Exploring the Beauty Along the World's Coasts

Photographer offers collection of water images and stories.

coastline and walkway
Northern Scotland.

Elke Frotscher / "Coastlines: At the Water's Edge"

From tiny lakes and hidden coves to huge oceans and surging rivers, water is ever changing and fascinating.

Photographer and author Emily Nathan has always been intrigued by water and the environment surrounding it. First hooked on nature at a summer camp years ago, Nathan launched what started as a travel site and social community, Tiny Atlas Quarterly, which is now a much-larger travel brand.

Nathan’s first book, “My Tiny Atlas,” is a collection of travel photos from more than 130 photographers, filled with stories and tips for the armchair and real-life traveler.

In her latest offering, “Coastlines: At the Water’s Edge,” Nathan offers images and stories about shores and coastlines around the world. In addition to hundreds of travel photos, the book spotlights environmental issues that threaten these habitats, including coral bleaching, erosion, and plastic pollution.

Nathan spoke to Treehugger about her love of the water, growing awareness of environmental issues, and some of her most exciting moments on the coast.

(All images are reprinted from “Coastlines: At the Water’s Edge,” 2022, published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.)

rocky coastline
Waimea Canyon State Park, Kauai, Hawaii.

Emily Nathan / "Coastlines: At the Water's Edge"

Treehugger: Your first job was teaching sailing at a summer camp. How did that lead to your love of nature and photography?

Emily Nathan: Yes, my first job was in The Boat Cave at Interlochen [an arts camp in Michigan] in the basement of a performance hall on the waterfront of a tiny lake. The entrance to our office was a garage door that opened onto the lake. I loved that every day the water and surrounding environment was different; peaceful some days, then menacing with a squall. I experienced nature as always in transition and as a traveler at heart that felt familiar.

Travel and lifestyle photography is akin to sailing. The pursuit itself is the pleasure. The experience of sailing is the destination. It’s the pleasure, excitement, and surrender of moving with the wind. And similar to photography, when you’re sailing, you are not entirely adrift (usually). You are influencing the boat’s direction with your knowledge, skill, and actions. You start with open water before you and then you draw your lines. I felt the similarities in this visceral and visual way. Photography for me is about noticing and interpreting the world in visual images; you begin with whatever your eyes can see in front of you and move forward into the experience from there.

ocean and sky
Byron Bay, New South Wales, Australia.

Emily Nathan / "Coastlines: At the Water's Edge"

How did your focus turn to oceans and coastlines?

I have always loved the water and especially the sea. It feels embedded in our beings as humans. While I was selecting images for my first book, “My Tiny Atlas,” I had chosen way too many images of the ocean for the one chapter of that book focused on water. I made myself feel better when cutting out images I loved by saying that they would go into the next book, which I imagined would focus on water. This next book was imaginary at the time, until my literary agent Kate Woodrow from Present Perfect helped to make it a reality. 

lots of people in the water with boats
Matira Beach, Bora Bora, French Polynesia.

Shelley Strazis / "Coastlines: At the Water's Edge"

Spending that much time near the water, when did you start to become aware of issues like rising sea levels, plastic pollution, and coral bleaching?

Well, I taught sailing on a lake so there was not much in the way of rising sea levels. Nor was there plastic pollution or coral bleaching. I am also older than many in the Tiny Atlas audience (I’m in my 40s), so climate change didn’t feel as real to me when I was a kid. I remember my parents voting for Al Gore, learning about acid rain, and reading Rachel Carson in school. But at that time, I didn’t feel the existential dread that young people feel today. 

The past five to six years have changed my perspective and deepened my understanding of our environmental crisis. I work in travel. I get around. I see the beaches on Oahu covered with plastic trash. Walking on soft white sand covered with plastics and rope washed ashore on Hawaiian beaches but originating from fishing enterprises and pollution across the globe has an immediate impact that’s impossible for me to ignore.

