As a diver first and photographer second, what is it about the water that gets you up in the morning?
ZH: Water brings the mystery and magic to my work. For some reason, many people express themselves in an incredibly natural, intuitive way when they’re underwater, becoming perfect subjects for telling stories through body language. I try to tap into this space between myth and reality.
Photographing models, celebs and advertisements underwater must be pretty hectic at times as things can go wrong and unplanned problems can occur. Looking back on your work, if you’ve had a major thing go wrong, how did you solve the problem and how did you feel during the process? Did it affect your work at all?
ZH: The worst kind of problem beyond everything is crappy water. Fortunately I have a number of locations that I can rely on to be warm and most importantly clear however turning up for a shoot and being faced with pea green soup to work in is so demoralising. Theres never a quick fix and to continue with the shoot often means the results won’t be technically good enough to use anyway. I once had a commercial shoot which needed to be rescheduled, thankfully the insurance covered the extra costs and the client was very understanding.
Do you think being self-taught has brought a lot of challenges for you not only in terms of the photographic side of things but the business side of things as well? Working as a photographer is one thing but being able to manage a business is another.
ZH: Being self taught has certainly been a vertical learning curve at times although I think it was necessary for me to reach the place I m at now. It forced me to develop my own style which may not have happened if the path had been different. The business side of things is something that has taken me a couple of decades to feel comfortable with. For the bigger jobs I hire a freelance producer to manage the budgets. Its work that I loath.
Have you tried other art forms and if so, what skills have you brought over to it?
ZH: Not sure if its classified as an art form but I love poking around flea markets, finding objects that have had another life and repurposing them – either as a prop in a shoot or something to furnish the house. I recently collected a vintage megaphone that used to be fixed to a wall at a circus. Its aluminium, 1.25m high and is going to make the most wonderful underwater platform for a model some day or a channel to direct a stream of bubbles…. I’m not sure yet.
What kind of ‘headspace’ do you need to be in to create your work? Do you use your creative work as a way to release your energy for the day and if so, what do you do to relax? (As I imagine you’d be always on the go!).
ZH: I don’t get nearly as much headspace as I would like. I have 3 kids of school age so I’ve learned to juggle and I plate spin quite nicely. My best time for creative thinking and problem solving usually occurs around 5am when the house is quiet. Relaxation is a large glass of wine and a great film – sadly also not as often as I would like!
You also have done several commissions. Can you tell us about the brief behind the Shangri-La advertisement, how that was adapted to the way you work and what you found most challenging about the shoot?
ZH: Shangri-La was an excellent commission to work on. I was approached by an AD in Hong Kong who had this beautiful concept of a woman floating in a pool looking out onto the horizon of Taipei. Shangri-La had just opened a new hotel in Taipei with a roof top pool so it was perfect for the client to tell the story and a wonderfully imaginative image to create. The budget wasn’t super but that is often the way these things go. I fell in love with the brief and forfeited my fee to put towards production costs for the shoot. I’m really pleased that I did as the shoot was the touchstone for a couple of other projects that have come my way.
(Fun question) The Queen has decided she would like her next portrait underwater. How would that photography shoot go do you think and what would you do, how would you approach the brief?
ZH: Ha! That’s hilarious! Naturally I would approach it with the utmost professionalism and keep my ideas confidential!
(Thought question) As we’re over fishing our seas and in Australia the Great Barrier Reef is becoming bleached from rising water temperatures, how would you convey the message of “save our oceans” or “save our planet” in a photograph in your style?
ZH: A few years ago I was commissioned to shoot a “Save our Sharks” campaign for Greenpeace. It shows the roll of the diver in a cage reversed with the roll of a great white.
I support https://350.org/ Its a movement rising from the bottom up all over the world, to unite people to campaign for a better climate for everyone. Its an easy way to lend a voice to petitioning industry and government for change.