An image that can change a mindset is a good image. And Korean-born, North Carolina-raised pro photographer, Lia Barrett, has a serious knack for making onlookers look twice at her surreal compositions. Humans drifting, walking and seemingly breathing underwater – swapping terra firma for wet sand – is enough to engage an eye, and show how inextricably linked to the ocean we are. Past that, pilot whales scattering about the blue like loose marbles, deep-sea organisms hovering in what looks like deep space, and dramatic seascapes dwarfing divers, make up an impressive portfolio of images from across the globe.
UW360 Editor, Oliver Jarvis, caught up with Lia, to discuss her incredible career and images:
What made you want to become an underwater photographer?
Plagiarism really. I was into painting: In fact I was painting my bedroom walls, copying fish from one of Jacques Cousteau’s books (I didn’t even know who Jacques Cousteau was), and it was from studying these images, and subsequently those of David Doubilet and other pioneers, that led me into photography and more specifically, underwater photography.
Your first underwater shot?
My first underwater shot was in the Red Sea when I was 16 with a Nikonos V and a strobe. I think I got about five or six shots that I was pleased with from that trip and a lot of overexposed, clear images. It was a learning lesson I daresay in the need of an education.
The story behind your most memorable underwater shot?
Well… I’ll tell you about one, as there are several experiences and shots dear to me. I was photographing Alexey Molchanov, the “Deepest Man” in the world (129-metre Constant Weight freediving world record). We were in Angelita Cenote in Mexico. I had been planning this particular shot for perhaps several months, but you never sort of believe you’ll pull it off. My vision was to get a sunny day, so that the cenote opened up, for the visibility can be quite poor, and to have Alexey dive down and play in the tree that sticks out of the halocline. And after scouting the cenote and having a few dives on it that weren’t so good, it just happened that on the day that I actually had Alexey with me, the skies opened up, and the whole cavern seemed to emerge from the fog. Alexey did several dives lasting minutes on end, floating through the trees, exploring the false shore, and flying through the air. But for me, I am happy with this shot, for I really wanted to create a surreal but fully natural shot, and I feel that this image conveys those goals.
Where is your favourite dive destination?
This is tough, for I like different places for different reasons. If I have a world champ like Alexey Molchanov with me, then I’d have to say the cenotes of the Yucatán, for there are just so many possibilities. For someone like me who shoots a lot of people, the landscape seems to extend my imagination.
The site you’d most like to dive, but never have?
Well, if I weren’t pregnant at the moment, I’d be on my way to Bimini and Tiger Beach in February to hang with the hammers and tigers of the Bahamas. But life goal spots would be Antarctica, Norway, lakes in Russia, you know, all of those warm places!
What camera equipment are you currently using?
The same equipment that I’ve been using for the past several years: Canon EOS-5D Mark III in an Aquatica housing with Ikelite strobes. I’m not much of a gear junkie, and I’m a simpleton when it comes to anything fancy on my camera. It’s full manual for me.
What is the highlight of your career?
Being on the cover of the New York Times two days in a row.
What is the low point?
Being on the cover of the New York Times two days in a row. It was both a highlight and low point for the mere fact that the image was of a friend before he was about to die during a freediving competition. It was both a lifetime achievement and an utter hardship.
Have you any advice that you’d like to give aspiring underwater photographers?
The best way to learn and to get noticed is to befriend other photographers and to learn from them. I do really believe that people want to lift others up, and sharing your work and figuring out ways to improve is the best way you’re going to grow in your work.
Is there any particular shot that you still want to get?
Oh, sure! There are many. But I have to get over my fear of the cold before I can get anywhere near achieving some of the shots I have envisioned.