOUT RACING EXTINCTION

 

Oscar®-winning director Louie Psihoyos (THE COVE) assembles a team of artists and activists on an undercover operation to expose the hidden world of endangered species and the race to protect them against mass extinction. Spanning the globe to infiltrate the world's most dangerous black markets and using high tech tactics to document the link between carbon emissions and species extinction, Racing Extinction reveals stunning, never-before seen images that truly change the way we see the world. The film is released on dvd on 28 March.

 

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