Underwater photographer and director Zena Holloway developed a passion for SCUBA diving and photography at the young age of 18. Working as a diving instructor, she began her journey taking shots with an inexpensive underwater camera her mother had bought her as a gift. Zena began experimenting with the scenes she could capture with her camera. She gradually taught herself the skills needed to master one of the most technically challenging photographic techniques. Yet for her, water came first, the photography second.
Her images are breathtaking, with a hint of fluid spontaneity. Sometimes ethereal and magical, her work spans both commercial and fine art with ease. Distinct creative direction in each of her editorials result in imagery evocative of mystical fairytales or a suspended reality frozen in time.
Her award winning video and still credits include GQ, Vogue, Schon, Tatler, Speedo, Greenpeace, Nike, George Jensen, Sony, Mastercard, Elle Style Awards, Herbal Essences, and Kylie Minogue. Not only has her work decorated the pages and covers of magazine around the world, but her prints can be found gracing the lobbies of Trump Tower.
Going Deep: Interviews with an Underwater Photographer
How it all began:
My first camera was a little yellow underwater Motor Marine, made by Sea & Sea, which looked far more like a children’s toy than a camera. My mother bought if for me for my 18th birthday present when I was working abroad in Egypt as a SCUBA dive guide. From there I swatted up on underwater photography with a few books that I found lying around the diving centre and I taught myself the basics of shooting underwater. I seem to remember getting it wrong a lot of the time at the start but slowly the pictures improved and I learned how to measure light and what made a good image. My first great subject was a blue spotted ray who kindly sat for me for about 20 minutes as I fumbled with the settings. I still have the pictures.
By the time I was 20 I’d already been a SCUBA instructor for a couple of years and always looking for the next challenge I applied for a job as an underwater videographer. My new roll involved dashing around dive sights capturing tourists on their diving holidays. Looking back, it was a fabulous position to get and I spent nearly 2 years working the boats, diving solo and making 3 dives a day – every day. I spent so much time underwater that the diving became instinctive and really just another mode of transport like driving to work every morning. I remember regularly just hanging around underwater, alone and feeling mesmerised by the beauty and excitement of perhaps seeing a huge pelagic creature swim by. I like solitary, open spaces and the ocean environment is nothing but that. From here on I was certain I wanted to work underwater behind a camera but I wasn’t sure if this would be with wildlife, moving or still cameras. At 21, I returned to the UK and spent the next few years getting by as a freelance diver and film camera assistant or clapper loader. On the side I set up some very basic underwater photography shoots of my own and somehow managed to scoop a small commission from Fabergé. From here on my course was set, I found an agent and looked to establish myself as a commercial underwater photographer.
Inspiration – where does it come from?
One of the great things about working solely underwater is that I can pull references from all sorts of sources, and once applied to an underwater environment the results take on their own direction. On an editorial shoot where creativity is allowed to evolve, and the water plays its part, there are lots of opportunities to create something different. The trick is to recognize when the accidental process is going in a good direction and when a different approach is needed. The more references I start with, the more ideas I find to move the work forward.
I’m always happiest with concepts that come from collaborating with other people. I rely strongly on creative directors and stylists to push me down paths that I might not naturally go. I enjoy the thrill of being out of my comfort zone.
I usually find there’s a state of mind in the middle of being awake and asleep where I have lots of good ideas. The trouble is remembering them the next morning.
I’m not sure if it would be shooting skeletons and buried treasure in Uruguay; race horses in the Caribbean Sea; dogs underwater for Pedigree; great whites in South Africa; Kylie Minogue in East London or a shoot for Quintessentially magazine with an anaconda and various snappy crocodiles.
Retouch – Boundaries?
The whole retouch thing is part of the process of creating the work. Sometimes images need little more than color balancing, and sometimes clients ask for a complete rebuild. I’m not a great lover of massive retouching but whatever works is fine with me, and nothing is out of bounds.
I don’t have a degree. At 18 I had a place to study architecture at university, but at the last minute went on a SCUBA holiday to Egypt and decided to stay on and become a dive guide. I then worked the boats, became a SCUBA instructor, and the photography grew from there.
If I had it again I would have gone to art school to get a better grounding creatively and grow quicker. I’m self-taught, so at times it’s been a vertical learning curve, and some support would have been a wonderful thing. However, maybe that was part of the process of getting here?
Anyway, Thank God I didn’t do the Architecture degree.
No doubt Zena Holloway’s work will continue to grow and inspire. We will definitely be holding our breath in anticipation for what she comes up with next.
Until Next Time . . .
Stay Inspired ~ Jules
CREDITS: All images and interview excerpts have been provided by the artist. Photographs by Zena Holloway are copyrighted and have been used with permission for SLR Lounge. Do not copy, modify or re-post this article or images without express permission from SLR Lounge and the artist.