Beneath the surface of the shark fashion shoot

Dive beneath the scenes our underwater fashion shoot in the Bahamas. Words by Damian Foxe and Millicent Simon

Zena Holloway is poised for the perfect shot of model Frederick Szkoda
Zena Holloway is poised for the perfect shot of model Frederick Szkoda | Image: Pia Oyarzun

After only half a day’s introductory diving course, model Frederick Szkoda is striking poses 12m below the surface of the Atlantic, off the coast of Nassau in the Bahamas. He stands on the ocean bed surrounded by sharks with no diving equipment – just ankle weights to keep him “grounded” – and he “buddy breathes” (shares a tank) with one of two safety divers whenever he signals that he needs air.

Szkoda buddy breathing with a safety diver
Szkoda buddy breathing with a safety diver | Image: Zena Holloway

Suited and booted for a British winter, Szkoda (first picture and second picture) wears neither protective chainmail nor mask while filming. He shuts his eyes against the salty water while technical adjustments are made by the crew – something that “takes some balls” while surrounded by sharks, says photographer Zena Holloway (first picture).

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Szkoda’s acting and dance training are evident as he leaps nimbly across the ocean bed and the bow of a sunken shipwreck, artfully arranging his clothing as it takes on a life of its own. Working on the wreck has extra challenges, as there are stronger currents. At one point he opens an umbrella and is lifted up, up and away… and has to be rescued by the safety divers. He’s weighted with a further 9lb of lead to prevent him from being swept out of shot.

Shark wrangler Marcus Kitching
Shark wrangler Marcus Kitching | Image: Zena Holloway

While the model, photographer and three-person dive crew are on the ocean bed, junior fashion editor Millicent Simon remains on the support boat preparing the clothes for each shot. Battling motion sickness, tropical sun and intense humidity, she wrestles with bulging suitcases. The choppy sea hurls waves on deck, drenching the contents. She unpeels the soggy coats, jackets, shirts and trousers from the cases, deploying air tanks, steering wheels, metal railings and ladders as temporary clothes rails and mannequins.

Air tanks and railings become temporary clothes rails
Air tanks and railings become temporary clothes rails

Shark wrangler Marcus Kitching (third picture) has nine boxes of dead fish to attract and “manage” the sharks. For each underwater session, he attracts around 20 Caribbean reef sharks, some up to 3m long. They aren’t man‑eaters, but even an unintentional nip can slice off a finger, so Kitching wears head-to-toe chainmail.

One&Only Ocean Club Bahamas
One&Only Ocean Club Bahamas

Twelve metres is much deeper than underwater photographer Zena Holloway usually works; it’s a long way to carry the kit for each of the shots, but it’s the perfect location for the shoot. Four battery-powered lights, two stands, 60lb of lead, two video cameras, two Canon cameras in Seacam housing, plus alternative clothes and accessory options for each shot have to be taken down in as few trips as possible to avoid the bends (too many deep dives in too short a time cause dissolved gases in the bloodstream to form bubbles inside the body when depressurising on ascent – resulting in joint pains and, in extreme cases, paralysis and death). There’s a limit to the number of sessions that any diver can do in one day, so Kitching’s shark-wrangler role stretches to ad-hoc modelling in a natty Kenzo coat and trousers and Jimmy Choo shoes.

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There are just 40 minutes of each dive-time, so the crew have to work fast. Lights are quickly secured with weights, and as red is lost from the colour spectrum at this depth underwater, red gel is applied. Every so often a shark rams into the photographer’s strobes or clips the crew with a fin as it streaks past. They also stir up great plumes of sand and debris, so the shoot has to move to a sunken wreck – the 200ft former Haitian freighter Ray of Hope.

After a second challenging day underwater, the team are left with 40 empty air cylinders, nine sodden designer outfits, one set of very bloodshot eyes – and an amazing set of pictures. It’s a wrap.

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