We take a look at the fantastic life and times of Lia Barrett:

Lia Barrett is a veritable dynamo of energy and talent. She is well known for her pictures of freedivers (the “super humans”), and, most controversially, for her picture of Nick Mavoli that made the front page of the New York Times when he died in a freediving record attempt. Lia has also explored the oceans’ depths in a homemade submarine, and given her creative mind a practical outlet with the launch of her clothing company, Prawno Apparel. We felt it was high time we pinned down the highly esteemed photo editor of DivePhotoGuide. com and found out a little more about what makes her tick, the inspiration behind her unique vision and where she developed her mad skills with the camera.

What got you into underwater photography?

You could say it was borderline plagiarism really. Many other photographers would say it was a love of the ocean, a want to contribute to conservation efforts, or a desire to unveil a serene world to those poor folks who spend their days with their feet chained to the ground. But no, I got into underwater photography because I was copying fish out of one of Jacques Cousteau’s books. Shamelessly and in the spirit of precision, I would copy them into pencil drawings, watercolours, and ultimately, an entire mural around the walls of my adolescent bedroom. And after a few years of doing this, I realised that I was more interested in creating the photographs than in making copies of them.

What inspires you?

A stranger on a plane, something I read in the news, other photographers, subliminal injections from popular culture I suppose. Motivated by a general ignorance of what we cannot see beneath the surface, I try to pinpoint things that make me stop and think, which in return trigger and satiate stimulation.

What was your biggest “breakthrough” moment in your development as an underwater photographer?

When I was 17, I went to the Red Sea. I was a new diver, fuelled by a naïve, pipe dream of an ambition to be an underwater photographer when I grew up. All that stood in my way was, well, knowing how to scuba dive, and knowing how to take photographs.

I literally knew absolutely nothing; I was going in blind as they say. What I did have was a Nikonos V, rolls of 36-exposure slide film, and a strobe. I was determined to make this work; I had to produce something. So I thought. Confused by the range of focus on the rangefinder camera, not knowing what the little numbers on the knobs meant – 60, 30, 15 – what does this mean? ISO what? 100 looks like a nice number. Not to mention I was, for at least the first few dives, that diver whose butt was mysteriously at the surface after 40 minutes, or whose fins were, ahem, sometimes making contact with the reef. I was that worst nightmare – a diver with a camera. And the most nervewracking part was that because I was shooting film, I had no idea what I was making.

And sure enough, when I got back to the US, picked up those freshly processed slides from the lab, my face dropped – so many black images, blurry images, and green images. And there were several of those little white boxes of disappointment.

But finally, that so-called breakthrough happened. I opened a box with beautiful, blue images, red soft corals, fish that were the colour I remembered. I must have either shot these before I started messing with settings, or mysteriously flipped the dials to a magical combination at some point in my experimentation. But what I realised were two things. One: I needed to become a better diver. And two: I needed to seriously take a photography course. I knew this was all possible; it would just take dedication and a lot of effort.

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Some of your images have a dream-like quality. What’s the story behind these surreal visions?

I would say that art school – studying art history and the great masters of surrealism, and even the Early Renaissance, notably Hieronymus Bosch and his triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, combined with a love of childhood fairy tales when I was growing up, is what has led to these sorts of visions. Also, creating something lush, otherworldly, or idyllic to me is symbolic of a place that you can get lost in, escape to, and perhaps lose yourself in. I am guessing that a lingering Peter Pan syndrome that I am still trying to shake, might also have something to do with these images.

What is it like being one of the few women shooting underwater professionally? What do you think would help to redress the gender balance in underwater photography?

Well, I think it’s great to be a female in this profession – and in life, really! There are most certainly a whole host of added challenges, but if you are persistent and assertive, there are eventually more opportunities to stand out from the stagnant pond of male photographers (sorry boys, some of you overthink technicality and sacrifice artistic sensibilities; not all, of course). But redressing this balance is multifaceted.

First of all, to the husbands out there, don’t just use your wife for her excess baggage, her patience, or her modelling skills. Encourage her to take part, get her involved, and perhaps photography is a challenge you can enjoy together. Secondly, editors need to start being more female-inclusive. To actively search for fresh talent, and to encourage promising abilities within the amateur photography community. And thirdly, mentorship, person-to-person critiques, and motivation are really important for building skills and confidence that are vital to pressing through a phase of intense learning and frustration that we all go through when we first pick up underwater photography. And finally, young divers. The pool of future shooters is endless, so arming young women and girls with interest or opportunity is a great way to bring more women into the professional world.

What is it about freedivers that you find so captivating?

Other than the obvious skill of holding one’s breath for a few minutes at depth, the fact that they are so mentally motivated wildly intrigues my attention-deficit-disordered brain. Or maybe it’s because I personally reserve my concentration for very few things, and when I try to do things like yoga or meditation, I am thinking about what I am going to eat for lunch, or, “Man, that cat-pushing-a-stroller meme was hilarious…” In short, I am in awe at their discipline, and feel that it translates into a physical presence in photographs.

Can you tell us a little about the controversy surrounding your picture of freediver Nicholas Mevoli?

Nicholas Mevoli becoming the first American to freedive below 100 meters to set a national record during the Caribbean Cup off of Roatan, Honduras in May 2013.

Nicholas Mevoli becoming the first American to freedive below 100 meters to set a national record during the Caribbean Cup off of Roatan, Honduras in May 2013.

Nicholas Mevoli was the US freediver who died in November at Vertical Blue, a competition in the Bahamas organised by William Trubridge, world record freediver. I was on assignment for the New York Times with the writer I work with, Adam Skolnick. When Nick’s fatal accident occurred, I was shooting from the platform where the freedivers surfaced. It is thought that Nick suffered from a severe lung squeeze, and shortly after he surfaced, he blacked out, and never regained consciousness.

His blackout occurred about 30 seconds after surfacing. In that time I was shooting as I would anyone who had just surfaced, even if they were struggling or were giving signs that a blackout was coming. Blackouts are a part of the sport – perhaps the side the freediving community is not partial to talking about. In his face, you could see that something was wrong; his expression was vacant, his teeth grimaced. In that moment of pause, I snapped several images, one of which appeared on the front page of the New York Times.

I knew it was a difficult image. You can read the distress of a person moments before death, a confronting and sobering reality for any human conscious of the brevity of our time on Earth. And while I knew this image was going to (and did) stir a storm of controversy, I somehow, after much soul searching, was glad this was the image chosen. There wasn’t anything sensational about the use – in fact it was one of the more tame images. It merely told the truth about a sport that needed to take a hard look at itself, its policies, and the medicine involved.

What is your next photographic challenge?

The challenge as a photographer, always, is to find new inspiration, new material, not just for your audience, but also for yourself to keep you motivated. I almost always have a series of upcoming trips and projects to work on. And with Prawno, my clothing company, the added challenge of creating new designs and seeking fresh material makes life extra interesting. But perhaps a little terra firma work is on the cards for the upcoming year. At least I hope!

This article featured in SD Through The Lens (Issue 4/2014)