Thoughts on underwater nature photography

This year I´ve been chosen by the german Gesellschaft Deutscher Tierfotografen organization to join the international panel of judges of the GDT European Wildlife Photographer of the Year, one of the most renowned nature photo competitions in the world. As part of such a great honor and responsibility, talented photographer Werner Bollman wrote a nice interview in the GDT Magazine, I reproduce here in english.

Within the last two decades, I have entered many times in some of the most relevant photo contests of my gender, and quite often I was intrigued about the judging process. Thus, I hope this can give participants at least a few clues on my criteria, which helps to dispel the cloud inherent to such “secretive and ambiguous mystery”.

Angel, when did you start underwater photography?

 Sensu stricto, I started shooting underwater with a Nikonos IV in the late eighties. Prior to this, I spent many years shooting in aquariums, and even using tanks to put my old Pentax K1000 in, and then submerge that bulky stuff in very shallow tidal pools to capture my first underwater images in the wild. Now I see how useful in life can be having poor resources, lessons I still have to put in practice today

What came first – an interest in the natural world or photography?

 It was the fascination for nature of course. I specially will always remember when at four, my grandfather show me the first underwater view through the glass of a diving mask just floating on a shallow pool by the sea. That was a decisive imprint. Later, I found in photography the vehicle to canalize that passion.

What are in your opinion the most fascinating aspects about underwater photography?

In my opinion, working photography underwater does not differ much from doing it on land. There are of course some differences, but most of them do not really affect the photographic process itself. Choosing underwater is thus a matter of personal taste. Honestly, I am not sure why I specialized in underwater. I guess it was a mixture of things, including the facts I was born by the sea, my innate love for aquatic life, and most likely too my natural inclination to discretion, silence and solitude, which drove me straight to look for answers below the surface.

You’ve worked in marine habitats as well as in freshwater ecosystems. Are there essential differences in both kinds of photography?

 Main differences are leeches!. Now seriously, I found no significant difference other than some technical aspects affecting your buoyancy and some optical features. However, I admit a special attraction for freshwater environments, since there is still a lot of work to be done, and also because the destruction countdown is running even faster there.

You have a very certain style, combining documentation and aesthetic aspects perfectly. Was that from the very beginning or did you develop your personal style over the years?

It is certainly overwhelming you see a clear style on my work, since I guess I could exhaust my lifetime trying to find it. In any case, remains true trying to blend art and science is the workhorse I always keep in mind when developing ideas and carrying them out in the field. In my opinion, a nice picture is only half a picture if there is no story to tell. I´m still thinking there must be some intention in photography, other than plain fun or aesthetics.

What constitutes a perfect image in your opinion?

I think we just start approaching to that concept, when technical criteria are not enough to explain what the image communicates by itself. In our days, seems to be a tendency to overrate technical aspects to the detriment of the ideas behind the shot. It also exist a natural tendency to dissect and explain everything, but photography is the art of communicate feelings.

What is more relevant to you, a perfect single image or a story?

 It depends on the context, but I am more naturally prone to storytelling. I like working a single thing from different angles, so I can get a wider, more objective, perspective on the subject. Nothing different than in other aspects of my life.

Imagine you would not have become a wildlife photographer – what else could have been your profession?

 I have done many things in my life until reaching this. None of them, including the most unpleasant, have been in vain. I strongly believe is not what you do to make your living, but what you are to yourself. Going right to your question, whatever I would have done in another life, it would have been near the water.

Are there photographers who have influenced your photography?

 Of course there are photographers I love, but there are also painters, singers, and an endless list of ordinary people who influence me everyday. Inspiration is a magic which hides just around every corner, and photography is nothing but the sum of all your personal life walks.

You are very committed in ecological topics and many of your projects deal with the exploitation of the marine resources. How do you estimate the power of images in terms of nature conservation?