In addition, through Tiny Atlas community networking, I’ve met and continue to meet environmental activists including Liz Clark, Meg Haywood Sullivan, and Tasha Van Zandt from "After Antarctica," as well as writers such as Charles Post and Juliet Kinsman, and creative business founders working to affect change Amanda Ho and David Leventhal from Regenerative Travel come to mind. These people inspire me and I learn so much from the work that they do. All of this has a powerful influence on my thinking. I watch and learn from the Tiny Atlas global community. I pay attention to the personal narratives within news headlines from my community.

Most critically and closer to my home in California, there is now a much longer and significantly more destructive fire season. Massive wildfires have destroyed expansive swaths of the state, including homes belonging to friends. I have photographed the rebuilding of communities (specifically the town of Paradise, which suffered a horrific fire) for a magazine a few years back. For weeks my son was unable to attend school due to dangerous air quality from smoke and toxic fumes. There is no looking away from climate change here.

icy coast
Kongsfjorden, Spitsbergen, Arctic Ocean, Norway.

Kim Goodwin / "Coastlines: At the Water's Edge"

What do you find so fascinating about photographing coasts and the water?

I love that water is always changing. I also believe human beings have a love for water and coastlines that is affected somehow on a cellular level.

What have been some of your most exciting moments?

I am very fortunate to have so many exciting moments, I’m not sure where to start. Let’s see, some special water moments: going for a quick surf in the Indian ocean in Tamil Nadu; swimming with fins while watching world class surfing at Teahupoo; hopping into crisp water in Lastovo with a group I brought to Croatia last fall; eating incredible fresh crab feasts on tiny islands in the San Juan Islands. Those are a few from Tiny Atlas.

coast with white house
Northern Scotland.

Elke Frotscher / "Coastlines: At the Water's Edge"

How do the coastlines change depending on season, location, and weather? Do they ever look the same?

Coastlines certainly change with these factors but what really changes with the seasons is our experience of them, right? We look up for leaves in the fall, we look deep underwater in the summer, we watch wild storms in winter. That and the light. As a photographer, light is what I always notice most. The light at a favorite local beach for example, Stinson, is so different in the summer than the winter even though the trees do not change. In summer the sun sets almost at 9 p.m. and is golden for hours wherein the winter the sun swings and dips quickly. 

What is the goal of your Tiny Atlas Quarterly project?

You are absolutely not supposed to ask that question (lol). Tiny Atlas started as a personal project and has really reshaped and transformed so many times over the past ten years. If I am honest, the goal was probably to travel the world taking pictures, sharing stories in the way I saw them instead of how clients wanted to tell them. The only difference in outcome from that seed desire I think is how many people I have brought along. Through the growth of the brand, I have been able to hire a bunch of photographers for projects, bring thousands of people together for photo shows, hundreds of people on trips with me, and millions of armchair travelers with us via media. There is so much more joy even in sharing the travels and the images with others.

water from the sky
Whitsunday Islands, Queensland, Australia.

Anita Brechbuhl / "Coastlines: At the Water's Edge"

What are some of your other favorite subjects in nature?

I love nature in general. I am drawn to plant life and landscapes. I love animals too but have never been a big fan of wildlife photography for some reason, though I’m a total sucker for cute animal videos.

What do you hope people will take away from your images?

I think my biggest impetus to travel is curiosity. I am endlessly curious about the people, places, languages, culture, art, and food of the world. I want to see it all myself, but no one can see everything. I am not a bucket list photographer. I don’t care about that. I care about getting out in the world and experiencing it. Some of my favorite shoots have been in California and places I didn’t even know existed in the state. There are so many more places in California I would love to explore; the more I see, the more I want to explore. I hope my curiosity translates on the page for viewers and that it sparks their own curiosity.

"Coastlines: At the Water's Edge" hit bookshelves in May 2022. It's available at bookshop.org or from other major retailers.