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Underwater Surrealism: An Interview with Lia Barrett


Lia Barrett's website boasts incredible examples of underwater photography that make us all a teeny bit jealous we aren’t as talented with a camera (even just on land, mind you). We managed to catch jet-setting photographer Lia Barrett to learn more about those stunning images.

What got you started in photography, and why the underwater genre?

For me, it was really the underwater part that came before the photography. Not that I even knew who I was yet in life, for I was merely ten years old when I discovered my love for the world beneath the ocean’s surface. My father traveled a lot for work, and would occasionally tote my mother and I along with him during the summers. During a trip in the summer of 1994, it was fortunate that the destination was Hawaii. After spending most of the vacation snorkeling and chasing fish, I went home bursting with ideas about an underwater mural I wanted to paint on all four walls of my bedroom. Much to their amusement (I am sure) my parents agreed, and bought me a Jacques Cousteau book from which I referenced the images of octopus, coral, angelfish and many other creatures. I believe it was from studying those images over the course of the subsequent years that I eventually turned my attention to the detail of the actual photograph. Everything else after was history.

Did you always know you were going to be a photographer? 

Once I realized I was not the world’s next Van Gogh, I turned my focus to photography, and ended up at Parsons School of Design in New York where I studied for five years. There, I also focused on documentary and portraiture, and interned for a few years with the famed documentary photographer, Mary Ellen Mark.

Who are some of the photographers you were inspired by when you first started?

David Doubilet is absolutely the main inspiration. This isn’t uncommon if you ask an underwater photographer today, for anyone who has flipped through the pages or even just looked at covers of National Geographic would be familiar with his iconic imagery. Whenever I run into him these days, I am still star struck. Other photographers and artists such as Man Ray, Jerry Uelsmann, Diane Arbus, Cindy Sherman, and even Joel Peter Witkin are also favorites. I tended towards the surreal and ghoulish.

What is your current set up like?

Oh it’s pretty simple. Having learned almost solely in film, I use everything pretty much in manual except wide-angle focus, and I’m not very technical. Underwater, I currently use a couple of Canon 5D Mark III bodies, 15mm fisheyes, and a 100mm macro lens. Occasionally I’ll pull out my Canon EF16-35mm f/4L IS USM lens, although it’s been out of commission for a while due to some unfortunate sand incidents.

Your series, Underwater Walkers, is one of the most stunning underwater shoots we’ve seen! What inspired you to start it?

Shooting freedivers (people who hold their breath underwater and dive without compressed air) has really changed the way I view the underwater landscape. I see it now more as a continuation of land as opposed to a separate entity. I believe that showing people in this environment, provides a more relatable connection for topside viewers who wouldn’t otherwise have access to the ocean, showing a oneness that is very much a vital part of our success as global organisms. I continue shooting these type of images today, so that we can see ourselves reflected in a space that very much depends upon the choices that we make everyday.

The shots are incredibly surreal. How did you come up with this concept?

I believe that the combination of the landscapes that are almost what we are used to seeing on land combined with flowing hair, the ability to climb into a tree in a dress, or even portraying an illusion of flight all help create a surreal effect. I guess it all just really started when I sank a bunch of my friend’s porch furniture in the middle of a shark dive, and sat a few people in clothes down in the chairs, put a remotely triggered strobe under a lamp, and waited for the sharks to do their thing. From there, I realized how much doing something we are used to seeing on land can really tickle the senses. We know there is something wrong, about this picture, but we just can’t really put our finger on it…  and then all sorts of questions about human abilities and scary animals arise, which makes the conversation about the images flow. When I saw how that formula worked, I started thinking of other cool ways to relate to the everyday human senses.

What are some challenges you face when shooting free divers (time constraints aside)?  

Communication is a big challenge, because while they’re swimming up and down, I am sitting at more stagnate depths. They sometimes get super caught up in flipping and kicking and posing that they lose perspective of their body angles, which can be distorting and awkward. Additionally, their individual abilities and safety are huge factors.

When I am shooting world record holding freediver, Alexey Molchanov, my job is a walk in the park. But if someone is a bit more of a novice, I have to make sure I am extra cautious, for the potential risks of blackouts are greater.

Tell us more about your deep sea series.

I went down to 780m in a submarine that my friend, Karl Stanley built. I had to keep my lens at a specific distance and angle from the dome (of the submarine), as advised by underwater photojournalist Brian Skerry. At these depths, I faced a very different set of challenges, namely, lighting, dome distortion and mobility (moving a submarine is a lot more challenging than just your body and feet when you want to adjust angles!)  

Do you prefer shooting macro or pelagic?

