Stunning Underwater Portraits Capture Swimmers From Below

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Mark Tipple's Underwater Project

Australian documentary photographer Mark Tipple found surf photography boring. He was bored of the conventional and was as innovative angles like the helmet cam, so he decided to take a new approach. One day in 2009, he was caught by a large wave and pushed under the surface, and that's when inspiration hit. The result is "The Underwater Project," a series of stunning photos of surfers and swimmers in those turbulent moments when the waves are in control, the surface is out of reach and knowing where you are becomes a challenge rather than a given.

A Connection with the Water

Tipple is no stranger to the ocean. His father was a surfer and his brother is a marine biologist. Tipple's dream was to be successful enough as a surf photographer and filmmaker to fund his travels around the world. Using an underwater camera left over from a film he made about sharks, Tipple tried filming surfers from below. But it was the riders who had fallen from their boards who attracted his attention and sparked "The Underwater Project."

Capturing the Struggle for Life

In "The Submerged Lens," a piece about Tipple and his work, Daisy Dumas quotes the photographer: "I didn't know anything about these swimmers and suddenly I was seeing raw emotion, a struggle. The same wave can be beautiful and perfect and in a split second it can switch to end-of-the-world Armageddon-style violence."


Tipple titled the first photograph in the series "Escape," and he's had trouble topping his first great shot. "To this day," he writes, "it's as close to the images that I was chasing a decade ago."

An Auspicious Start

That's not to say he hasn't tried. To really get The Underwater Project going, Tipple set off to beaches in the South Australian desert with a friend whom he photographed surfing. Six hours of work produced only four photos that he kept in the final selection. From there, he moved on to photographing swimmers as well as surfers, year round.

Winter Seas

Shooting in the winter provided its own set of challenges. Colder water and rougher seas meant fewer potential models. Plus, the wetsuits of those in the ocean took away some of the vulnerability Tipple looks for in his photographs. The work is about the struggle for air and life, easier to see in someone in just a swimsuit.

Warlike Inspiration

Tipple's original inspiration was war photography. "I wanted to focus on the same raw emotion as the conflict photographs I had seen, to capture genuine expression; to see people being real," he told Dumas. "Usually, the camera's presence gets in the way, people don't forget the camera, they pose and feel self-conscious. However, over time or through a greater elemental presence than the camera, genuine emotion is unveiled, and poses are stripped away."

Fighting for the Ocean

Documenting the strength of the oceans led Tipple to see the great threats they face, threats posed by the actions of mankind. Dumas writes: "He soon saw the potential of using ocean photography as a call to arms, a merging of humanitarian concerns with the beauty of nature. 'I realized that humanitarian concerns can't be divorced from environmental ones -- they're one and the same.'"

A Call to Arms

In 2010, Tipple teamed up with social entrepreneur Nikki James to found Gallery for Justice, an effort that "bridges the gap between people with a mind for social justice and traditional print media." Tipple turned his lens to document the struggle of the impoverished populations of Jakarta, many of whom depend on the ocean for survival. Proceeds from the prints Tipple sells go toward helping these people.

Underwater Beauty

Sometimes the scenes captured by Tipple's lens are more about serenity than struggle. This shot, titled "Parachute," stresses the calm of the swimmers as the waves crash and roar just above him.

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