James Monnington travels the world, freediving and taking striking black and white photographs of the animals he comes across. But it’s not always tropical paradise he seeks when he wants to dive. James loves the colder waters of Britain as well, regularly diving in Cornwall and Wales and photographing the underwater life he finds. We spoke to James to hear more about his story “Freediving with James Monnington”, and to understand more about his motivations for photographing the ocean shallows.
“People freedive for all sorts of reasons but I know most do it because they love being in the water and feel connected to the ocean in some way. For me, freediving gives me a sense of identity and has introduced me to a community of many amazing people. It’s also given my photography a sense of narrative coherence. It’s strange to think I wasn’t always a freediver – I originally started out as a SCUBA diver. But it was when I found freediving that I also got more involved in photography and now it’s hard to imagine that they weren’t always part of my life.
I got into photography through my dad – he was always a fanatical photographer and had a small darkroom at home when I was a kid. He encouraged me to take photos and taught me the fundamentals of shooting and developing. Shooting underwater is a whole different kettle of fish, though!
As I’ve progressed as a photographer, so has my photography style. I now tend to only shoot in black and white. I wish I could say I have some sort of cerebral, high-concept rationale for shooting black and white but the truth is, it’s never really occurred to me to do anything else. I’ve always loved the aesthetic – there’s something about the simplicity, the immediacy and the way that it abstracts the environment, distilling the photo down to its core components.
I’ve never wanted to take those classic well-lit, saturated, colourful and super clear photos you see in dive magazines and competitions. They’re beautiful and require a lot of technical skill, but I find it hard to connect with them emotionally. They don’t really represent my experience of the ocean, which can be very appealing, but can also be overwhelming, humbling and intimidating. Quite often, it’s a dark, murky, disorienting and surreal atmosphere, which is a side of the experience that I think is important to share as well. Black and white really helps with this. It can also make taking photos a lot easier when there isn’t much light or colour, which is an issue if you are deep and choose not to use artificial lights.
That’s why I enjoy shooting off the coast of Britain so much. UK waters are generally assumed to be murky and devoid of life, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. When conditions are good, the diving here is absolutely stunning. Unlike the tropics, temperate waters are dominated by seaweeds, so you get these beautiful hues of greens, reds and browns that you don’t tend to see elsewhere. Even when the visibility isn’t great, these come together to create an eerie, ethereal atmosphere that I just can’t get enough of. As I said; disorientating and surreal, but completely captivating. I love travelling and have been lucky enough to visit some amazing places to dive, but I do think it’s important to spend time appreciating what’s on your doorstep as well.
Having said that, some of the places I’ve been able to travel to are incredible to dive in and photograph. For example, photographing the cenotes in Mexico is an experience next to none. Cenotes form when limestone caves collapse, revealing beneath them groundwater pools that are considered to be sacred gateways into the Mayan underworld, “Xibalba”. There are thousands strewn across the Yucatan, each with its own unique shape, size, depth and colour. The water is crystal clear, the sun pours into darkness from the jungle above as these rotating bars of light, and they’re enormous. It’s almost impossible to get a bad picture!
Part of freediving for me is being able to interact with the wildlife on a really intimate level. Freediving allows you to be fast, nimble and silent – especially in comparison to your tank-laden, bubble blowing, SCUBA diving counterparts. In my experience, most animals will allow you to approach much more closely, tending to be either entirely disinterested or mildly intrigued by your presence. Cautious, but rarely afraid. I particularly enjoy diving with sea lions for this reason. They’re incredibly playful and interactive – their speed, agility and grace put us to shame!
One experience that really stands out was in the Galapagos. I watched two juvenile sea lions playing with a piece of reed they’d found, passing it back and forth and chasing each other’s tails. After about twenty minutes, they included me in their game, racing up, leaving the reed floating in front of me before careering off, disappearing for a few seconds before racing back to reclaim their toy. It was a really special moment I’ll never forget.
I think one of the biggest reasons I enjoy freediving so much is because it means that I always travel with a specific objective. This has led me to some pretty weird locations – even within the UK – that I probably would never have visited otherwise. I also get to experience countries and wildlife in ways that I wouldn’t have had the chance to without freediving. And by photographing what I see, I can almost pass this experience on for other people to experience in some way or another. I hope that as my work continues to develop it will encourage people to explore the oceans for themselves – and engender a sense of responsibility to respect it.
To read more about James’ freediving experiences, click here.