As visual animals we are, it is out of any doubt a proper management of imagery plays a key role on conservation. In this sense, it is not the power of the images itself, but also your skills to make them visible to others. Right or wrong, in our days a successful photographer is that who can manage to put their images at the right place, on the right moment. You might argue this has nothing to do with photography, and I could agree, but the new schemes are changing the old ways. Unfortunately, I am not one of those gifted with outstanding marketing and social abilities, but I keep on trying it.

You are a wildlife photographer and naturalist as well. Would you say that your scientific knowledge is an important basis of your photographic work?

 In my case, I would say it is decisive. All of my work flow from a deep reverence to nature, and in a certain sense my photography is just a sort of “collateral damage” I have found to justify my living. I spend a huge amount of time thinking on my subjects, making research, and studying the better ways to approach them in advance, all in order to enhance the features I want to remark to endow personality to the animals, and thus provoking a response on human viewers, which is my ultimate goal. This is the photography I believe in, the old style. Luck may exists, but I still haven´t found it…

Your last book – “Tanganyika – Africa’s Inland Sea” – is about the underwater wildlife of Lake Tanganyika. Was it very difficult to realize such a great project in Central Africa?

It was truly challenging to me. I started working there in 2003 after leaving my work as a commercial diver in an offshore fish farm. Then, I was virtually unemployed and I decided to invest my scarce resources on establishing as a full-time professional photographer once for all, after more than ten years as part-time worker. That was my first international trip, and I just had 1000 euro for a five-week trip working alone in a remote part of Africa. Obviously, I paid the foolishness with no minor taxes. A snake biting, a few days illegally arrested, and a severe infection on my right arm, were just a few of them, but it worths the effort…ten years later. Then, other expeditions to the lake came with different degree of success, but all of them fruitful on the maturing process needed to develop new photographic and personal challenges in the complex Africa´s heart.

Do you work on new projects at the moment?

 I am right now developing a new book on that amazing lake, as well as taking part on a BBC Natural History Unit TV production at there.
At the same time, I am also trying to find support for an ambitious project on my beloved Mediterranean sea, where I have built almost all my career. And of course, my daily work on new (and old) subjects, writing stories, and living, which is quite enough to be a professional photographer today.


Smiling to Survive

Embracing an objective standpoint, it is a fact that all living forms have exactly the same biological and evolutionary value. However, even when humans evolved as part of Earth’s living systems, nature became a mere adaptation feature to us while striving to survive, and we avoided empathizing with our environment and other living creatures in the midst of our pragmatic existence.
This natural display of events was inherent to the primordial needs of the human race in a balanced scenario, which was constituted along millions of years. Nowadays, when its balance has already been dangerously broken, humans seem to perpetuate such emotional slant toward a decimated nature.

In a wide scope, even conservation seems to have an anthropocentric manufacture, linked to human emotions and conditioned to benefits that are suitable to be wisely extracted from our environment and the living beings inhabiting it. We have proven that without emotional or material benefits, there’s no conservation. It’s as simple as that. A high level of human despotism or indifference is involved and still prevails over nature’s features and living beings that don’t provide us with some kind of material or emotional satisfaction. A significant number of animals and plants are being effectively protected based on the sympathetic feelings they evoke or how profitable they are. In contrast, there are records of hundreds of species threatened and extinct because of human neglecting, ignorance or antipathy.
Being terrestrial mammals, humans are naturally more identified with creatures inhabiting mainland, including mammals, reptiles and birds, even invertebrates. That’s probably why we can identify ourselves with their physical expressions related to fear, pain, relaxation or warning. We interact with them in a face-to-face mode, just as we do within our own specie. That’s how we’ve learned to understand them more, hence our empathy to them. This doesn’t necessarily generate a big difference on the way we react or the decisions we make to support nature’s conservancy, but it helps.

Ocean denizens are mostly fish and other equally expressionless crowd of cold-blooded creatures, which are utterly unable to display their feelings, intentions or needs by means other than their locomotive actions. A narrow state of mind would prevent humans from getting emotionally involved in aquatic creatures’ feelings.

