From grief blurring my vision and how photo competitions helped me tap into energy and creativity again.
Where it all began
In September 2018 I got a whole new camera system in Singapore, including underwater housing and ports, strobes I added in 2019. It was all so beautiful and shiny, to be honest, I was a little bit intimidated to start using it. The first try was rather clumsy, to put it mildly (My long way to underwater photography). Nevertheless, I was extremely happy and eager to learn how to put it all to good use in the next chapter of my underwater photography. I was even looking forward to familiarising myself with a new post-production software and – most importantly – sharing my vision, spreading joy, and inspiring change. Once we would be in an area with halfway decent internet connection.
What put it on hold
October is one of – if not – the busiest month in Wakatobi which means we could call ourselves lucky for getting our one day off a week quite regularly. Every time we scheduled a long photo dive on the house reef. But our fresh routine came to a sudden hold when my father passed away just a month later. I had four in-water sessions with my camera set-up, before travelling in total shock to Germany to arrange everything needed for the funeral together with my brothers and the help of my mother. It was all surreal, painful, sad, frustrating and way too intense as if I could describe it in a couple of words. Getting back to day-to-day work and general island life sucked out all the energy that was left inside me. It was devastating on so many levels.
Living in stand-by
Usually, I love to try things out and learn something new. I like challenging myself, I want to improve and evolve. In this state, however, I was completely absorbed in dealing with myself. My emotions, thoughts and memories took up all my capacity. Work didn’t help either. Yes, it is a distraction from what is going on inside, but smiling, being supportive, helpful and upbeat all day long became overly exhausting. I was happy if I could remember the names of my guests, fish and creatures around me and what I had talked about already. Even though I felt like a faint, ghostlike version of my usual self, I got quite positive feedback from customers. Lesson learnt: We don’t need to give 100% or more all the time in order to be good.
In my dreams
In the evenings the only thing I was able to do was read a book or watch a movie and more than anything else I wanted to sleep. Sleep meant dreaming and in my dreams, I had the chance to meet my dad. I could not only see him, but hear his voice and, most importantly, hug and kiss him. Since he retired I had spent most of the time in diving locations; for the last three years of his life, I had hardly been around my home town at all.
I had big plans for 2019, but then our time together ended. That was the hardest to accept and led to many „what ifs“ in my head for quite some time. At times, I was just sad, then again extremely angry, I felt cheated, by times also relieved as it hasn’t been only easy for everybody involved. That’s the moment for guilt to kick in and start another spiral of „what if I had only …“. After all, now he wouldn’t be there at our wedding or any other occasion I had already pictured in my mind for our Tour de Europe 2019.
When it’s just too much to handle
When we were ready to get into the water with our camera equipment after his death for the first time, I decided very last minute to go without it. I was too afraid that something would go wrong, that I would mess it up. It was hard enough to focus on land. Who knows what could happen underwater? It was more than enough to be Yoeri’s spotter at the time and in my heart I was taking my father along on the dive, showing him all the beauty of the underwater world, trying to make him understand why I left him alone for such long periods, telling him that I had missed him too.
Diving holiday for underwater photography
Luckily we had some time off relatively soon after New Year. We had scheduled diving, my first underwater photography holiday ever! For a change from Wakatobi’s stunning reefs and to see some different critters we decided to go to Lembeh. I was torn. On the one hand, I had hardly practised with my equipment and was simply looking forward to seeing all the weird and wonderful creatures, and on the other hand, I wanted to make the most of this trip – especially picture-wise. I had hoped my concentration would get better once I was away from work and the restrictions of island life, but actually, the opposite happened. All the sadness, all the anger, all the blame and self-reproaches broke through and on top of that, I felt guilty for not being able to enjoy my holiday or take the pictures I had in mind.
I didn’t feel like socialising. Nobody was understanding me anyway. Nobody felt my loss, the physical pain it had caused or my ongoing grief. Of course, people in the dive resort couldn’t know why I was so quiet and distant, most likely they were not noticing when I had to walk away with tears in my eyes whenever songs, like Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” were played. Everybody else seemed to be busy with their lives and in their own process. Today I understand that everybody is different, everybody has different needs in a situation like this. People don’t mean it in a bad way, they just don’t know what to do or what to say and therefore choose to not do or say anything. However, every choice has its consequences and their choice made me feel lonely, lost and misunderstood at that time (A day to remember).
