Interviews

The underwater photographer

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The oceanic world is full of surprises, and Alastair Pollock has captured them since he was 10 years old. The Sydney-based underwater photographer has produced images from some of the most exotic marine environments, such as Australia, Indonesia, Fiji, the Philippines and the Bahamas, and has featured in a range of international publications. He talks to us about what makes a good photographer, the threats to our marine ecosystems, and what it is like diving with sharks. 

 

First of all, how did you get into underwater photography?

I started shooting underwater as a child with cheap disposable underwater film cameras. I managed to shoot a few sharks and a manta ray when I was around 10. Needless to say, these photos weren’t very good, but I still have them.

What is for you the most fascinating aspect about doing this?

I live on the beach in Sydney; I’m in the ocean every day all year round, either swimming, surfing or taking photos. I seek out any opportunity to be in the ocean. Being in the water with large marine animals gives me an enormous amount of joy. As a small child I spent hours looking at pictures of sharks and whales in my favourite books. Every time I get in the water with these animals I feel like I’m living out my childhood dreams.

Having the camera allows you to capture the moment forever. It also creates a challenge that I enjoy, above just sight-seeing underwater. When I have an encounter with something interesting, I always try to make sure I enjoy the moment, rather than spend the whole time looking through the viewfinder of my camera.

What are the key qualities of a good underwater photographer? 

They are similar to those that make a good above-water photographer, with the addition of being a good diver. Macro photography in particular can require strong diving skills to ensure the reef is not damaged. Managing light is more challenging underwater, compared with above-water photography. I think most good photographers have something of an obsessive nature, which allows them to commit the hours required to improve.

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In what kind of areas do you prefer to work?

Indonesia is my favourite dive location. The biodiversity is phenomenal, the people are lovely and the food is amazing.  For photographing small creatures, there is no better place in the world. The huge number of islands provides an almost endless number of diving opportunities. However, the environment in most of Indonesia is far from pristine, and it is unfortunately relatively rare to see big fish and sharks.

You appear to get very close to your subjects, such as great white sharks. Isn’t this dangerous? 

My great white shark shots are from a cage, the rest of my shark photos are without a cage. The risks associated with shark diving are often significantly overblown. However, diving with some large sharks – such as great white, tiger, bull, great hammerhead, oceanic whitetip – requires an appreciation that there is some risk that requires safety precautions to be strictly adhered to.

Cameras and strobes often attract sharks that are in close proximity – I have many tiger and lemon shark bite marks on my camera housing and strobes. At some dive locations you therefore need to be very aware of what is happening around you – and behind you.

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Have you ever been in trouble down in the deep?

I have never been in serious trouble. Underwater photography can be a distracting exercise, but I try to keep a close eye on my instruments. It is more common for underwater photographers to cause trouble, through being too focused on ‘getting the shot’ and not focused enough on looking after the reef.

How do you react to the news of things such as oil spills, waste dumping and toxic chemicals being released into the oceans?

Like most people, I find it very distressing to see the large-scale destruction of marine environments. Most countries – including most of the developed world – have unsustainable fisheries practices. The dire situation for pacific bluefin tuna is particularly concerning. The decimated population of these fish – down 96 per cent – is leading to astronomical market prices due to their rarity. In January 2013, a single pacific bluefin tuna fetched $1.76million (£1.15million) in a Tokyo fish auction. These high market prices in turn drive the remaining population to be aggressively targeted by fishing fleets.

Sharks also represent an area of great concern. We can all make some contribution here when we see it on the menu to make it clear to the restaurateur that serving shark fin is unacceptable – shark fin soup is still commonplace on the menu in Sydney’s Chinese in Sydney. Excellent work is being done by a variety of groups including the Australian Marine Conservation Society and the Pew Charitable Trusts to support the conservation of sharks, but more needs to be done.

– See more of Alastair’s photography at http://www.alastairpollock.com/

Photos: Allastair Pollock.

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