Photography has the power to endow fishes with attributes we humans can recognize as our own, and thus generate feelings.

Photography has the power to endow fishes with attributes we humans can recognize as our own, and thus generate feelings.

Just as many terrestrial species, fish facial area has evolved to enable them to feed on meals of particular nature, as well as to have a visual efficiency within the range of luminosity where they live. Their face may also serve to display their gender or social status, even to hide, blending with their surroundings by means of camouflage. But a fish face hasn’t evolved to display emotions we are able to understand and feel empathy for. To worsen things out, aquatic life is naturally out of sight, and still remains inaccessible to a great majority of humans. This fact greatly hinders any chance of a fluent communication or understanding of marine creatures.

Panic, is likely the most difficult sense to be captured on fishes.

Panic, is likely the most difficult sense to be captured on fishes.

In the context of ocean life, sharks provide an excellent example of this thesis. Within the last two decades, recreational diving boom helped spreading the word around the globe about the majesty and gentleness of these magnificent creatures, changing the perception of people about their threatening nature. Nevertheless, we may wonder about the real reasons behind the sudden bloom of initiatives established to protect some species of sharks. Are these reasons truly based on the proclaimed human kindness? Or perhaps there are hidden material interests? Whatever the reason is, at least some species of sharks are receiving some degree of benefit from their expanded popularity due to a touristic business.
And what about the rest of the marine creatures, humbly coexisting in a shy, quiet fashion style, dancing through the currents with rhythmical movements, individually or in hypnotizing shoals, peacefully surviving their polluted, impacted habitats and massive fishing? And what about people who is not involved in SCUBA diving activities or remains indifferent to aquatic habitats, or people who still considers sharks as man-eaters?
Even if new reinforced laws to protect sharks are issued, what will they feed on if the non-protected species of fish and marine invertebrates they pray on, become decimated by massive fisheries and pollution generated by all of us, including all shark lovers.
At the end of the line, the question that lies underneath all the others is, why do we care for nature? In the long term, there is a more dangerous risk on “selling” ocean conservation on the basis of any kind of commercial benefit or personal glory, even when they are well intended. Attitudes such as avarice and vanity, have led the ocean to the present alarming situation.

As long as we only care for nature because of the value it holds for us, whatever it is, the battle to conserve it, is lost. A true conservation revolution should involve a deep change on the way our collective mind as human beings conceives it, even if this implies contradicting our own nature.

An adult male of blenny Salaria pavo shows up from his nesting hole: a brick´s cell. He is not really smiling, even though it looks like. In case the species were threatened of extinction, this could probably be its most powerful argument to be protected, since there is no commercial value on these funny fishes.

An adult male of blenny Salaria pavo shows up from his nesting hole: a brick´s cell. He is not really smiling, even though it looks like. In case the species were threatened of extinction, this could probably be its most powerful argument to be protected, since there is no commercial value on these funny fishes.

There is a fleeting spark of soul hidden in every single living being, even behind the inexpressive eyes of all those millions of unsung sea creatures, unaware of media flashlights and a lucrative touristic industry. Sensible nature photography and storytelling have the magic to disclose sea denizens’ inner spirits and reflect them right onto people’s hearts, where the source of all the feelings, powerful enough to change the world, lies.

© Angel M. Fitor & Teresa Castañeda.

Life Recycles

Sea shells may represent one of the most beautiful metaphors on the tight relationship between living beings and their environment. During evolution, sea snails learnt to use the salts dissolved in the water to build up a self-made shelter to protect their fragile soft bodies. They learnt to use water to create stone, doubtless a source of inspiration for human intellect since we met first sea shells on the beach, millions of years ago.

Burrowing sequence of snail Semicassis undulata.

Burrowing sequence of snail Semicassis undulata.

