Under water

by World Press Photo

The first winning pictures made under water showed swimming babies in Russia, photographed by Sergey Vasiliev and Valery Shustov in 1979, when interest in water birth had started to become enormously popular in Europe and Northern America, influenced by the views of the Russian obstetrician Dr. Igor Charkovsky.

The first to be awarded for an underwater sports photo of a swimmer in action was British-Australian photographer Tim Clayton. Using a remote controlled underwater camera, Clayton captured James Parrack heading for the surface during training for the 1990 Commonwealth Games. In 2000, Trent Parke was awarded for his remarkable story ‘The Seventh Wave’, which he shot with his partner Narelle Autio, about beach life in Australia. The result is an almost surreal story of swimming people floating and flying through the water.


The history of underwater photography goes back to the late 19th century when the French marine zoologist Louis Boutan made the first successful underwater photos in the Mediterranean Sea. He conducted all sorts of experiments to build a waterproof camera that could withstand water pressure, and included battery-powered lights, as the lack of light in deep sea was one of the main obstacles to overcome. Additional lighting did not only shorten the exposure times but also brought color back into the picture, which is normally lost the deeper you dive.
In the 1920s, National Geographic staff photographer Charles Martin and ichthyologist Dr. William Longly applied magnesium flash powder explosions above the water surface, illuminating the sea beneath, which enabled them to picture fish swimming. Martin and Longly were also the first to make color photos underwater. The invention of the aqualung, the scuba’s predecessor, in 1943 by Émile Gagnan and Jacques Cousteau revolutionized diving and stimulated the development of underwater photography enormously.


At World Press Photo, the submission of underwater photos to the contest increased after the introduction of the Nature category in 1981 and the Science & Technology category in 1986. In 1993, Pierre Perrin received second prize in the Nature category for his so-called “over-under,” a split image taken half above and half under water with a wide-angle lens, of two cormorants catching a fish in China. To bridge the great difference in contrast above and below the water surface, Perrin used a stroboscopic lamp, or strobe in short, to give the underwater scene some extra light. Olivier Blaise only used the available light just below the water surface to photograph a swimming elephant in the Bay of Bengal.
Norbert Wu also brought his strobes when he traveled under Antarctic ice to make his 2000 award-winning photo story about Antarctica’s marine world, which proved to be much more diverse, colorful, and dynamic than scientists had previously thought it to be. Combining his flashlight with the available light from above, Wu brought a previously invisible world to life. By including a member of his team in nearly every picture, he also conveyed a sense of scale.


The rise of digital photography at the end of the 1990s also had a huge impact on underwater photography, as it meant that photographers no longer had to surface after shooting a single roll of film. One of the most prolific underwater photographers of the digital age in the World Press Photo contest is Canadian photojournalist and conservationist Paul Nicklen. Since 2004, Nicklen has won six prizes at World Press Photo and all of his winning photo stories were shot below or just above the water surface, mostly in polar regions. A marine biologist by training and an expert diver as well, his photography focuses on the delicate relationship between healthy ecosystems and marine wildlife.

Sunken civilizations

Underwater photography is also an excellent tool for archeologists who research ancient shipwrecks and the ruins of sunken civilizations. In 1995, Stéphane Compoint made a photo story of the legendary lighthouse of Alexandria, whose remains had been discovered by a French archeological expedition in 1994 on the floor of Alexandria’s eastern harbor. Several years later, underwater photographer Christoph Gerigk was awarded twice for his images of the ancient city of Heracleion, known as Thonis in Egypt, discovered in Aboukir Bay near Alexandria in 2000. As a member of the archeological team, led by Franck Goddio, Gerigk was not only required to make appealing pictures but also conduct a systematical documentation.

Sergey Vasiliev

Valery Shustov

Tim Clayton

Trent Parke

Pierre Perrin

Olivier Blaise

Norbert Wu

Paul Nicklen

Paul Nicklen

Paul Nicklen

Paul Nicklen

Stephane Compoint

Christoph Gerigk

Christoph Gerigk