The Bias of Underwater Photography


Source: The Watermen Project/Lukas Müller – August 5, 2016 in Adventure, Featured

Colorful fish seeking shelter within the coral forests of a reef, the fins of sharks and dolphins racing in competition to get the last piece of a diminishing bait ball of sardines, a humpback whale mother carefully investigating whether that tiny diver with a camera in his hands is a threat to her newborn calf.

If you enjoy the oceans and you scroll through your social media, you will see drone footage of great white sharks in shallow water chasing seals or a standup paddle boarder encountering a curious orca. This type of media is tremendously important.

Photo: William Winram/Watermen Project
Photo: William Winram/Watermen Project

For one it is engaging and it makes the young generation curious about the amazing creatures that roam the oceans and the adventures waiting to be embarked upon. And secondly it shows that we are still intrigued by the ocean and that we have not completely abandoned them, yet.

But there is a catch to being exposed to incredible underwater pictures non-stop. Only a tiny fraction of the pictures that an underwater photographer takes actually end up in your phone’s newsfeed. Which makes sense as only a few pictures will actually be spectacular enough to survive in the arena of social media. The problem is that this creates a perception bias: If only the spectacular shots are being seen by the public, it will seem as though the oceans are healthy and there are plenty of fish in the sea.

Photo: The striking colors of the underwater world satisfy our eyes.
Photo: The striking colors of the underwater world satisfy our eyes.

The reality is, underwater photographers spend days, weeks and months finding the right location and time to get that one perfect picture. For countless hours they dive at destroyed reefs, polluted estuaries, and stare into the big blue desert of nothing which once was full of fish. Having spoken to many of them, the time looking for a subject is increasing every year. Many dive sites which used to offer phenomenal opportunities to take a great underwater picture, are now mere dead underwater landscapes. No whales, no sharks, no corals.

If we were to tell the truth about what it’s like searching for photo motifs in the sea, for every spectacular picture that we like, share and post, we would have to post 100 pictures of plain blue. That would be a more realistic representation of what the dire situation in many parts of today’s oceans look like. However, in a content oversaturated world, there is no demand for pictures of plain blue. That’s why many are left with the impression that everything is okay, “as long as I see photos of turtles, fish and dolphins in my Instagram feed, the oceans should be doing fine, right?”



Photo: It’s pictures like this one that can instill a passion for the oceans in the ones that see it for the first time. It can inspire them to explore the underwater world for themselves. When exposed to pictures like this everyday, over time it will give the subconscious impression that there are plenty of fish in the sea.



That’s where the need for storytelling and engaging our audiences with and beyond our photography comes into play. We can tell the story behind what it took to get that particular shot. We can tell stories that take place at very place where humans and marine life interact, whether it’s fishermen providing for their families or hobby-divers trying to protect their local reef. We can record vlogs with our smartphone, edit trip reports from our gopro footage leftover from our dives. We do have the responsibility to show people a balanced and fair representation of what is happening in the seas right now, and what has happened over the decades.

Photo: The often untold reality of the job. Finning through dead spaces. Planes of emptiness without any sign of the teeming life that once used to exist here.

As the competition for the next viral underwater picture is ever increasing, so has our potential to swim against the current. We can use the new tools we have been given to the tell our story of staring into the empty blue, until it’s not empty anymore.

The Watermen Project’s mission is for men and women, who are passionate about the sea to volunteer to be of service to inspire respect, preserve, conserve and demonstrate a love for all things in the ocean. The success of the mission is measured by the impact that these men and women have in educating children and young people about the importance of conserving our oceans as well as assisting scientists with their research targets whose results will also contribute to ocean conservation.

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September 1, 2016 |

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