I hover above the ancient marble column about 45 metres below the surface of the Mediterranean Sea. Holding my underwater camera housing in one hand, I use the other to direct my dive model through the azure water. The photograph I have visualised in my mind’s eye, and meticulously planned, comes together. I lift the camera and click the shutter. Two thousand years ago a Roman ship sank, lost and forgotten off the coast of Turkey. Today, I am here to photograph its excavation.
My role on the excavation is to create “sexy” underwater images both for publication, and to help raise funds for the excavation. Once a significant artefact is found, I work out a plan to shoot it. I’ll conceive an image, then choose from the photographic tools in my arsenal to capture it. (Sometimes I make what I need on the fly, such as the snoot I crafted in Sri Lanka from a soda bottle, duct tape and black marker.) If models are involved, I’ll sketch the shot and we’ll thoroughly discuss the photograph on the surface. Time and communication underwater are limited; the more that is hashed out ahead of time, the smoother the shoot will go. We dive in shifts, so to reduce the likelihood of backscatter, I usually go first. Descending onto an ancient artefact, knowing that the last person who touched it lived thousands of years ago, sends a chill down my spine!
To date, I’ve worked as the photographer on five underwater excavations around the world: Sri Lanka for the ship from the 2nd century BC carrying a load of heavy iron that likely caused its demise; Egypt for the 18th-century Ottoman wreck, its impressive wooden hull not yet devoured by shipworms; Spain for the 7th-century BC Phoenician shipwreck, its trade goods spilled along a gentle underwater slope; Turkey for both a Roman wreck carrying an entire column in sections, and a Bronze Age wreck.
They’re glamorous shipwrecks, but it’s demanding work with long days and sacrifices. I’ve lived for weeks at a time on a cramped sailboat with 15 other archaeologists and one working toilet. I’ve Skyped with my dentist in the States while seeking emergency dental care in Turkey. I’ve survived on a diet of chickpeas and Snickers bars. I’ve lived without creature comforts in pursuit of the ultimate shot. In short, I am living my dream and it is amazing!