Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Q&A #3 Toledo Blade photographer and diver Andy Morrison: Shooting ship wrecks in the depth of the Great Lakes

The Eber Ward sits in 140 feet of water on the Lake Michigan side of the Straits of Mackinac. The ship is a highlight of the Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Preserve.

Andy Morrison shoots a self portrait as he swims with the fishes at Gilboa, Ohio.
Andy Morrison
      There's an understood theory amongst photojournalists that we all need personal photo stories/projects/hobbies to help keep us motivated.
    Some choose long-story documentaries, while others like Instagram.
    Whatever it is, our own personal photo projects help us escape from the drudgery of daily assignments. Our own projects also allows us to control our content; allows us to follow our hearts; inspires us to shoot topics that interests us all the time.
    For this month's Q&A, I spotlighted Toledo Blade photojournalist Andy Morrison, who is gaining quite an impressive reputation for shooting ship wrecks in the Great Lakes.
    I've always been impressed with his nature photography, but it's his diving photography that really fascinates me... maybe because diving into the depths of pitch black water scares the hell out of me!
    He recently had a Toledo Blade magazine page dedicated to a recent ice dive in Lake Erie. This photo page, published March 2, prompted me to ask Andy the following questions:

Q: How and when did you get into underwater photography?
A: I was certified to dive in 2000, and wanted a hobby away from my daily job as a photojournalist. I quickly realized I needed a camera to show friends all the cool things I was seeing underwater. Diving helped me discover I'm not comfortable being without a camera no matter where I am. I had my first story published in 2006 and have been a regular contributor to diving magazines since. I mostly work with a writing partner but have written some of my own stories.
Q: What led you to specialize in ship wreck photography around the Great Lakes?
Divers explore the Dunderberg, 155' deep in Lake Huron near Harbor Beach, MI.

A: Location was a big factor initially. It's easier and cheaper to dive the Great Lakes than the Galapagos Islands. So I started diving here, and just fell in love with the beauty and history of shipwrecks and Great Lakes maritime history in general. We have world class shipwrecks in beautiful locations. I'd rather be diving in 40 degree water in Canada's Bruce Peninsula or Michigan's Upper Peninsula than 80 degree water anywhere else in the world. I'm a sucker for fresh water, shipwrecks and birch trees, I guess.
Q: Is there a different shooting philosophy to underwater storytelling compared to top side (above water) photography?
A: Yes and no. I'm still trying to tell a story, but it's often much harder to tell. I can't shoot reactively as much as I do topside. The water makes all of my movements in slow motion. At 200 feet I may only have 15 to 20 minutes to explore and get my shots, whereas at 30 feet I could have more than an hour. Either way, my time is limited by my air supply and decompression factors. So there is much more planning involved with my dive buddy. But generally I try to shoot overalls, portraits and details like I do for any assignment.
Q: Have you ever been injured or nearly harmed on a dive?
A: I suffered a decompression-related illness after a dive in Lake Huron once that required three treatments in a re-compression chamber in Detroit. I did a total of 17 1/2 hours in the chamber over the course of three days. It's something I hope I never have to do again. We traced the cause to an overexertion post-dive from moving my gear from the boat, so I'm pretty careful now what I do after I dive.
Q: What kind of equipment do you use?
A: I use Canon DSLR cameras in a Subal housing with multiple Ikelite strobes and various other items for shooting. As a technical rated diver, meaning I sometimes do mixed-gas diving with required decompression, my gear is suited for that. My standard life support is a drysuit, double 95 cubic inch tanks, Dive Rite backplate and wing for buoyancy and Poseidon regulators to deliver my breathing gas. It's an expensive hobby, no doubt.
Q: What advice do you have for people who want to get into this underwater niche?
Andy and his camera equipment in Key Largo, Fla. (Photo by Tim Grollimund)
A: Learn to be a proficient diver first. Shooting in a fluid environment where humans don't belong takes above average dive skills. Staying alive is priority No. 1. Anyone can fall off a boat and sink to the bottom. Coming home is the hard part. So get good training before taking a camera underwater. Then practice in your local quarries with the camera to be comfortable with the housing and managing the task loading that underwater photography requires. There are different skill sets required for an underwater photographer. It's best to find a mentor if possible. I have many diving mentors who have helped me over the years.
Q: I've seen some of your diving photos, and I have to admit that the darkness, silence and claustrophobic conditions were terrifying. How do you handle it?
A: It all goes back to training. I train in the conditions I dive in so I get used to it. And I don't dive in conditions where I'm not relatively comfortable with the situation. I've had scary moments but I always revert back to my mantra - "if I'm breathing I'm okay." Our water is dark and cold compared to tropical locations, so Great Lakes divers tend to be comfortable diving anywhere in the world. The reverse is not always true. If you go to Mexico, for example, and boat captains learn you are a Great Lakes diver, they realize you probably know what you are doing.
    I tend to be a bit claustrophobic, but usually in large crowds where the nois,e as much as anything else, makes me want to bug out. The silence underwater is my favorite part. It's just me and the sound of my breathing. It's very Zen-like and relaxing. It's the quietest place on earth and I crave that silence. In fact, I hear from a lot of divers who claim to be claustrophobic that they don't feel that way underwater.
Andy shuttling gear back to shore on an ice diving trip on Lake Erie near Colchester, Ontario. (Photo by Rich Synowiec)

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