In ancient Greek mythology, the supernatural sea nymphs are referred to as Nereids (ne-reeds) and were believed to inhabit the oceans, representing everything that is beautiful about the sea. The Nereids were reputed to be the most beautiful and beguiling of the sea nymphs. Like all nymphs, the Nereids had the gift of prophecy and divination…
It all started on an unusually warm autumn day in 2013. The ocean had been flat for a number of days and the water clarity was exceptionally good for Sydney. Despite my passion for surfing, these flat spells often produce some of my favourite conditions for underwater photography; calm and clear, without the turbulence of the swell to stir up the sand.
I rang a friend of mine, Cookie, and asked if she wanted to come for a swim as I had an idea for a photograph of a girl in a very graceful, yet composed arch underwater. Cookie, along with being a gymnast, was exceptionally comfortable in the water so getting her to dive, hold her breath and pose would not present any problems.
The photographs came out well. In fact, two of them turned into regular sellers in my gallery. For someone who had never really had much interest in photographing people, I found myself with a new and exceptionally challenging idea to work on.
In July that year I was on a boat in Fiji and I saw a magazine on the table, the cover caught my attention. It was a photograph of a girl underwater in a very simple pose, but the framing and composition was extraordinary, turning a simple image into something worthy of being the feature image on a magazine cover.
On the flight back from Fiji I started sketching some ideas in my note book, ideas of underwater compositions, the hair, the length, the shape, the light. I started to get a little obsessive about the idea.
I knew that Sydney’s July temperatures meant I couldn’t contemplate asking girls to swim around in the ocean naked, the water temperature drops to around 17 degrees (sometimes less), making it cool in a full wetsuit, freezing in anything less.
Having to come up with another plan to keep my ideas moving, I hired a private, heated swimming pool and started testing a few different photographic techniques and also different models. I knew that eventually I was going to have to go somewhere where the water was warm and clear to finish the project.
Over the next two years I probably worked with around 20 different girls. I was travelling a lot to some of the world’s most amazing destinations, places like the Maldives, Fiji, Indonesia and PNG. On each trip I would ask one of the girls to come for a swim with me so I could photograph them. I often didn’t explain why, or that I had a much bigger plan, just that I was interested in photographing them.
It wasn’t until October 2015 that I met the girl that would be the perfect person to collaborate with for this series. I was photographing a commercial swimsuit campaign for a client from the UK and one of the models they booked was a tall, curvaceous and beautifully proportioned girl who mentioned she was a good swimmer, loved the ocean and used to play water polo, Lauren Vickers. I arranged to meet up with her a few weeks later, showed her some concept images and asked if she’d be interested in collaborating with me on a series of underwater nudes, she said yes. I booked a pool, constructed a reflective backdrop and a few weeks later we were in the water for our first test shoot.
That shoot was cut short by the weather and a few camera issues, however, we did manage to get two shots that were, in my mind, perfect. As soon as Lauren started posing for me underwater I knew we were onto something good. Not only could she hold her breath for a very decent length of time, her figure and shape underwater was amazing. No matter what pose I asked her to hold she was able to do it and the results were nothing short of epic.
I spoke with Lauren a bit more about the images I wanted to produce and the potential of doing an overseas trip. She had a window in her schedule late 2016. In the interim the weather had warmed up in Sydney so any available time when the seas, sun, tides and schedules would line up, Lauren and I would meet and go for a swim together. Photographing nudes in the middle of Sydney was something I thought could pose a challenge. As it turned out though, there are so many bays and reefs that we could very easily swim to and have the place to ourselves for an hour or so to photograph. I ended up choosing two images for this series that were taken in Sydney during this time. I’m really happy that Sydney’s amazing coastline was able to feature in the collection.
There was another reason for doing so many ‘test’ shoots in Sydney. I had already been impressed by Lauren’s skills in the water and as a model, but I was going to have to spend a week on a boat with her. Confined spaces can be heaven with the right mix of people, or it can turn into a very, very long week with the wrong people. We needed to get to know each other a bit better. It turns out Lauren is a superstar of a human and it was obvious there would be no personal issues at all. This may seem like a small detail, but I honestly believe that if you are not having a good time, you are not likely to produce good photographs.
It was at this point that I started seriously looking at overseas destinations to photograph the series. With September/October being our window, I had to choose somewhere that would have good weather at that time of year, clear, calm water, blue skies and plenty of sunshine. I also required an element of privacy, after all we were photographing nudes and you hardly want an audience for that. I looked into PNG, the Bahamas, British Virgin Islands and many islands in the Pacific before eventually settling on the Solomon’s. I had been to the Solomon Islands four times previously and knew it had the locations and water that I required. So I did the maths, took a deep breath then charted a 60ft catamaran with a captain and a chef then flew us all there for a week.
