Shooting the excavation of ancient shipwrecks is all in a day’s work for this passionate underwater archaeologist. (Text & images by Susannah H. Snowden-Smith)
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 journey began when I was 11 years old, studying a segment on oceanography in my sixth grade science class. Buried within the book were two short pages on underwater archaeology. Upon reading them, I decided then and there that that was “what I was going to be when I grow up”!
I began gathering the pieces I would need. I earned my Open Water certification during high school in 10-centimetre visibility off New York City. To practise underwater photography, I burned through rolls of film shooting fluorescent orange golf balls in the local pool using my first “real” camera, a Sea&Sea Motormarine 35mm. In college, I majored in anthropology with a focus on archaeology and a minor in art history. My goal was to work with the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA).
I solicited advice, wrote emails, made inquiries… The persistence paid off. One evening I got the call: “Would you like to come to Egypt to excavate and photograph a shipwreck?“ My life’s dream was coming true!
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.