Green Talk is a blog series featuring interviews with people working in environmental science, circular design, sustainability and green business by

MP. Who are you and what do you? 
Zena. I work as a photographic artist, using water to create visual stories that connect us to nature and our environment. 

MP. How did you get in to underwater photography?
Zena. At 18 years old I’d had enough of sitting in a classroom and went out looking for adventure. Travelling on a whim, I ended up in Egypt and realized that it was possible to make ends meet as a SCUBA instructor. I qualified and spent a year in Egypt before moving to the Caribbean.

Breathing underwater became a regular part of everyday life. It became so familiar and common place that I gave it no more thought than I would to jumping in a car. Every waking moment spun around being underwater. In the water I’d found the adventure I’d been looking for and it was a time when the reefs were full of fish, the corals were unbleached and you could dive without being surrounded by plastic.

For my 19th birthday my mum gave me a small, yellow underwater camera. There wasn’t really anyone around to show me how it worked so I picked up the instruction manual and found a dusty old underwater photography book, with a foreword by David Doubilet, and taught myself the basics of underwater photography. Back then we were filling cameras with film so my efforts were a roller coaster of success and failure – mostly the latter. 

 

“Back then we were filling cameras with film so my efforts were a roller coaster of success and failure – mostly the latter. 

MP. Tell about your experiences as a commercial diver.
Zena. In 1995 I returned to the UK to try to become an underwater photographer. It was a very brave (and somewhat naïve) idea because there wasn’t anyone else doing it at the time. I was just 21 years old and I applied for a commercial diving ticket so I could work in the UK. My experience meant I was able to fast track through the certification process. I arrived at the training camp in Scotland and was swiftly instructed to don a full-face helmet, jump off a ship (with no fins) and do up a nut and bolt at 30 meters. I was the only female in a camp of at least 50 older guys. I think they were secretly waiting for me to fail … but I walked away with the qualification and my pride still intact.

As a commercial diver I travelled to South Africa to shoot Great Whites for the BBC and in Uruguay I worked in the River Plate with buried skeletons and sunken treasure. I went to Zanzibar to film octopus spear fishermen for National Geographic and in Tunisia we filmed some very deep wrecks. Since then the gigs have trickled in to allow me to work with Olympians, sports personalities, singers and songwriters, as well as new-born babies and indigenous peoples. I shoot commercials for advertising agencies, exhibit at galleries and work on new photographic stories – particularly local environmental concepts that interest me.

“As a commercial diver I travelled to South Africa to shoot Great Whites for the BBC and in Uruguay I worked in the River Plate with buried skeletons and sunken treasure. I went to Zanzibar to film octopus spear fishermen for National Geographic and in Tunisia we filmed some very deep wrecks.

 

MP. What is your earliest memory interacting with the natural world?
Zena. I must have been about 6 years old; we used to play with the frogs and tadpoles at a pond near my house. There was a beautiful, old willow tree beside the pond that the bravest kids would climb. If you made it to the top you could poke your head out of the canopy and see for miles and miles across London. Heights aren’t my thing and when I eventually sat up there, higher than the leaves, I distinctly remember thinking the experience looked more fun from the ground.

MP. What is the most rewarding thing about your work?

Zena. In the beginning it was the sense of wonder and adventure that I found underwater. Nowadays I get a lot of satisfaction from the making process and the challenge of finding narrative in images.

MP. Tell about the locations you have shot in.
Zena. I was recently invited to shoot in the Cenotes of in the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico. All water is ancient but the water you find there really feels like it comes from the stars. 

The Ring of Cenotes were created sixty-six million years ago when a colossal asteroid struck Earth. The impact was so powerful that it left behind a crater 180 kilometers across, liquidised the Earth’s crust and brought about climate change that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. The rivers now flow, deep underground through limestone rock that has, in places, collapsed to leave remarkable caverns. I spent a week exploring these caverns with a team of water-loving freedivers. The contrast between the dark caves and the bright rays of sunlight make these rivers amongst the most beautiful freshwater formations in the world.

MP. What do you feel and see when you dive underwater?
Zena. I never get tired of the weightlessness and freedom of being surrounded by water. 

But it’s not just me, modern science has revealed a lot about the subconscious effects of water on our mental and physical well-being. We are programmed to seek, locate, detect and situate ourselves relative to water. It’s the reason why we all flock to the beach or swimming pool for holidays and why we go to great lengths to bring water features into our cities. It’s why waterfront properties maintain a premium value and more than likely it’s the reason why blue is the most popular colour by x3 or x4 times. 
Academics tells us that our emotional response to being near and around water comes from the oldest parts of our brain; a part that evolved even before language. Our ancient ancestors came out of the water and evolved from swimming to crawling to walking. Human foetuses still have “gill-slit” structures in the early stages of development and at four weeks old the human embryo grows fins first not feet. At five weeks old the heart of an embryo only has two chambers which is a characteristic shared by fish and human blood has a chemical composition that’s surprisingly similar to the ocean; its salty. The thing is we’re more closely connected to water and the oceans than most people would suspect and when we surround ourselves with water it changes our understanding and our consciousness of our place on the planet.

 

“The thing is we’re more closely connected to water and the oceans than most people would suspect and when we surround ourselves with water it changes our understanding and our consciousness of our place on the planet.

 

MP. What do the oceans mean to you?
Zena. The oceans used to represent an escape, a space to disappear in; but less so now. There’s no getting away from human impact, even underwater. In my lifetime I’ve seen the quality of our oceans decline. The Anthropocene is a scary reality and with words like drought, melting ice caps, flood, rising sea levels and ocean acidification I often think that water is the face of climate change. 

Our oceans, lakes and waterways are the lifeblood of our planet and increasingly, they are being shaped by human processes. I see water as a bridge between us and the natural world. Capturing this connection is what informs the images I create. 

MP. How does a perfect day look like to you?
Zena. My perfect day is time to myself in the garden. I’ve recently become interested in bio design and the material revolution. It’s a movement involving scientists, artists and designers, working to integrate organic processes into modern living and creating new organic materials to build and design with. 

I’ve been playing about with mycellium and growing it on different substrates for a year. So far I’ve only grown mushrooms that have made it to the dinner table but working with the roots of plants has been more productive. With help from St. Andrews University I’m hoping to create a coral sculpture, grown just from roots in the year ahead. I just need a few more perfect days in the garden to make it happen….