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A Voice In The Wilderness

Just when you thought you’ve seen it all, along comes underground picture-maker SJ Alice Bennett, who is shedding new light on the dark, moody, twisting karst passageways that form what explorer Jill Heinerth calls “the veins of Mother Earth.” If you’re ready for a new perspective on the ‘doing of cave diving,’ switch on your primary and dive right in.

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by Michael Menduno
Header photo by SJ Alice Bennett

Photo courtesy of Sam Bennett.

Thirty-four-year old Sarah-Jane “SJ” Alice Bennett is arguably an important new voice, in the niche-y, esoteric world of underwater cave photography. Based in Tulum, Mexico, her pictures—larger than life, moody, dark, spacious, filled with shadow, and shafts and shimmers of light, and replete with cave divers—evoke a deep emotional response in karst-inclined viewers akin to the feeling of being there. At the same time, they invite us to step outside of ourselves and register what we are seeing from a new perspective, “That’s what we look like?” One could say that she captures the ‘doing of cave diving,’ an approach born out of decades of her street aka lifestyle and event photography. Bennett, who was British-born and raised in Berlin, simply calls it “documenting the dive.”

The diminutive, blond, vegetarian cave diver, began documenting the world around her before she turned 10. That was the year her parents—her mom is a passionate photographer—bought her that first 35 mm point-and-shoot for her birthday. “I begged them for ages,” she explained. She has carried a camera with her ever since. Bennett learned to scuba dive two years later through her local dive shop in Berlin; however due to an instructor mix-up she never got her card. Nevertheless, it’s fair to say that these two events set her life in motion.

Photo courtesy of Joram Mennes.

Bennett completed a diploma in Graphic and Communication Design, and then went on to finish her Bachelor of Arts degree in Visual and Motion Design in 2011. Ready to say goodbye to school, she set off for Thailand for a month to finally get her diving certification. That cinched it. She moved to Thailand less than a year later.
Bennett plunged into diving and stepped up her training. She worked as a divemaster, and then became a recreational instructor but said that she didn’t really enjoy it. “I had way more fun just documenting people’s dives,” she explained. From there she got into technical and cave diving and interned at the local tech dive shop. All the while, she built up her freelance graphics art and photography business landing the prestigious global professional services firm Ernst & Young. 

Photo courtesy of Joram Mennes.

In 2015, flush with cash from a large annual events job, Bennett made a long-awaited trek to Mexico for a few months of cave diving and decided to move there. But not before her major client laid her off. She returned to Berlin for a year and a half, worked hard and saved up money for a new professional grade camera and housing. 

She finally moved to Mexico in 2017, where she met her partner Jon Kieren, who is a technical diving instructor, and continued to build her portfolio and her freelance business. This includes making pictures of instructors and visiting cave divers in the karst environment.

Photo courtesy of Jon Kieren

She hopes to be able to document expeditions and exploration projects as well as to add more brand or lifestyle photography into the mix, particularly for diving clients. Last December she did a shoot for Fathom Dive Systems; her pictures are being used on Fathom social media. Last month, one of Bennett’s pictures of two divers in the Blue Abyss section of Sistema Sac Atun was selected as Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) Photo of the Year for 2020.

We recently met up with the underground image-maker and asked her to explain her approach to cave photography and share some of her recent work. Here’s what the photographic phenom known as SJ had to say.

When people ask me, “How do you take those images?”, all I want to answer is, “I swim around and take a photo whenever I see something cool”. 

Simplistic as that sounds, it’s pretty much what I do. I suppose I could wax lyrical about light colors and temperatures, as well as shutter speeds and camera housings, but frankly, that’s enough to send even me to sleep. Besides, I don’t regard the technical aspect of photography as the critical element that enables me to connect with an audience, whether it’s fellow cave divers or people who have never seen a submerged cave. Since my photos are fundamentally all about establishing a connection with people and communicating my love of these amazing places to them, I think it’s more interesting—and relevant—to talk about how I capture the caves on camera. The technical aspect, while interesting to some, is simply the means to that end.

I have always been interested in photography, and like most photographers, I started shooting topside, where it’s comparatively easy to make use of whatever natural light exists, and to simply augment it. I didn’t start shooting underwater until I had garnered several years of topside experience. It was somewhat of a transition, although not immense because there’s still a little natural light to play with, and I had great fun using it as a backdrop for the gorgeous reef critters darting back and forth in front of my lens. 

My first foray into cave photography didn’t happen until 2015, some years after I started shooting in open water. I looked at hundreds of cave photos to identify and refine the aspects I both liked and disliked, and although I did manage to speak directly to a few cave photographers about their process, I spent a great deal more time looking at pictures trying to figure out how the images were created. Since I was using a borrowed camera rig and borrowed lights, it was perhaps inevitable that I had to listen to people around me telling me “this is how it’s done”. After mulling it all over, I distilled all the input I had received into one simple principle: “We swim and I press the shutter when I see ‘that special something’”. It worked for me the first time I took a professional camera rig into a cave, and it works for me to this day.

I chose a very familiar, shallow cave for my first cave dive with a professional camera set-up; that gave me the necessary time to not only adjust to swimming with a large rig but also, the opportunity to take photos in a few different parts of the cave. I also had a very familiar and experienced buddy, Tamara, with whom communication was fast and simple. 

