Image credit: Jennifer Hayes
While other kids his age were climbing trees and playing with battery-operated toy cars, the boy David Doubilet had other childhood interests. Curiosity, quirkiness and hunger for the world underneath could best describe the 12-year old New Yorker, who was lucky enough to peer into his own wonderland from such an early age.
It all started with summers spent in New Jersey in the enclave of Elberon. Exploring, diving and being mesmerised by the duality of land and water became daily activities synonymous with breathing fresh air. For others it may have been elusive to find their path in life so quickly, but for young Doubilet, the decision to pursue photography came instantaneously.
The magical realm of the depths rapidly turned into a territory where he simply felt at home. Seeing how light was transformed underwater and literally delving in emerald green and turquoise waters teeming with bejewelled creatures became a real allegory of beauty for the photographer. For many of us, this scenario can only be described as surreal, maybe even insane, but for Doubilet it was beauty, life, poetry and continued to be so for decades.
Renowned explorer Jacques Cousteau once said that “the sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.” Doubilet has been exploring the far corners of the world from the interior for decades, creating a visual ‘voice’ of what is happening underneath. His passion and wonder are unceasing.
From the shores of the Galapagos to the Red Sea, from the Pacific Ocean to the fresh waters of North America, from the Atlantic to the freezing waters of Antarctica, Doubilet has taken a hypnotic journey, revealing the beauty of water rich with life.
Today, Doubilet is known worldwide as an acclaimed underwater photographer and winner of various prestigious photography awards. He is also a diver, explorer, author and producer of more than 70 stories for National Geographic magazine, as well as several books, such as Fish Face, Pacific: An Undersea Journey and Water Light Time.
In Singapore for the inaugural National Geographic Live, Doubilet talked in-depth with Quotient about the greatest job in the world and shared his passion for underwater creatures and the beauty of the world.
Quotient: What’s a typical day in the life of David Doubilet?
Doubilet: There are no typical days in my life. Every day is different and that’s the most amazing thing about working as a photographer and a photojournalist for National Geographic. Home is about 200 days a year and on the road is about 100 days a year. If I am not on an assignment, I am off working on equipment or going down to the dock and having a dive. There are a lot of things that have to be done in the field. For every hour working underwater, there are three hours of preparations on the surface. The only routine at work is for preparations. The cameras have to be removed, the batteries have to be changed and charged and thoroughly checked. Sometimes, at the end of the day, we will be looking at the images and if we have any more strength, we’ll do some editing.
On an assignment, we’ll be in the water for anywhere from one hour to three hours every day and, doing around three or four dives. The better dives are at night, because all night creatures are coming out a couple of hours after sunset. The exciting part of these dives is that night creatures such as octopus and Moray eels are out hunting.
As a kid, your first photography tool to use underwater was a Brownie Hawkeye camera. Do you still remember the first image you captured and how did it inspire you to become one of the most celebrated underwater photographers in the world?
I was very excited to see the first pictures I took. I remember looking at them, but nothing was discernible, everything that I could remember, I couldn’t see. The Brownie Hawkeye was the first camera I used and then I went on from there and got an underwater camera, made by a company in Great Britain called Lewis Photo Marine. To get the right exposure I began to shoot only in black and white which gives you the ability to print the negative. That instantly taught me about light, printing, composition, without the burden of coloured photography and flash bulbs, as there were no underwater flashes at that time.
So is this what triggered your love for photography?
That was when I was about 14 or 15. By the time I was 15 years old I sold my first pictures and I knew that’s what I wanted to do. Sometimes in life you have a choice. Most people make that choice much later in life. I was very lucky, or maybe not so lucky to know exactly which direction I wanted to go.
How did your family react?
Oh, initially my father wanted me to be a doctor, but then he realised that I had no capacity to do that. I was terrible in math, I didn’t do well in school. Regardless of that, I had a great teacher who said “he should do what he wants to do, because he may be very good at it one day”. That was one of the lucky breaks I had in my life.
You’ve been photographing compelling ecosystems around the world for decades. Have you ever returned to a place to find it environmentally changed? How do climate changes impact your photography?
Almost every place we go, there is change. For the most part, what you see is change due to overfishing, due to climate change, due to storms, due to pollution. For climate change, we know it’s around the corner. But to photograph climate change especially in a coral reef system and make a picture that you know is going to be effective is difficult. It’s like photographing a child and saying what is he going to look like when he’s 7. You have an idea but you don’t know. In climate change we don’t know what a reef system is going to look like in 30 years or 100 years. We do know — and this is something the best reef scientists in the world are saying — that it is going to change, that it’s going to be different than the reef system we see now, and this is because of a lot of different reasons.
