What initially drew you toward the niche of conceptual underwater photography?
I’ve always had a great love for water. My siblings and I grew up on a yacht club and we could sail before we could ride a bike. Spending my time in or around water has always been second nature to me. Sadly I now hardly sail or ski anymore, but the water is still in my blood. During my studies I was drawn to concepts of flight and transformation and I kept trying to find ways to get my models off the ground. These concepts brought me back to looking at the inherent and often polar qualities of water – weightlessness, freedom and captivity, growth and suffocation, life and death. The only difference between these extremes is the situation or mind-set (be it spiritual or physical) of the individual involved. My personal work still carries some of these characteristics, but I have to admit that I sometimes get carried away with aesthetics. I am glad however, that it never takes too long before I return to what it is that drew me in the first place.
Given the chance would you also dabble in weightless airborne environments like those done by the Zero Gravity Corporation?
Absolutely! I can only imagine that it will come with a brand new set of challenges, but being able to breath and talk while shooting will be incredible! One of the reasons why I love shooting underwater so much is that I can plan every last detail just to see it take on a life of its own – disregarding my “instructions”. I become an observer rather than a creator. I can’t see it being any different in zero gravity.
The Bridal work is particularly enchanting. Have you had many actual brides photographed underwater?
I find that brides are still a little nervous when it comes to submerging their beautiful gowns, but yes, I have had a couple of real brides who were brave enough. I’m still working on a few series’ this winter and look forward to sharing them! The water is surprisingly gentle on the gowns, and what I love the most is seeing how my brides enjoy the experience. It’s worth it every time. I do use professional models for the underwater styled shoots, but because the water is so forgiving, people of any age can look vibrant and young underwater.
What kind of gear do you use for the underwater work?
I make use of a custom built housing and a Nikon D4, the same camera I use for my other photography work. It’s much larger than other DSLRs, which is why I had the housing built. I love its low light capabilities and my work has certainly been made easier because of it. Most of my work is shot with a 16mm fisheye lens, which is quite unconventional for underwater fashion photography due to the distortion, but I know my lens and my editing techniques have adapted to make the most of it. I make use of continuous lighting (above and/or underwater) for the most part as it’s one thing that I have complete control over and I love that.
Do you also have a lot of support crew? Can you identify the key roles of your support team?
It depends on the production. With larger productions such as styled shoots or advertising campaigns, I make use of a large team which normally involve two to four lighting and set assistants, a stylist, make up artist and safety diver (I free dive with my models). For smaller and personal shoots our team normally consist of myself, one or two assistants and if required, a make up artist. We do our private shoots in a shallow pool with the minimal amount of people, so the model is comfortable and not overwhelmed. Our setup is portable and can be built or broken down on set, so moving around is not a problem.
Obviously you need models with a very specific skill set. Do you find this limiting in exploring and developing concepts?
I do have a number of models that I really enjoy working with and that share the same passion for underwater photography as myself. They are extremely accommodating and love to try new things, so I don’t find it limiting, at least not for the moment. I have a great admiration for my models… I have tried to do what they do, but am quite terrible at it! Even my private clients seem to get the hang of it quickly, but I’m a hopeless case! The skill of the model will set the tone for the entire shoot, so I need to trust them to understand my vision for the shoot and while I have a core group of trusted models, I still love working with and training new models, after all it will certainly allow for more possibilities in the future.
Have you ever been faced with anything remotely precarious in your shoots?
We take a lot of safety precautions during our shoots and over time I have learned to become more and more sensitive to potential hazards, especially for the models involved. A few years ago, one of my models and I went shooting in a natural spring and I swam in between the lilies to shoot her through the leaves. The water was cold and it was towards the end of the shoot so we were both a bit tired. I do not make use of scuba or snorkeling gear because I like to stay in communication with my models, so for a short moment my fins got caught in the vines and I couldn’t come back up. A good hard kick broke the vines and we had a good, albeit slightly nervous, chuckle about if afterwards.
What are the physical demands on yourself for shooting underwater?
I prefer not to wear a wetsuit whenever I can; I find it very restrictive – possibly because I don’t have a very comfortable one at the moment! Long hours in the pool while setting up and doing tests can be quite taxing and I often leave the pool at the end of the session with cold and numb hands. I do not have a pool of my own yet, so we cannot always shoot in heated pools. Not wearing a wetsuit also helps me to better understand what the model experiences and helps to regulate the duration of the shoot. Due to the fact that I do not make use of scuba equipment, I also have to hold my breath for long periods of time. This part can get pretty hard when my fitness level is not up to scratch… Luckily it ensures a very good night’s rest after a session!
How crowded (or rare) is the niche for conceptual underwater photography?
Because it’s so specific by nature, the moment it’s not rare anymore, it’ll be crowded. At the moment it is fast becoming a common sight all over the world, but as photographers keep pushing the boundaries there will hopefully always be something exciting to look forward to. It’s a constant reminder not to stagnate in our craft.
Can you walk us through your typical editing process?
There is a lot of editing involved in creating a good underwater fashion image. Standards are constantly getting higher, so it’s a bit of a battle to keep up…! I upload the raw files and run each image through a first batch edit to correct lens distortion and white balance and then prep it for a second batch edit where I clean the image of stray bubbles, unattractive folds in the fabric and basically build the image up to how I want it to be. Depending on what I have in mind – as well as the shooting conditions, this process can take up to several hours per image.
I am a full time photographer, living near- and working in Johannesburg, South Africa. I studied visual art at the University of South Africa and it was only during my studies that I started to consider taking up photography. I‘ve always been a painter and illustrator and while I still love doing it in my free time, photography is now my main means of expression. While a large part of my work involves documentary styled weddings, I started shooting underwater three and a half years ago. My underwater work typically involves commercial, bridal and fashion shoots as well as personal conceptual pieces. I have always been attracted to surreal imagery and I believe that photography as a medium lends a kind of realism to some of these ‘fantasies’, allowing it to exist in closer relationship to the viewer. I like that it suggests the possibility of an unseen truth. Shooting underwater seemed like the logical next step to finding a balance between the surreal world and my own reality…
To me, water is a symbolic birthing place. I can attempt to control it, but it has a life of its own. It becomes like another dimension, dreamlike, unreal, yet deep-rooted in our being. As an artist, I want to explore it as a symbol that nurtures the psyche, be it positive or negative. The characters often seem to evolve or deteriorate. I wouldn’t like to remove this aspect of my shooting, the surprise of the change appeals too much to me.
I’ve also been very fortunate to work with some amazing South African and international designers, models, creative teams and magazine editors.
See more of Ilse’s work here: