October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a worldwide annual campaign to highlight the importance of breast awareness, education and research. For some, October is the only month of the year when we think about breast cancer. For others, it’s something faced on a daily basis. That is the situation for photographer Joe Hoddinott and his partner Jess McIntern (not her real last name).
For the past four years, Joe has been photographing Jess underwater. It’s been a personal passion. Something they have done to create for themselves. In March 2016, Jess was diagnosed with breast cancer. Despite the obvious issues, Jess wanted to continue these under photography sessions throughout her treatment. DIYP got in touch with Joe to find out more about them and the project.
Personal projects are very important for working professional artists. Usually everything we do, we do for a paying client and that can lead to becoming burnt out and feeling robbed of the joy we first felt when discovering our art and creating things that we only had to satisfy ourselves. I stopped photographing things for myself and fell out of love with my craft.
It’s a feeling many working photographers have. There’s just never seems to be enough time to pursue your own personal work. Even if you can find the time, it can sometimes be difficult to find the motivation. Play feels too much like work, and sometimes the last thing you want to do is pick up your camera.
As I began to resurrect my photographic career and passion after a divorce and life changing upheaval, I made a promise to keep something for myself and devote my time to it. The importance of that decision can be difficult to explain to people. Not everyone understands why personal projects are important to an emotionally right-brained artist.
This is one such personal project that has transcended anything I ever imagined it could.
The trick, I’ve found with personal photography work, to be able to separate it from paid work, is to do something completely different. Find something you’re passionate about that you don’t do for clients. For me, it’s working with film. For Joe, well…
For years as a wedding and portrait photographer, I wanted to photograph people underwater. I was drawn to the alluring surrealness of seeing the perceived gentle silence as weightlessness and currents have their way with fabrics and hair as bodies float in otherwise impossible poses. But I never got my chance… until ‘Life 2.0’ that is.
My underwater photo project began in the summer of 2012 with a bit of a ‘how we met love story’. It’s a bit cliche: ‘photographer meets a girl during a photo-shoot, they fall in love and she becomes his muse. The end.’ Or rather I should say, ‘The beginning’.
After putting out a casting call to do photo shoot, Joe was met by a response from Jess. Joe, a recently divorced father coming to terms with his new life, was rebooting his photography career, and this was one of those personal projects he’d promised himself. Several models arrived for the shoot, but when Jess walked in the door, “it was complete love at first sight”. At least, it was for him.
Up until that point, he’d been happy being alone and focusing on his work. The moment he met Jess, that all changed. He immediately knew that she was the one.
One of the first projects we worked on together was photographing those underwater portraits I’ve always wanted to do. I was enamoured with the idea of putting this woman I was so taken with into a type of photography I held in such high reverence but had never attempted before.
As photographers, we always talk about “getting out of our comfort zone” and pushing ourselves to try something different and new. Only a few of us ever actually do it, but when you do, you really start to fall in love with photography all over again.
Bravely and naively, I photographed my first underwater session and was immediately addicted. It was orders of magnitude more difficult than I imagined – I think out of the hundreds of frames I captured I had maybe five that were worth a damn. But damn were they worth it! It was everything I wanted it to be and more… and so was she.
Since then, photographing underwater has become our summertime ritual. We learned a lot by evolving our methods year after year and we did it on our own. Just her and I making art for ourselves and answering to no one else.
Jess is my best friend, my partner in life, my love and my photographic muse.
We spoke with Joe about the equipment he uses to shoot underwater, which was surprisingly modest.
Through my own fault, my Ewa-Marine U-BXP100 underwater bag housing became damaged before one of our first sessions this past summer season. Even though I wasn’t able to afford a proper replacement at the time, I was able to temporarily repair it and get through the season. Because of this, I wasn’t crazy about using a newer camera body underwater in case of flooding so as I’ve done for the last several years, I used my tried and true Nikon D700.
It’s an older camera with limited resolution by today’s standards, but the RAW files hold up very well to post processing and they print beautifully. Underwater, the image is magnified approximately 30%. Over the years of photographing underwater, I found that I like using a 24mm focal length. Given the risk of my partially compromised housing I opted for using the consumer grade Nikon 24-85 f/3.5-4.5 VR lens, which focused well underwater and at f/8, performed impressively.
Most of the underwater projects we see today use far more expensive gear, with housings costing more than the camera itself. So, it’s refreshing to see such fantastic images with such relatively inexpensive equipment.
One of the issues with wireless signals is that they tend not to work so well underwater. Anybody who’s ever tried to make a radio controlled submarine will testify to that, which is why many of them come with a tethered floating antenna. Joe told us about his lighting gear, and his choice of radio triggers.
