Beauty Lies Beneath
Photographer Zena Holloway produces uniquely stunning underwater shots. And now her passion for the ocean and the natural environment has led to her creation of dramatic clothing sculpted from roots
Photography by Zena Holloway
British photographer and director Zena Holloway is best known for her distinctive and breathtakingly beautiful underwater images that push the boundaries of creativity. For Zena, her photography evokes so much more than a surreal underwater world. She talks to Glorious about the process of capturing these stunning images and how the narrative of climate change has become the driving force of her work: growing coral sculptures and developing plant life into dramatic clothing.
Glorious: Tell us a little about yourself and how you got into photography? What came first – photography or diving?
Zena Holloway: The water definitely came first. I didn’t have any interest in photography until I went diving in the Red Sea when I was 18. The two-week holiday turned into a three-year trip; I worked as a SCUBA instructor to fund my diving habit. Somewhere along the way I picked up an underwater camera and taught myself how to use it – looking back I think I viewed photography as a way to capture some of the wonder of it all.
Glorious: You produce such beautiful ethereal images – can you talk us through the process?
Zena Holloway: Thank you so much! It often makes me feel like a bit of a fraud when people say that because the magic really comes from the water. Before a shoot I spend quite a lot of time trying to prepare how the props or the pose is going to look once underwater. For example, we float ‘upright’ because of the air we hold in our lungs, so something like a horizontal sleeping pose takes a few tethers and floats to pull off. My background as a diving instructor has been the best training, to prepare for working with nervous models or celebrities. Capturing that perfect moment is luck – but I try to manipulate the circumstances to get those lucky moments as often as possible.
Glorious: You’ve worked with everyone: children, celebrities, animals, models and even Olympians. Who are your favourite people to shoot?
Zena Holloway: They’re all great to work with. There’s never a dull moment with babies and kids in water – especially when you mix the odd animal in there as well! Olympic swimmers have an unparalleled breath-hold and grace. I remember shooting Tom Daley for a magazine cover and he just effortlessly folded himself into this extraordinary pike position underwater, which made the perfect shot.
When we shot the footballer Deco de Souza, he was kicking the football 30 metres underwater from one side of the tank to the other. I worried beforehand that the kicking action wouldn’t look authentic but I needn’t have, as we had one of the best footballers in the world as the subject! Although some people are amazing because they’re so at ease in water, others can shine because they’re not. I did a series about the women divers in South Korea a few years ago and deliberately cast someone who couldn’t swim because she had the right look. She was totally electric at the shoot (but I did have to make sure that the safety diver was never more than arm’s reach away).
Water transforms people. When you’re underwater without gravity and you can’t breathe, see, hear, speak, feel or smell, it has an effect on that person’s body language. It’s almost like it washes away the exterior to reveal more about the real person underneath.
Glorious: How difficult is it to communicate with the subject and crew whilst shooting underwater?
Zena Holloway: I like to work just by holding my breath and swimming up and down to the surface to breathe. I find it’s a more efficient method than using SCUBA and it gives me the chance to guide the artist in between takes. Another method is to buddy-breathe the models from a safety-diver’s tank, but it’s much harder on the model because they’re usually fixed underwater for 10 to 20 minutes at a time and that can make the eyes quite sore.
Glorious: Some of your images feature breathtaking styling and we’re guessing it’s pretty difficult to control how the garments move. What is this process? Do you have to wait for the perfect shot? Sew down garments? Or is some of it done in post-production?
Zena Holloway: I used to shoot a lot of fashion in underwater studios and there were instances when we’d fix floats or fishing lines to the wardrobe to make it flow in a particular way, but I shoot less fashion now. The trend seems to be on more authentic, honest styling and natural environments – which I welcome.
Glorious: The majority of your work featured on Instagram stars women. Is this a conscious decision and, if so, why?
Zena Holloway: Figures underwater become vessels for telling stories through body language and I think it’s often easier to hang narrative on a female figure. I frequently find myself trying to tap into the subconscious myth and legends of water as well as the other worldly or spiritual context that weightlessness brings to an image. One of the great things about working solely underwater is that I can pull references from all sorts of sources and once applied to an underwater environment, the results take on their own direction. Water has a way of stripping an image back, taking some of the reality away and revealing a different perspective.
Glorious: Aside from capturing a beautiful image, I think you make the viewer stop and think about the deteriorating state of the oceans. I was struck (and shocked) by the amount of pollution I saw in your ‘Hidden Rivers’ series. We won’t be able to discover and enjoy our oceans if we continue on the path we are going. Is this a conscious message you are trying to convey? You must have seen the effects of climate change first-hand.
