Capturing both the ocean’s volatility and its tranquil side, photographer Kanoa Zimmerman has charted many faces of the deep blue, from surfers gliding on the waves above to the predators and vast terrain below. Raised on Kauai and formally trained at New York’s New School and Santa Barbara’s Brooks Institute, Zimmerman regards himself less as observer than participant, a resident of a universe that exists underneath the surface.
Having fallen under the spell of work by the photographer Wayne Levin – “a marine biologist type, a kind of Jaques Cousteau character” – Zimmerman not only began shooting with film rather than digital, but also on black and white. For Kanoa, the change revolutionised his view of the submerged world. “It was a totally different approach and made much more interesting imagery, [where] you’re only seeing the tones.”
Freedive, Zimmerman’s most recent project, focuses on the participants of spearfishing expeditions, divers who go deep fuelled by only lungfuls of air. The images span underwater landscapes form Texas, where free-diving is a perilous leisure pursuit, to Fiji, where it’s an occupation and a way of making a living. The lack of breathing gear isn’t for show – it’s for predatory advantage, enabling the fishermen to glide silently as they ascend and descend. Kanoa captures this feeling of liquid slow motion in an otherworldly terrain with love. “After all,” he says, “(it is) where I feel very comfortable. I grew up close to the ocean.”
Victory Journal: How did the Freedive project begin?
Kanoa Zimmerman: Most of Freedive was shot down in northeast Fiji. It’s a remote place, but I was able to get access because a friend I grew up with in Hawaii spent a lot of his childhood there. He lived in a little village and learned how to fish using the traditional methods that the Fijians taught him. When we were kids, he would tell us these stories about how he caught huge fish with throwing spears, and we thought he was making it up. We didn’t know what to believe. Eventually I got to go down to Fiji with him, in 2005. That’s where I saw the potential of the imagery, the variety of sea life, the clarity of the water and the amazing structure of different reefs. Four years later, I went back and shot this series.
VJ:When you started going on theses missions, was nature itself already a major subject for you?
Kanoa Zimmerman: It was an interest: to see the different fish and how they behave, the way [the hunters] draw them in and dive down for different fish. The friends I was with were there to fish. It was a liitle dark, in a sense, because there are a lot fish being slaughtered, but not [on] a commercial fishing scale. Spearfishing is their livelihood. We’d go out to these uninhabited, remote areas and set up a camp with generators and freezers, and fill them. When [the refrigerators are] full, they’d take them to their village, and give fish to the villagers. But they also sell the fish on the main island.
VJ:Do you see spearfishing as a fairer way to hunt?
Kanoa Zimmerman: In a sense it is. The equipment is more advanced, but it’s still being done using traditional methods. It’s the most selective method of fishing that I know of. It’s particularly incredible to see how the locals can track in the water and how it’s communicated in their actions. They’ve been on the water for generations – it’s first nature to them. The Fijians pretty much have this internal GPS – they’ll be motoring for hours with what to me seems like no reference points yet know exactly where they’re going.
The thing about being under water is that it slows time down. You can’t really communicate with people, you have to let things happen, which means you get a lot of unexpected results.
VJ:Has surf photography been good training in teaching you how to capture a moment effectively?
Kanoa Zimmerman: It has, in terms of timing and how quick it is. Anticipating is a big part of the process, timing my breath so I can sync up with another diver, or descending as they’re ascending so that we pass each other underwater. It helps that movement is slowed down underwater, it gives me more time to compose an image. With spearfishing you have to float down. Everything takes time, so you can watch and wait. The thing about being under water is that it slows time down. You can’t really communicate with people, you have to let things happen, which means you get a lot of unexpected results. I like that. You have to pick your moments. [With film], you can’t keep changing, you have to pace yourself and think about what images you want to get, conserve the film. Thirty-six exposures would last me a day. You have to approach without making noise or scaring fish. (Scuba can be noisy and it can scare away fish with the bubbles. That’s why it’s not used as much.) You kind of need to know what will happen and be ready. [With film] there’s also a delayed gratification aspect, so you forget what you took – that makes the editing process more interesting. I’m sitting down much later, being taken back to the trip, but completely removed from the location.