What to do?
It should come as no surprise that this overall mindset didn’t help with learning or practising. Not even the diving went as usual, in particular when we went deep. I am relatively susceptible to narcosis, but I never have had a bad experience or feeling with it in any way, shape or form – I just need to watch out so that I’m not having too much fun down there. Now, it was as if all these negative emotions got multiplied. On top of that, I would forget to change my settings or even how and where to change them. I asked for shallower dives, but according to our guides, certain creatures were only to be found around 30 metres. When would I get the chance to see flamboyant cuttlefish or all the different sorts of nudibranchs I adore so much again? What to do: Enjoy and focus on observing or trying to focus and, at least, get some good results on this trip? After all, I had already lost months, with my camera and housing just sitting there, staring at me.
In the end, I often left the field to Yoeri for filming – and I am delighted to see what he is turning it into at the moment with his series of video clips called Sulawesi Splendour. I gave all very small and/or delicate creatures a miss, feeling that there was no need to make them suffer through my attempts to do it right. But, in between all the struggling, there are some periods when I got really into the zone, when I felt cool, calm and collected, I entered my happy place and I felt everything was coming together nicely as if on the same wavelengths with my subject.
Lost in process
In those ten days in Lembeh, I collected quite some photos. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the energy to look at them, sort them out, categorise or prioritise any of them – not at the end of the day, not at the end of the holiday, not during our final month working in Wakatobi. At least, I managed to revive our Devocean Pictures website with a first blog entry after almost three years and started with the German blog. I was looking forward to finally having the time, not only for writing but also for editing, once we went back to Europe.
Slowly but surely, I began to understand Lightroom, but I went around my pile of underwater pictures all summer long. Every time I started to look through the photographs from Lembeh, the feelings of that particular time were rising back up, so I stopped. I tried to motivate myself in various ways. After all, I knew there were some beautiful results in the untouched folders, nevertheless, I failed, months after months. With time my frustration was growing. Why hadn’t I sorted them out right away? Why was I not using them now? What the hell did I want to do and why? Why why why …
Then I started looking for video competitions for Yoeri, sometimes, when feeling stuck, it seems to be easier for me to do something for somebody else. But video competitions are often a part of photo contests and even though all those pictures looked way out of my league – or maybe because they did? -, the thought to hand in something I produced motivated me to go and look for my best work, to finally bring up the courage to share my view with others.
Still, it was no picnic, but I worked my way through the pain and to be honest, there are still lots of photos sitting in folders I barely looked at. Most importantly though, I looked through the nudis, knowing that there were some in there I actually liked a lot whilst shooting. In any case, I wanted to write about these fantastic beasts and where to find them (Nudibranchs: Everybody`s darling). Once I accepted that most of the pictures are far from perfect (settings are pretty much all over the place …), but that can still serve as ID or illustration, the galleries grew bigger, making me happy.
The picture that made it into the final
My favourite model and picture amongst those nudibranchs was the Goniobranchus geometricus shown above. I spotted it crawling over an old banana leaf. The background clearly wasn’t doing this beautiful creature justice. Therefore I watched and waited which eventually paid off. Not only was my model getting on top of the solitary tunicate (Polycarpa aurata), the perfect stage for this little rock star, but it also stopped for a brief moment, lifting its head with the rhinophores to examine where to go from here. Nudibranchs only have a rudimentary vision and are using those appendixes on the head to trace their food and mates. I love the result. It looks as if it’s riding a rainbow, Yoeri says. The picture was taken on the 16th of January 2019. I am extremely happy that roughly a year later I found out that made it into the final of best German UW photographer (as part of the Worldshootout 2019) supported by the Unterwasser – Dein Tauchmagazin.
Rise and shine in 2020
There were more contests and there is so much more I learned in this period, but let’s keep that for another day. Now is the time to celebrate. My picture made it into the final. I am the only woman among the nine finalists. I feel like a winner already. The official winner will be announced on Saturday, 25th of January 2020 at the Boot show in Düsseldorf, but it won’t be me. I am not saying that out of false modesty: The selection presented as the German finalist on the international page lists five finalists, not nine, and I am not one of them (World Shootout 2019: German photographer of the year).