Pelagic for sure. I admire macro shooters, and I dabble in it, but frankly, my patience is wanting. Sitting with a crab for an hour or two is just mind-boggling. Plus there are diopters and snoots and extra equipment to consider -- I need to keep things more simple for my back and luggage allowance.

What are some of your favourite dive sites (in the world) to shoot at?

I love the cenotes in Mexico. Each one is completely unique and beautiful, and the colors, plants, and light rays are just ripe for a surreal sort of shoot. I also love the pelagics of the Bahamas, the wrecks and sharks at Stuart Cove’s and the oceanics of Cat Island. But then of course, there are also the humpback whales of Tonga, and spilling soft corals in West Papua.  

Tell us about your most memorable shoot, or about the favourite photo you’ve ever taken.

Hmm…  that’s tough. I love the shot of Alexey Molchanov standing in the tree in Angelita Cenote. I think a lot of the reason that this shot is so dear is because I envisioned it before I shot it to the finest detail, and I stumbled upon a perfect day after several dives.

You’re the photo editor of Dive Photo Guide, so you must see plenty of submissions! Have you spotted any upcoming trends in the world of underwater photography? 

These things change year to year, some years it’s big animals -- no, wait, it’s always big animals! Macro is always a staple, but nowadays, people are doing creative and funky things with distorting filters and lenses, and lighting is getting more refined and technical. But I have to say freediving and freedivers are surely shaping a lot of what is happening. Throw a big animal and a freediver in a picture and you’re for sure to get a lot of likes on social media. Put a woman in a dress: that is hit or miss, depending on the year, execution and viewer fatigue, but oftentimes that can be quite beautiful. Animal behavior, colder climates, orcas, taking your lens to the extreme corners of the planet, these are all winners for sure if you can find them! Being able to afford going to unique sites or finding assignments to take you there is another thing to consider.

Tell us about your line, Prawno.

I change my answer to this daily. First, it was a conversation with my business partner when we were 18 and in college, and we wanted to have a clothing company (and not go to class).  Then it was while I was spending all of those hours in the submarine, bobbing around, waiting for action, and looking at these funky sea stars that live on boulders that I thought would make great t-shirt designs. But in reality, it was a combination of these factors, and a realization that in order to avoid a rigid schedule, and stay in close connection with the ocean, I’d need to do something more serious, more impactful; something tangible. I believe my business partner felt a similar sentiment, but from a lawyer’s perspective.

What plans do you have for the brand in the near future?

For it to grow organically, and for people to pick up on our message and our fun and meaningful designs. Prawno comes, of course, from our slight obsession with shrimp (of which we don’t eat anymore), and the “O” comes from the fact that we are all one, that we are connected. Each design has little stories behind them, and we have a great network of marine organizations that we donate portions of our proceeds to. We also love our ambassadors who represent some of the craziest talented and spirit-of-the-ocean advocates out there.

Do you have any advice or tips for other underwater photographers out there? 

It’s cliché but shoot your butt off. Take a year off, work on a liveaboard, chase guests around and sell them a thumbdrive of images from their vacations. The important part is really repetition. You’ll begin to see the ocean space differently once you really immerse yourself.  Also, don’t shoot too many behinds of fish -- it’s their faces that are interesting.

Where are you shooting next?

I’m figuring that out ASAP! I just did a TEDx talk and got married, and I promised myself that I wouldn’t plan anything until those two events were over. So now that those two things just finished, I’m thinking of a road trip across the US to check out some topside landscape, and then some California diving, possibly swinging by Hawaii, and then back to the Bahamas, and maybe even some sort of cold weather animals after that -- who knows! I do miss shooting my freedivers, so I’m betting I’ll track a few of them down over the next few months and continue looking for interesting underwater landscapes and surreal compositions.


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EF16-35mm f/4L IS USM

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Lia Barrett
Profile of photographer

Lia Barrett is a Korean born, North Carolina raised professional underwater photographer. After completing university at Parsons School of Design in New York in 2007, she has been on a continual pursuit of travel and adventure. From her deep-sea work in a homemade submarine off of Roatán, Honduras, to shooting world record holding freedivers, Lia has embraced the underwater world as her ultimate sanctuary. She is the Photo Editor of Dive Photo Guide, the definitive source for underwater photography. She is also the co-founder and Creative Director of Prawno Apparel, an ocean-minded apparel company that draws designs directly from Lia’s photographs. She has been published in numerous newspapers and magazines, including the front page of the New York Times, BBC, CNN, Time, Huffington Post, Playboy, Men’s Journal and 60 Minutes. Lia has sat on several underwater photography judging panels, and finds great pleasure in encouraging other photographers to grow and develop their craft.