VJ:Have you been down to these depths yourself without breathing equipment?
Kanoa Zimmerman: I have. The deepest I’ve ever gone down was in Fiji. All the pressure makes you very relaxed. The water’s so clear that gauging depth can be challenging – I won’t notice the distance so much while descending, but I really feel it when I’m kicking back to the surface, which is also the most likely time for shallow water balckout to occur.
We’d be on a high point of the reef spearing smaller reef fish, which would attract the larger pelagic varieties as well as the sharks.
VJ: What are the most common basic challenges when spearfishing? For instance, how do you get the fish? How do you attract them?
Kanoa Zimmerman: It’s hard to say, because all fish don’t behave the same way. We’d usually dive along a ledge in the reef, where the depth would go from 40 to 50 feet, then drop off. We’d be on a high point of the reef spearing smaller reef fish, which would attract the larger pelagic varieties as well as the sharks. We also used flashers at various depths on the line. Flashers are these metallic bits, often made out of old compact discs, that refract light – you kind of jig a line up and down so that the light bounces all around. And fish are attracted to shiny objects – that’s what brings them in.
VJ: Tell us about the Texas trip you took that became part of Freedive. Was it originally planned for fun or for the shoot?
Kanoa Zimmerman: It was mostly a photo opportunity. The images are just the product of the trip. I take the camera and I’m focused on the images, but it’s really about the act of diving. On that Texas trip, we dove from oil rigs. Being on one makes it some weird, futuristic space mission. That’s why I jumped on that trip. There was about 50- or 60-foot visibility. Most of the depth was 300 feet. The sharks there are really used to the sound of the spear gun. They know to keep just out of way of visibility then rush in when a fish is speared. If you shoot a big fish, by the time you pull it up there’s only half of it [on the line]. Texas was the sharkiest place I’ve ever been to. A lot of the sharks are small, but they’re aggressive. For the most part they’re reef sharks. It’s more like a dog or something – you’re a little wary of them. But sometimes a bigger shark would come in, and if a bigger shark gets aggressive, then you’re out of the water and back on the boat.
I saw this shark coming straight at me
VJ: Does the diving group operate as a school of fish?
Kanoa Zimmerman: In certain cases, yes. You stay together so you have each other’s backs, in a way. It can help avoid getting attacked. I remember that on this trip I was with my friend and I was talking to someone on the boat. I had my head out of the water and he had his head underwater…he pretty much yelled at me and the moment he did that, I saw this shark coming straight at me, and the moment I made eye contact – it wasn’t a large shark, it was maybe four or five feet long – it kind of veered of. Sharks are very intelligent. They can tell if you’re not looking and can take you by surprise. On that trip I also had a small spear I’d use as a poker to give them a jab and keep them at arm’s length – or more.
VJ: Talk a little about the equipment and the techniques involved in spearfishing. There’s got to be tricks of the trade, right?
Kanoa Zimmerman: There are all kinds of intricacies. To lure this one fish, the Fijians will make a sound with their mouth that creates a noise underwater. And it works. Seeing them do that was mind-blowing. It’s like a duck call. Even if the fish were swimming away, they’d turn 180 degrees to check on the sound. Equipment-wise, when you spear the fish, it’s kind of like line-fishing – the shaft of the spear detaches completely from the gun and you can let someone else take your gun. There’s a line that’s like bungee cord and a series of buoys after that – you shoot the fish and let it run a little and let the fish tire out, then you start reeling it in by hand. Depending on what equipment you have, if a big fish comes and you don’t have your gun attached to the buoys and tide lines, you usually let someone else take it, because if you don’t paralyse it on impact, [the fish] will take your stuff and dive somewhere.
VJ: Is there etiquette when it comes to the order of dropping down under water? Who goes first?
Kanoa Zimmerman: If you just caught a fish, it’s about being a nice person. Plus, you’re with friends so you don’t want to hog that shit, y’know?
Victory Journal Issue 5 is out now.