It’s been two years since Seth Casteel’s images of dogs jumping into pools broke the Internet. While that may a bit hyperbolic, it is fair to say they may be the most viewed underwater images of all time.
Now, Casteel has moved on to an even more unlikely underwater photography subject: babies. His latest book, Underwater Babies, features tiny toddlers dipping into pools as part of water safety classes. The infants, who ranged in age from just 4.5 months to 17 months, can only hold their breath in the water for a second or two, making this photo project all the more challenging.
Recently, DPG had the chance to snap Seth away from his whirlwind media tour and chat a bit about the underwater photography behind the book.
Seth Casteel found fame with his underwater images of dogs and puppies, and now he’s capturing youngsters of another species.
DPG: So I have to start out with this. Better natural swimmers: babies or dogs?
Seth Casteel: Both have natural abilities in the water, but I'd say dogs take the gold medal.
DPG: What inspired you to switch from man’s best friends to babies?
SC: My first underwater project, Underwater Dogs, began as an unexpected series as I documented the lifestyle and personality of dogs and their connection with people and the water. I discovered that water safety for pets was a topic that many pet owners were not very familiar with, which led to the Underwater Puppies book. Underwater Puppies is a celebration of puppies and the images are joyful, but the message is a serious one: We have a responsibility to keep our pets safe around the water, especially swimming pools. Through the course of exploring that topic, I became aware of the statistics regarding human children and water-related accidents, and I was absolutely shocked. After experiencing infant swimming lessons and learning of the benefits, I felt that I could create images to promote this important cause of keeping our human children safe around water.
Seth worked together with infant swim schools to find baby subjects. The infants ranged in age from about 4.5 to 17 months.
DPG: What equipment did you use to capture these images?
SC: I use an Ikelite housing for the Canon 5D Mk III with DS161 strobes, and 8–15mm f/4L fisheye lens. I was also excited to use off-board strobes in many of the photos!
DPG: Can you tell us a little bit about the process that goes into getting the babies into the pool? You don’t you just throw them in, right?
SC: I collaborated with infant swimming schools all across the U.S. Babies were in the process of a swim lesson when the photos were taken. As part of their lesson, babies learned safety and survival skills that involved submerging. Each swim program is unique in what they teach and how they teach it, but for many of the photos in the book, instructors passed babies underwater to fellow instructors or to mom and dad.
Seth's biggest challenge was capturing a great image of an infant, when the baby might only be underwater for just a second or two.
DPG: Can you talk about the photographic challenges of working with babies as underwater models?
SC: The biggest challenge I faced was the window of opportunity for clicking the shutter. Most of the babies only went underwater once or twice, and for just a second or two, so my opportunity to take pictures was extremely limited. The composition was also tricky because the baby was being passed underwater by an instructor, but I didn't want to feature the instructor in each photo. I had to work out a system with the instructors so that I would not interrupt their lesson, but also only feature the baby.
Lighting was yet another challenge. Because the photo shoots were taking place at the swim schools, I had to work with only the pools that were being used for the lessons, which weren't always ideal for photos. And with most swim schools, there was only a limited window to set up, so I could not bring any elaborate lighting. Fortunately, I was able to work with a number of outdoor and indoor pools for the project, which did bring some diversity to the images.
And then there's water clarity. In general, the water was clear, but when you add six moms, six babies, plus several instructors into a small pool, the clarity is affected by oils from human skin and lotions. I had to monitor my housing and clean my port quite often. Otherwise, the images would lose clarity.
Each baby in the series displayed his or her own personality when entering the aquatic environment, making for great candid images.
DPG: Impossible question alert: favorite image of the series? (Ours is the one with the scuba tank.)
SC: You realize I have to be careful about how I answer this, right? I imagine many of the book baby parents will read this article! First, let me say that each image is a favorite of mine for unique reasons. If I must list a few examples, here we go:
Baby Colton's photo (scuba diver) is quite exciting for me. The image doesn't even look real. He's just so confident and comfortable! Baby Michael R is the youngest baby in the book at 4.5 months of age, yet he brings the windom and charisma of a veteran swimmer! Baby Valentina just always makes me smile with her posture underwater, including pointed toes! And the colors are so incredible.
Seth confesses that this image of baby Colton in scuba gear is amongst his favorites of the series, but, “each image is a favorite of [his] for unique reasons.”
DPG: Your photography often seems motivated by a social message—your dog photography often is to help dogs in shelters. What’s the message behind the babies?
SC: The water is a wonderful place but can also be a dangerous one. We are the protectors and the guardians of our younger humans and we must do all that we can to keep them safe. Nobody is immune to tragedy, but by taking the proper steps, we can help to prevent one from happening. Drowning is the number one cause of accidental death of children under the age of five in the U.S., but infant swim lessons can reduce the risk of drowning by up to 88%. By creating this series and this book, I hope to inspire a conversation among parents to consider the benefits of these lessons, which I hope leads to an increase in the number of swim students. The ultimate goal is to save lives.
The hope is that these stunning images will help parents realize the importance of water safety classes for their infant children.
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