One reason is because we are having rising sea temperatures. After about 31°C, the algae and the corals are expelled and the coral dies [or] becomes bleached. Rising sea levels will cause a lot of destruction in the reef system. There are bigger storms, not as frequent but larger. And, of course, overfishing a reef basically destroys its natural balance. The vast amount of CO2 that’s been put in the water is changing the very basic chemistry of the ocean; it’s becoming more acidic. The reefs we see now are going be way different, not in a hundred years, not even in 50 years but in 30 years. To document, to photograph that, is difficult. This is very important to remember — the pictures we make now are documents of a time and a place that’s going to change, a document of a rich, unbelievable system that is going to change.
Equipment and technology have played a crucial role in the evolution of underwater photography over the years. But technology aside, how has your approach to photographing marine life evolved? How different is it from when you started?
Well, technology has changed, so what we can see in the digital world now are the results of an image that we’ve taken. In years of film cameras, when doing an assignment, I wouldn’t see a picture for as much as three months. So what I got, would have to be that shot, that moment then. I couldn’t fix it, I couldn’t change it. In digital photography we know exactly what we have that night, that moment, that second, and if we have to alter something, as much as an exposure or a place, we know it instantly. Technology has made professional photographers incredibly better, and amateur photographers doing work that professional photographers would take years to have done. It has cut the learning time in the world of underwater photography about 80%. It’s so much quicker and the pictures are so much better.
What’s your favourite subject to photograph?
I tend to end up making really nice pictures of turtles and seals. I haven’t really photographed whales. I like very small things, small creatures. I like seascapes. I have a strong affinity to seascapes — difficult pictures. The wide-angled pictures underwater are in many ways more difficult than the close-up pictures. They have to mean something. I [especially] like pictures that are half in and half out of the water. That’s my signature. It relates to the air world and the underwater world. It’s the molecular thin curtain that divides us; that becomes a very strong element in the image. They are compelling images because people are full of wonder, they say “my god, this is what it looks like, this is how it is below.”
For Jennifer (my partner) and I, the main drive in our lives is to open people’s eyes about the sea. As far as photographing, I am also a photojournalist, which means I have to tell stories. But a powerful image transcends that simple need of telling stories and goes farther. It has an ability to stand on its own and to communicate, or just to have an intense power. I want to make a picture that is surreal and has a dream-like quality to it, with a sense of light and an ability to last for a long time.
It’s only half a dozen pictures that we make in our lives that have that kind of power. And they do have power. They convince people. Pictures have power. They convince the unconvinced. They can humiliate. They can humble. They can illuminate.
It’s a business with a great deal of joy and it is one of the greatest jobs in the world, but the pressure to perform is always there. You always have to look for something new, something different, or a different way of seeing something that everybody sees. You have to communicate feelings. The difference between a still photograph and a motion picture, or a video, is the difference between the video being prose, and the photograph being poetry. The photograph has no sound, it has no movement, it has no smell, but everything in that photograph has to elude to all of these things, to make you feel the movement, feel the moment. And when it all comes together, it has the ability to truly affect memory. It’s been said that a motion picture or a video affects emotions, but a photograph affects memory.
Photography skills aside, what’s the next best quality of someone who closely interacts with marine life?
Patience. Humour. An ability to see the bizarre and the surreal. An ability to understand what we are looking at.
Can you give us an example of something extreme that happened underwater?
A lot of extreme things happened underwater. Sometimes it’s as simple as getting into the water with tiger sharks feeding on a sperm whale — something that doesn’t happen very often in a person’s life. And when that happens, it’s very exciting. You see these huge sharks gorging on the remains of a sperm whale, which once was a 12-metre long animal weighing a few tons. The water is full of the oil oozing out from the flesh of the whale, and you know that the oil is actually the accumulation of years of feeding and living and life. It’s more than blood. It’s more like the essence of the sperm whale.
How do you deal with fear in these circumstances?
I don’t know. I’m afraid of heights. I can’t stand changing a light bulb, yet I have no problem being in a helicopter with my gear and hanging out at 3,000 metres. I’m afraid of traffic, but I’ll get in front of a shark. Of course, when you are in the water and you feel there is a change of atmosphere, a change of pace, then you know to get out. It’s not a question of fear getting the best of you.
When you’re working, you’re always using the latest gadgets. Do you also use a point-and-shoot or even your smartphone to take pictures in your spare time? What pictures does David Doubilet have on his phone?
I’ve got a picture of Jennifer. I’ve got a picture of her house. I’ve got a picture of a piece of furniture we might buy. I’ve got a picture of the cat. I’ve got a picture of the other cat. I’ve got a picture of my daughter. Those are the most important pictures in life. They may not be the best pictures, but they are the most important. Our phones now are picture albums, which is dangerous. There is nothing wrong with printing paper and ink. That’s our future and that’s our past.