Semicassis undulata is a mid-sized snail inhabiting Mediterranean and NE Atlantic waters. It is a burrowing species which spend most of the daytime hours lying beneath the sand, just waiting for the darkness to leave its tomb to forage on the sand surface in search for edible matter. Since they are not exposed to algae colonization, and their shells are well sanded during their underground movements, their empty shells are always found untouched, smooth and shiny over the sand. But without the support of its fleshy creator, shells start to erode and dissolve to bring back the sea the salts the snail borrowed during its lifetime. This decomposition process takes time, a precious time too long indeed to be wasted. There is a large list of creatures that can take advantage of such casual shelters in the middle of the hostile underwater sand plains. Thus, for some crabs, worms, octopuses and fishes, an encounter with an empty shell in the open sand may be the difference between life and death.

A juvenile octopus hides inside an empty S. undulata shell.

A juvenile octopus hides inside an empty S. undulata shell.

Beyond shell´s temporary usage by any particular critter, their disintegration contributes to the creation of the sand itself. That same sand that will provide a home to the snail´s offspring, an environment to an entire sand-dwelling biological community, and a beach to us. A cycle of life in which we are all involved.
Maybe because of the huge history packed in a small snail armor, whispers of the sea can be heard inside sea shells…

Underwater view of a beach at sundown.

Underwater view of a beach at sundown.

Sensual Sea Stars

Sea stars are some of the most charismatic denizens of the seas. Behind the poetry of their bizarre pentaradial symmetry, hides a sophisticated creature more related to us than we could suspect. And beyond their interesting biology, a 5:1 close up view of their surfaces reveals a suggestive world of shapes and patterns able to stimulate our more intimate imagination.

Here is a short sample of my in progress story on the erotica of sea stars.

A cameraless photographer

I guess I have somehow been photographer and naturalist since I become aware of myself, in the mid 70´s. During many years I had to stock my frustration for not being able accessing the expensive world of UW photography (both because of my age and resources) in a sort of potential energy which then corroded me inside. Paying my first diving certification at fifteen by selling self harvested guppies (an aquarium fish),  falsifying my father´s signature because of the minimum legal age issue (16), and keeping the secret, it was quite challenging. During those years I dreamed on having my first diving certification and my own UW photo equipment to, in point of fact, start my career, besides taking pictures in aquariums with my fifth-hand Pentax K1000, I found in drawing and painting the way to release a part of all that creative energy and fascination for nature I had inside.  It was hard, but I am still asking myself what would have happened if things would have been easier. Now, all those “lost years”, are showing their true reason of being and I have learnt how important in life is stocking potential energy…

Here´s a few of those personal youth treasures drawn between eight to fourteen.

Tropical aquarium plants

Marine angelfish species

Two mediterranean gastropods

Home Shelly Home

The house

Neothauma tanganyicense is a much common snail in Lake Tanganyika. It is a burrowing species which lies just underneath the sand filtering the plankton-rich lake´s water.

The owner

But its real abundance only turns evident when they die. Then, when no muscle power keep them burrowed, the currents take empty shells out of the sand and pile them at some places in great numbers. After millions of years, the shell fields became really huge. Opposite to most other aquatic environments, at Tanganyika shells are not dissolved by organic acids, on the contrary, today endless square miles of lake bottom, hundreds of meter thick, are literally made of shells cemented by the precipitation of the carbonates from the hard lake water. This unusual feature invented one of the most fantastic underwater habitats on Earth: the shell beds, a true wonder of nature only present at lake Tanganyika.

Million years of shells.

If shell beds would had appeared at some other place, it would most likely had been just another freak of nature, but lake Tanganyika is the realm of one of the most amazing fish families on the Planet: the cichlids. These fishes show an extraordinary capability to adapt to new situations and to take profit of them, and to do it fast, very fast indeed.

Neolamprologus callipterus, the shell stealer, is the only obligate shell-dwelling cichlid whose males are too big to enter the shell, but there is a reason: they use their size and power to carry the shells with a female inside.

At such alignment of evolution coincidences, about two dozen Tanganyika cichlid species have linked their lives to the shells by miniaturization, since a two inches long house, can only be entered by lilliputians.

