I've always wanted to do underwater photography, but it's often costly or the equipment isn't great and makes one super nervous about putting their camera underwater. When I picked up this Vox feature about Jowan Qupty, a Palestinian swimmer working on the Israeli Olympic team, I knew I finally had the chance to make it happen.
Qupty is a really great guy. I showed up to practice about three or four times to photograph him practicing and interacting with his teammates. Of course, because he was being singled out, he got a lot of teasing from coaches and teammates, but was ultra cool about me being there. He gave me all the access I wanted — though I didn't even try to go in the locker room — and was really not camera shy. It's probably because this isn't the first time he's dealt with the media, though.
Because this was a Vox shoot, I knew it needed some art direction and I couldn't just rely solely on documentary photos because of the cover. Not surprisingly, Jowan was completely chill about being directed for these shots too, in not one but two sessions.
For the underwater portraits, I knew a lot of the story was going to be about two facets — his training for the breaststroke at the Olympics and his being an Arab on an Israeli team. I had some ideas running around in my head about how to conceptualize this and ran them across Qupty. He was the most flexible model ever and was all for it — a photographer's dream.
Timmy Huynh, the Vox photo editor, helped me immensely on this shoot. We initially were going to shoot in the Tiger Grotto because I thought there would be some nice natural light in there, but the water was too shallow and the sides of the pool were white. I wanted blue really, really bad. So we put our bathing suits on and went to the MU Aquatic Center's diving pool.
I bought hard plastic fish tank a few days before. It's important that the tank was plastic, because it was more lightweight and also because glass is rarely allowed in a swimming pool. I had some grandiose ideas about handles being added to the tank and things like that to protect the camera, but Brian Kratzer, the Missouri Director of Photography, assured me that just a fish tank would be enough. Of course, he was right. The buoyancy of the water against the tank was a lot of protection in an of itself.
We were shooting in the diving pool, which at its deepest is 18 feet deep. I felt completely uncomfortable treading water with a fish tank with my camera inside it — both because I couldn't imagine treading water for 45 minutes and because I'm an uncoordinated mess. But what worked out really well is sitting on the side of the pool. Timmy would push the tank down to the level I desired, fighting against the buoyancy, and I would stick my arm in the tank and shoot away as he was doing that. It was really a two-person job.
A lot of the shooting was spraying and praying, as the tank was submerged in the water and I was still on land, hairstyle intact. Thank god for digital, amiright? We had some focusing issues, too, but used manual focus on a few if Jowan was to stay at the same plane of focus as when we were shooting.
We did four different ideas for the cover. Naturally, I had him swim breaststroke toward me, since that's his stroke. Then, I had him float fluidly underwater for a few seconds while I took a wider shot (it was Qupty's idea to blow a bunch of bubbles. Love him). Then, I had him swim down to the bottom of the 18-foot pool and swim up at me while I shot through the bottom of the tank (those didn't work as well). Lastly, I had Jowan jump off the diving board and plunge into the water feet-first like a pencil then swim back up in the same spot, which is the shot we had for the cover.
It was really fun doing all of these pictures, and not just the underwater ones. Qupty was completely easy and fluid to work with, which made the shoot just so much easier. Make sure you check out the fantastic story in Vox, and also the finished cover, designed by Stef Kienstra.