Then I hit a small snag, actually it was a pretty big snag. The boat and airfares had been booked and paid for and everything was set to go. I was out surfing one morning when I hit the bottom and my left foot planted while my entire body weight pushed over my knee and snapped my ACL. Three opinions all told me the same thing, I needed surgery. I had eight weeks before the trip, even though recovery time for this operation is 6-9 months. The surgeon and physiotherapist assured me that if I did everything they told me to they could have me ‘operable’ in the water for the trip. I would not be 100%, but I would be good enough to get it done. I took another deep breath and let them drill holes in my knee, cut a tendon out of my hamstring and graft it into my knee as a replacement ACL.
The surgeon gave me a list of things I would and would not be able to do. Firstly, I was not allowed anywhere near turbulent water (surf), the risk of re-injury was too high. No problem, everything I had planned was for calm water. Secondly I could not wear a fin on my left foot. WHAT?! How was I meant to dive, all day, every day (we averaged about 150 breath-hold dives a day) with only one fin? It seems that necessity is something that makes the impossible seem possible. I ordered myself a pair of webbed gloves. I looked very strange with one fin and one webbed glove (the other hand was for holding the camera) but it worked and I was able to get around pretty well underwater. In fact, many years ago when I used to teach SCUBA diving for a living, I taught a few people that were wheelchair bound. They only had the use of their arms underwater and often used webbed gloves. I figured if they could do it with SCUBA, I had no excuses not to be able to do it while performing shallow free dives.
On the flight to the Solomon Islands my knee swelled up. We arrived late in the evening and I was nervous if I was going to be able to do anything at all the next day. The chef, Luciana, gave me some ointment for reducing inflammation and I woke the next morning, stiff, but able to get on with the job at hand. By the end of the week swimming with one fin seemed as natural as if I had two. Sometimes the human brain amazes me when it fools the body into doing things it thought it couldn’t.
For the next seven days Lauren, Sherrie, my wife who came along as my assistant, and I spent all day, every day in the water. The weather was perfect and Captain Gav took us from one epic location to the next. Most days Gav showed us more than we dreamed possible, which resulted in a wider variety of images for the collection. Luciana kept us fed in spectacular fashion and Luna, the puppy, kept us entertained with her playful antics in between. Our evenings were spent watching the sunset, chatting, eating incredible food, then lying on the bow of the boat and watching for shooting stars until fatigue and too much time in the sun took over and we had to go to bed.
After each session in the water I would download the cards and have only the briefest look at the photographs. I knew we were getting what we wanted and the problem would not be ‘finding the right images’ it would be ‘whittling down the options’. As a photographer that is the best problem you could ever hope to have. There were many, many images that could have made it into this series, but I wanted each one to be special, magical and I hope that the 12 chosen capture the imagination of the viewer the same way the entire project took over my world until I had it complete.
Once the trip was over I had the task of processing the images. I tuned out to the world for a week and just locked into my computer. The only breaks I took were to go to the gym and physio for my knee rehab. I loved every minute of it. I’ve heard other photographers talk about this time as the part they dislike, but that is not the case for me. I get my headphones on, crank the music and get lost in a world of pixels and colour. I’ve been doing it since well before digital cameras (I used to scan slide film) and love the fact that it is a task that can never be mastered, there is always something new to learn.
To be honest the only difficult part came when I had to name the images, they spoke to me of something much more than the kinds of names I have given my photographs in the past. Lauren’s form underwater looked mythical, mystical and magical and I started doing a little research to find the names of sea goddesses. I found that in ancient Greek mythology, the supernatural sea nymphs, referred to as Nereids (nee reeds), were believed to inhabit the oceans and represent everything that is beautiful about the sea. They were the 50 daughters of Nereus and Doris and often accompanied Poseidon. The Nereids were reputed to be the most beautiful and beguiling of the sea nymphs. And so it was settled, I would name each of the images after one of the Nereids, giving each image a sense of myth and wonder. It was exactly what I was looking for and I hope you find the interpretation of each of the Nereids as an extension to the images they accompany.
For me, being able to work on projects like this is a blessing. Travel to a remote destination to produce something creative and then bring it back to show the world… this is where my passion truly lies. There is a word that not many people know – Autotelic. It means ‘of an activity or a creative work having an end or purpose in itself’. For me it is this word that best explains what I am trying to achieve. Like everyone else, I have to meet the demands of a modern existence, but creating a series of images purely as an artistic adventure is a beautiful thing. Of course I hope that the series is successful and many people love and connect with the images enough to hang them in their homes or offices. I plan to take this series further than I have with my previous work and have already been in discussion with several people about exhibiting the collection overseas. Either way, my sense of satisfaction is complete and I am already working on the next project.
Over the years I have always enjoyed the challenge of reinventing myself as a photographer. To produce the same kind of work over and over for 20 years is just not my journey. It does however seem that I always stay reasonably close to or in the ocean and that’s the way I like it…
Enjoy your day,