Although I lit the individual sessions from this series slightly differently, I did all of my lighting from the top-side, above the water. I shot at night in a pool so I had pretty good control over my environment. To trigger the lights I used an older Pocket Wizard Plus 2 system because it sports a tall antenna. Given that radio doesn’t transmit well underwater, I needed to stay close to the surface to keep the signal so the overall larger size of the Plus 2 transmitter was helpful in this regard.
For the light itself, I needed light to be above the water and safety needed to come first. I opted to use an old set of Novatron pack lights where the heads are separate from the power pack which is plugged into a GFI. The lighter heads allowed me to create a stable rigging to hold the lights above the water and tether everything off for added security.
Taking the weight away from the light source itself makes a lot of sense on location, but especially so when suspended over water.
Aside from the other difficulties of photographing subjects underwater, colour is always a potential issue. Joe told us about his post processing, and how he overcame these challenges.
Water quickly absorbs the red part of the spectrum which is why underwater images lose contrast and become blue/green. This can be difficult to deal with so I made a handful of custom camera profiles to handle the RAW files in Adobe Lightroom. This was mostly a trial and error process using the Adobe DNG Editor to get a few profiles that I like, but it allows me more room in the file to get the color where I want it.
Shooting with the light in different positions or with my subject at different distances from the camera yields a slightly different result in color so from there the WB slider along with the HSL tool is enough to dial in and get pleasing color in a mostly neutral image. I chose to do my toning and color grading in Photoshop along with any retouching that is required.
Like many personal projects and new things we try, it’s a technique that develops over time. As you learn what you like and don’t like, what works and what doesn’t.
We learned a lot by evolving our methods year after year and we did it on our own. Just her and I making art for ourselves and answering to no one else.
It didn’t take long for people in and out of the local art community to start to identify us with these underwater photos we were making. Our local paper, several blogs and internet magazines wrote articles and featured our work. The attention was very welcome, but it was always secondary. This art was for us and I was truly a lucky photographer to have such a muse and to be able to keep my promise to myself.
On March 8th, 2016, at the age of 28, Jess was diagnosed with Stage 1, triple positive invasive mammary carcinoma. She would need chemotherapy, surgery and radiation, in addition to countless doctor visits, tests, procedures and other medications along the way.
Understandably, for Joe, the last thing on his mind was photography, or making them with her. But for Jess, it was a different story. She decided that she wanted to photograph throughout her treatment as much as possible. Mor specifically, she wanted to continue the underwater photography sessions.
For most couples, a photo shoot would be out of the ordinary. For Joe and Jess, it was their normalcy. Jess needed that to continue in her life with every other crazy thing that was going on.
It turns out, that was some of the best medicine for this disease and the treatments that came with it. As her hair fell out, she held her breath and we photographed. As her energy levels dropped, she held her breath and we photographed. As long as she wasn’t deathly sick, she held her breath and we photographed. We timed our sessions around the better days between chemo treatments. She was more passionate about making these underwater images than ever before.
I’m convinced that this desperate need to maintain a small sense of normalcy and that decision to press on with our underwater project helped us survive her taxing treatment.
Jess has shown her strength in so many ways since being diagnosed. She has documented, in one form or another, her entire experience thus far. Showing these images with her social interaction caught the attention of a lot of people who were going through their own trials, inspired by them, and reached out to us just to thank us for doing our thing and being in love.
These underwater photos of what people imagined what should be a bedridden, frail girl were exactly the opposite of that. She looks beautiful, not sick. She looks strong, not emaciated. She looks in control, not like a victim. That’s who Jess is. That is what it’s like to Fight Like Jess.
What started out as a simple personal project has evolved into the most valuable and important imagery I have ever created. My own work has transcended into something of much greater meaning than I could have ever imagined. I am honored to have it represent such an amazing human being and her fight, even if those photos were just for us.
Jess has now completed chemotherapy and is recovering from a lumpectomy and a lymph node biopsy. She starts a 6 week radiation regimen this month, and all of us at DIYP are keeping her and Joe in our thoughts.
To honor breast cancer awareness month, ‘Hold Your Breath’ gallery show opens at The Delaware Contemporary on Friday October 7th in Wilmington, DE. Helping other people, raising awareness and generating funds toward research are a part of our future. All proceeds from sales of any of these images go toward Jess’ continuing recovery and charity organizations of her choice.
Joe Hoddinott and Jess McIntern, (no, that’s not her real last name,) are collectively known as ‘J-Squared’ and live together in Delaware, USA. You can find out more about Joe on his website and Facebook or contact him through Twitter.
All images Copyright Joe Hoddinott and used with permission.