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Toxic Underwater Photoshoot 30m Deep With Benjamin Von Wong

See how Ballantine's and Benjamin Von Wong created a 'hyper-real' portrait deep underwater above a bed of deadly hydrogen sulfide.

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Benjamin Von Wong’s Underwater River


Photographer Benjamin Von Wong is well known for taking on photographic challenges and just as you think he can't take on a shoot that's more complicated, creative and ambitious, he teams up with Ballantine’s Scotch whisky to capture a portrait underwater in Mexico above a Cenote (sinkhole) which has a cloud-like layer of hydrogen sulfide floating 30m down it. 

If you're wondering where you've heard Benjamin Von Wong's name before, it may be from our previous article about him capturing a series of fire-filled portraits with a Smart Phone.


Benjamin Von Wong’s Underwater River


Searching For Sinkholes 

Anyway, back to the waters of Tulum, Mexico where Benjamin, along with a team of 35 people, headed to participate in a unique, experimental underwater photographic project which took one month of intensive planning and research, across three continents, to come together. The specialist team, comprising of some of the world's most experienced divers, set builders, underwater filmmakers and a record-breaking freediver headed for the Mexican jungle where they explored several underwater sinkholes which are connected by subterranean caves.

Eventually, a particular sinkhole known as ‘Angelita’ or ‘little angel’, which descends 60m into the earth and is surrounded by clear crystal water, was chosen. Why this one? Well, at a 30m depth, a natural layer of milky white hydrogen sulfide rests above a rocky outcrop, creating the illusion of an 'underwater river', that's surrounded by a natural scenery of trees. Here, Benjamin and his team set to work recreating a contemporary version of a fading ancient tradition, the Chinese Cormorant Fisherman. But at depths of 30m, the location created a myriad of challenges and difficulties which Benjamin and the team had to set out to master.


Benjamin Von Wong’s Underwater River


It Just Got Complicated 

As you can imagine, underwater photo shoots aren't the simplest things in the world to master. Posing, adjusting equipment and giving instructions become a lot more complicated and that's before you've even remembered you need to carry an air supply with you so you can continue to breath. Lighting rules also change, particularly when working at the depths Benjamin and his team were, as Benjamin explains on his blog: "Transport that shoot 30m underwater and suddenly things become exponentially more complex. Ambient light levels and visibility plummet, dive time is reduced significantly while the safety risks from potential malfunction increase."

"Add onto that a toxic layer of opaque hydrogen sulfide and only five days in Mexico meant we were really setting ourselves up for a challenge," says Benjamin Von Wong. 

Underwater Lights 

To design the light rig, the team had to figure out where they'd be positioned in the water which involved diving down, fastening a rope where they thought the set would be and sending a buoy back up to the surface so the lights, cables and generator could be aligned correctly. 

"The goal was to have an ethereal moon-like glow over the entire set, combined with an underwater lantern and some cinematic side lighting," says Benjamin. 

6 Orca lights were attached to a frame and sent below the surface, just out of frame, to a depth of about 70 feet. To light the lantern, a orange gel was placed inside  it which was then duct-taped to a dive torch. 2 additional lights were powered by batteries and used by one of the divers who acted as a mobile light source. 


Behind the scenes footage


Camera, Action! 

Once the set was in place, which involved lowering and strapping down a 3m home-made fiberglass boat to the debris beneath the toxic layer of hydrogen sulfide, the shoot could begin. 

The model, Lance Lee Davis, was escorted underwater with two safety divers who ensured oxygen was always in reach and Benjamin followed with a safety diver who not only kept an eye on him but aided with buoyancy so he could focus on getting the shot. 

Instructions were written on an underwater dive slate and hand gestures were used to guide the crew while Lance worked his way through a series of pre-practiced poses. 

The shoot could last 20 minutes and 2-minute breathing cycles were put in place for Lance who, with the help of the team, refined the poses on each cycle and tweaked his position to improve the shot. 

Commenting on the project in a few final sentences over on his blog, Benjamin says: "I believe that projects like these are important. They prove that nothing is impossible if you set your heart and mind to it."

"Achieving amazing results is not simply a result of being lucky but of constant problem solving, amazing teamwork and believing in your ability to complete the vision you have in your mind," Says Benjamin Von Wong.

Behind the scenes footage


Ballantine's have put a short behind-the-scenes video all about the shoot for 'Ballantine’s Presents Benjamin Von Wong’s Underwater River' which you can see below and do take the time to visit Benjamin's blog and website where more tales from other shoots can be found. 


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