Photographer Creates Surreal Underwater Portraits of a Model Swimming with Sharks

Photographer Benjamin Von Wong is well known for creating incredibly surreal portraits. From medieval maternity shoots to superheroes teetering on skyscraper ledges, Von Wong’s imagination and knack for technical problem solving make him a potent storyteller.

His most recent project, “Shark Shepherd,” started with a simple idea: put a model in a beautiful white dress and photograph her in an underwater cave. The light would stream in through holes in the cave’s ceiling and the dress would billow gracefully in the water. Oh, and there would be sharks. Lots and lots of sharks.

Watch how Von Wong made his vision a reality in this short video:

At first, it was difficult for Von Wong to locate an organization who would help him with his unconventional and potentially dangerous project, but through communication and persistence, he eventually connected with Tourism Fiji and the Barefoot Collection, who equipped him with a team of support divers, including a marine biologist.

Von Wong has shot underwater in the past, but in his blog, he reported that this shark photo shoot was more challenging by far. He and his team could only work between 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. each day due to the lighting situation and shark activity in the cave. For each shot, they would have to weigh down the model, strategically position the dress and shepherd’s crook, and wait motionlessly for sharks to approach—all while juggling the basic complications of underwater photography.

“Everyone’s on a ticking clock. We only have a certain amount of oxygen. The water’s cold. No one can communicate and when you add the final components, which is to have sharks appear, and once they do it’s this rush to get everyone out of the way, just to leave her in the perfect rays of light, hoping that all of these things come together for a single instant to capture a beautiful photo.” — Von Wong

Von Wong shot with a Sony Alpha a7R II mirrorless digital camera and a Sony 16-35mm Vario Tessar T FE f/4 ZA OSS lens protected with Nauticam NA-A7II underwater housing and a N120 180mm fisheye dome port.

tourism fiji barefoot collection freediver model fish

Von Wong captured this image at ISO400, f/5.6, and 1/320 of a second at 16mm.

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Von Wong captured this image at ISO400, f/5.0, and 1/200 of a second at 16mm.

shark shepherd conservation protection advocacy nature wildlife ocean sea life ecosystem marine biologist

Von Wong captured this image at ISO400, f/4.0, and 1/200 of a second at 16mm.

Throughout the three days of shooting, Von Wong observed that the sharks were acting more like curious squirrels at a park than violent, limb-devouring beasts from the deep. When a shark was brave enough to swim through the cave where Von Wong’s model was waiting, any sudden movements would cause it to flee—in stark contrast to their bloodthirsty reputation.

“Sharks are almost always depicted as menacing and terrifying, yet it is humans that are responsible for killing them in the millions just to make soup,” wrote Von Wong on his blog. “I wanted to create a series of images that would help break those stereotypes and show that it is possible for us to co-exist together in perfect harmony.”

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