Zena Holloway: When I first became a diving instructor, there was a lot of talk about saving the coral from the damage that the diving boats were doing to the tops of the reefs with their anchors. Some super people gathered forces, raised money and had huge buoys fitted to stop further damage. The old divers talked about how the reefs used to be loaded with fish, corals, sharks, turtles etc, and I remember wishing I could have seen the ocean in Cousteau’s time. Today scientists report that all coral reefs will be virtually gone in 30 years, caused by CO2 and global warming. The coral reefs are the rainforests of the ocean and they support 25% of all marine life – so if you take away the reefs, what happens? It seems we’re thundering towards an ominous tipping point. This isn’t just about saving a few corals on top of diving reefs any longer; this is about saving whole eco-systems, and possibly us with it.
Unsurprisingly I find that the narrative of climate change has become the driving force for all my work. In 2018 I worked on the ‘Hidden Rivers’ series. In the UK we have some very special chalk streams – there are less than 200 in the world and 85% are found in South East England. They’re special because the chalk makes the rivers run crystal clear and supports a huge diversity of wildlife. I launched into the project focusing on the beauty of my local rivers, but once the camera dipped below the surface it revealed an ugly truth about pollution and over-extracted lost rivers that were being syphoned through our cities with underground tunnels. Whether I’m working in the rivers of Sweden or the oceans of Mexico I’m conscious of trying to always capture a human connection to water. It might be a freediver in a wide ocean, tourists walking along a riverbank, sirens in exotic dresses or even an eel swimming over a discarded beer bottle in a river. Man’s connection to water is the common thread that travels through my work.
Glorious: Tell us about your exciting work with Coral Sculptures.
Zena Holloway: I’ve been blessed to work as an underwater photographer but the increasing plastic pollution I’ve witnessed in our oceans breaks my heart. After a general rant about the (unavoidable) plastic content of my life I decided to join the material revolution – a growing movement of creative scientists, artists and thinkers that search for new ways to integrate organic processes and materials into the creation of our built environment. Most bio-designers experiment with living materials, such as fungi, algae, yeast and bacteria. For a while I grew mushrooms in my basement, searching out different types of mycelium but quickly stumbled into growing grass root.
It struck me that the roots looked a lot like bleached coral and since then I’ve been honing the technique of growing the root into beeswax moulds that reinforce sea fan shapes. The largest sea fan I’ve grown measures 175 x 105 x 5cm and it was recently longlisted at the Aesthetica Art Prize, soon to be exhibited at York Art Gallery. Roots are the building blocks for plant life; corals are the equivalent for sea life. I see the root sculptures as both reality and metaphor, aiming to expose the beauty and vulnerability of coral.
Glorious: You’ve developed the roots into fashion, what is the process and how has this work been received?
Zena Holloway: Often the root feels and looks a lot like textile, so I began to make bracelets, earrings, and other wearables as an experiment. I eventually managed to grow larger pieces, and this led to a complete dress. The idea that we could grow our clothes from seed is interesting both creatively and from an environmental point of view. It’s a concept that seems to have grabbed people’s imagination and I’ve been invited to exhibit root dresses this spring at Milan Design Week, The Green Product Award in Munich and at Raw Assembly in Melbourne. It’s an amazing opportunity but I’m now racing to grow all the new pieces in time – my studio is looking more like a garden lawn than a place of work!
The seed takes about two weeks to grow into the beeswax moulds. It’s a quick process but requires a regimented schedule of daily watering to get a good result. Too much water and the root turns to a sludgy mould, too little and it doesn’t grow properly. I use water run-off from the roof of the studio, recycling the water on a loop. It’s important to me that my practice is sustainable and since starting out I’ve discovered all kinds of life hacks with natural products that I never knew existed. Amongst other things my studio cupboard now contains a healthy supply of old newspaper for making paper clay, corn starch for glue, shellac for varnish and a 5-litre jerry can of white vinegar for cleaning. I buy seed from a local organic farmer and the birds in my garden eat whatever is left over after I’ve harvested the root. I haven’t found ways to be sustainable with everything but I do my best to use local materials, recycle everything possible and keep waste to a minimum.
At the moment I’m growing large sections of root so that the dress designs can flow organically rather than reverting to traditional patterns and stitching techniques. No root section is the same so it’s a creative challenge to find the right pieces to fit each outfit. It’s very exciting to see the pieces evolve and I’m loving the process of working with sustainable and natural materials.
Glorious: What does a Glorious day look like for you?
Zena Holloway: A glorious day is time in my studio growing and shaping root.