Some uses them only during their juvenile stages, but others have specialized to the point of being inseparable for life. The evolutive cichlid miniaturization process have much to do indeed with a process called neoteny, that is, retaining juvenile features on the adult stage. So most likely, today´s true shell dwelling cichlids´ ancestors simply started entering the shells as juveniles looking for shelter, until natural selection did the rest in order to take advantage of such new habitat.

Neolamprologus meeli fry showing up to the outside world by the very first time.

Within the shelly realm, every species have evolved a particular way of life. Social species living in large colonies, in pairs or solitary; species living exclusively on densest beds, others living exclusively on solitary shells; species burrowing their shells vertically, others horizontally; laying eggs inside the shell, others doing it on its external surface.

Neolamprologus brevis is the only species in which male (above) and female (below) live together on a single shell. Size difference may have evolved to fit into shell spiral.

A magical nano ecosystem performing a sort of living graveyard show at deepest, oldest lake in Africa.

Life recycles itself.

Into the Lair

Blennies are some of the most popular citizens all over the seas. When there is nothing to see there out of the blue, some blenny is waiting for you somewhere down among the rocks. However, for most people they are just small funny faces showing up from seafloor´s crevices; secondary actors in the magnificent ocean´s movie. But in fact behind these comic visages, blennies, as well as all the rest of smaller creatures in the ocean, use to hide an unexpectedly amazing secret life worthy to the deepest admiration.

Male Tompot blenny portrayed in a conventional way while guarding his nesting hole.

In this sense, while renains true by protecting big animals we are granting a certain degree of protection to the entire ecosystem, we should not forget smaller creatures do have exactly the same real biological value, and do occupy exactly the same level of importance in the living heritage on planet Earth than famous actors do.

Going back in the story, it is much challenging having a look inside a blenny´s lair, simply because they use to choose single-entrance holes the same diameter of their own bodies, so normally nothing can enter the nest once the fish is fitted in. After more than two decades of observation, in February 2011 I had the extraordinary opportunity to witness the intimacy of a blenny inside its lair for the first time in my life during one of my photographic surveys at one of my usual working spots in the Mediterranean.

Inside a Tompot blenny´s lair.

I found an adult male Tompot blenny (Parablennius gattorugine) showing up from his hole on a solitary stone on a shallow bottom, nothing specially strange by then, since the species is much common in this area. But that particular fish had his coloration much enhanced, which immediately captured my attention since, at a water temperature of 15º C, it was a little soon to find breeding males at that area. A further inspection of the stone would reveal the true surprise: the unusual configuration of the hole he had chosen to establish his loving quarters. Instead having one single entrance as they normally do, that refuge had two apertures placed nearly perpendicular one each other, thus performing a sort of double-entrance L-shaped tunnel in the rock. That natural set up was going to allow me having a look at the intimacy of a blenny´s lair, and equally important, enabling me to portray such wonderful scene by lighting from one hole, while framing trough the other. Since these males guard their clutches during weeks, and I checked out he was guarding different clutches at different developing stages, I had no hurry, so that day, despite my excitement, I did not took any picture. Instead of it, I invested a four-hour dive just to carefully watch and fully understand what was going on there, which will enable me to think carefully what kind of photographic approach I wanted to perform within the following days on.

The so-called endoscopic lens coupled to a small self-made optic fiber lighting device, allowed me to portray the internal walls of the lair fully covered by eggs from different spawns.

This included an excellent opportunity to test my recently purchased endoscopic lens, which at that time seemed perfectly shaped to document such scene from a totally new point of view to visually enrich the story. During the entire week I spent with that extraordinary fish I was able to observe the development of his offspring inside the eggs, witnessing how he cleaned the eggs by beating his fins over them to avoid fungus infections and grant them the right oxygen supply, and attending to the violence he displayed every time any other fish approached to his domains. A plethora of amazing behaviours nearly impossible to observe in bigger and most famous marine animals due the dimensions of their habitats and their natural shyness. Once more, I got poisoned with the venom of fascination which keeps me permanently linked to nature.

Soft movements of male´s tail to clean and oxygenate the eggs.

A collateral risk in mediatizing the ocean, specially since recreational diving became a mass industry, is that of misunderstanding the seas as a huge theme park where going to de-stress from our urban madness by simply paying a fee; as one more consumer product. A dangerous game since true conservation will never be achieved unless we understand the true value of nature. So next time you go diving, take much care where you put both your fins and mind on. You may be damaging a treasure inside the lair of a miniaturized version of a turtle, a shark, or a whale.

Showing up to the backdoor.

Smoking Under the Waves

An adult Parablennius zvonimiri male in breeding dress showing up from his nesting hole just a couple of meters beneath the breaking waves. This particular specimen was hidden in a hole on the walls of a rock chimney created by erosion near the surge.

The structure basement was open down at seafloor level some five meters deep, and it was wide enough to allow me to enter and dive up to the top level just beneath the surf to inspect its internal walls, a favourite place for this kind of blennies. At the top, there was just a small hole which opened to the air time. Definitely a nice home to avoid predators and grant some intimacy.

Despite working on a calm day, I had to use several climbing friends to anchor myself to the right place for portraying this male, since working with a so-called endoscopic lens at such difficult place required a much stable set up to be able composing and focusing. During the hours I spent inside that chimney I had to hold tight my mask and regulator now and then to avoid being washed out by the power of tons of water getting in and out of the cave. Despite the fixations I used, I had to tense all of my muscles to the limit each time a wave passed through. Sometimes becoming blind for a short time because of the millions of tiny bubbles bathing all of my body as if I was inside a washing machine. Meanwhile that gallant orange fish the length of a credit card was there as if nothing happened, getting in and out his hole, picking up some food from the surroundings, courting females and rejecting rival males. Relaxing while smoking a cigarette just under the waves, while reminding me one more time how small I am in front of even the tiniest sea creature, and why I have chosen this profitless but wonderful living I couldn´t live without.

You Sexy Thing

Seastars are certainly not much sensual. Not unless you take a closer look underneath. While searching for subjects to a photo essay on sensuality at ocean´s creatures, I came across this somehow volcanic scene of the ambulacra of a seastar (Echinaster sepositus). Ambulacral feet are part of the exclusive locomotion system of all echinoderms; the visible part of a sort of intricate internal network of channels filled with pressurized sea water which they control to contract and expand these suggestive translucent feet. They could have easily been indeed the inspiration to the abyssal alien civilization on Cameron´s movie The Abyss (1989): a culture which learnt to control water as if a living being were. So, in my mind, I found many seductive connotations on shooting this subject, including the fact that the scene you are watching was originally taken upside down the way I have displayed it here, and also that the entire frame (uncropped) represents just 7 mm. of the reality, something I achieved by reversing a wide-angle lens on extension tubes. So eroticism, a sci-fi movie and an extreme macro technique mostly used on land photography were involved on this image with a story to be told beyond its beauty.

So near, so far

Marine life is an endless source of vivid examples of contrast. Sometimes natural cohabitation offers suggestive views of two living beings as distant on their biological lineages, as close on the moment´s poetry. On the images, as a shadow of a red bright beadlet anemone (Actinia echina) wide opened just beneath the surface while waiting for prey, a black sea urchin (Arbacia lixula) grazes on the algae covering the rock just under the cnidarian. The magic of photography shows the anemone as a spiny animal, just like the sea urchin is, but in fact it is its jelly body filled with pressurized water what performs the illusion. The specific latin name of the anemone, echina, means indeed “spiny” referring to its turgid appeal while submersed. Thus, anemone and oursin, softness and hardness, red and black, light and shadow, and finally, reality and illusion, meet all together on this humble little story happened today on a hidden corner of the sea.