Instead of doing the more traditional staged setups that I had been urged to do, I decided to just let her swim with a video light and shoot as we went along. Frankly, that decision was partly made for selfish reasons; I didn’t want to miss out on a “real” cave dive! I felt that it would be a waste of a dive and all the effort needed to carry heavy gear in the hot, sticky jungle just to hang out 10 minutes from the cave entrance to get that “perfect” shot. There was, however, also a more altruistic reason for my decision to eschew set-up shots and adopt a more improvisational approach. To my mind, the former approach would have run contrary to the way I perceived cave diving. Since photos have always been my preferred means of connecting with people and showing them what I see, I felt that capturing dynamic shots would be more authentic for me, so that’s how I ran my first ever cave shoot.

Looking at the images I captured on that first dive, I realize how even back then, I was more fascinated by the cave’s darkness and shadows than perfectly lighting its each and every corner.

That fascination has only intensified, and to this day, a characterizing feature of my pictures is that I use light to highlight the shadows, rather than erase them.

I want to showcase the caves how I perceive them to be: dark, mysterious, and moody places full of ancient beauty and history.

For me, the definition of a “good” photo is one that not only captures the beauty of darkness and shadows of this very alien world but also conveys the diver’s emotions as they literally glide back through geological time.

Painting the cave with shadows is all very well, but since the etymology of the word “photograph” means “drawing with light”, how do you capture darkness when photography only works by capturing light?

While having a dark and black soul definitely helps, I also—more or less—rely on the same techniques I learned ages ago when working as a topside documentary and event photographer. I say “more or less” because there are a lot of different factors that come into play when bringing a big camera rig into a pitch-black and very hostile environment. But certain aspects, like capturing natural scenes of people doing cool stuff (or also very boring stuff when stuck at an international tax symposium), remain constant. Spotting moments that are interesting and capturing people’s emotions and interaction with each other and the environment is the key to photos that we as the viewer can connect with.

This photo taken of Nelly and Roger Mikhaiel Williams at the Blue Abyss in Sistema Sac Atun was selected as the GUE Photo of the Year for 2020.

Apart from being proficient and safe as a diver, the most important factor of successful cave photography is using light to create “natural” scenes in a naturally dark environment.

I have learned to do this—and it’s an evolving learning process—mostly by experimenting with different approaches. Shooting on the fly, as I mostly do now, keeps images dynamic and makes it possible to capture random scenes you wouldn’t achieve with staged photos. Planning every aspect of a photo dive is, therefore, something I actively try to avoid. Of course, I stick to the normal rules of planning a cave dive, such as gas management and cave navigation; in fact, these serve as “markers” for dividing the dive into segments and organizing the dive in my mind. They also present the perfect opportunity to capture good “action shots” here and there. 

In some ways, one can draw parallels between a cave shoot and a wedding shoot. When photographing a wedding, there are always key landmark events: the exchanging of rings between the bridal couple, their first kiss, and their walk back down the aisle as a married couple. As the photographer, you can’t help but capture those defining moments of the ceremony. But you also have to be flexible and adapt when a perfect scene suddenly changes, like an over-exuberant Auntie Esmeralda blocking the view as she jumps up and down with joy. Awareness of what is happening around you at all times is key.

A finely-honed sense of situational awareness is not only instrumental in getting a good shot but in a cave, it also keeps you alive.

Before a commercial shoot, I always brief models on the use of their hand-held video lights. Of course, you can’t expect people that have never before handled a video light to be perfect at this. The same applies to the lighting assistants with which I work. Even though I have trained them to work with lights to achieve the effects that I want, it is impossible for them to really know what exactly is happening, and what I’m seeing behind the camera. It is definitely a much harder job than pressing a shutter. As the photographer, it’s part of my job to adapt to the scenes they create. I love this aspect of teamwork and am so very grateful for the continued support that makes the photos I take possible.

I believe the interplay between models and lighting assistants working imperfectly together helps generate the most authentic images of a cave dive. For me, the most truthful images depict a well-oiled team working together that experience moments of randomness and have to decide in a split second how to react.

This style of shooting makes it possible to dive with people that have never modeled and worked with lighting before, in caves that you’ve never seen previously, and still achieve amazing results. 

This way of shooting has also allowed me to show a part of cave diving that is often overlooked as a photography subject; training. I can work with a lighting assistant to capture training scenarios in real-time as they play out without interacting with the students or instructors. I’m hoping that these images can show the lighter “behind the scenes” perspective of what cave training is like, making it a bit less daunting of an undertaking for those who might be interested. And it might also be interesting to look back at these photos in years to come to see how cave training has changed and evolved. (And laugh at the old school dry suits we used to wear.)

In the end, I still feel like I’m just swimming around, I see cool stuff, and I press the shutter to freeze time in a frame. Which is what I love doing most in this world. 

You Can Find More of SJ Here:

www.facebook.com/SJAliceBennett
www.instagram.com/sj.alice.bennett
www.sjalicebennett.com


Michael Menduno is InDepth’s editor-in-chief and an award-winning reporter and technologist who has written about diving and diving technology for 30 years. He coined the term “technical diving.” His magazine aquaCORPS: The Journal for Technical Diving (1990-1996), helped usher tech diving into mainstream sports diving. He also produced the first Tek, EUROTek, and ASIATek conferences, and organized Rebreather Forums 1.0 and 2.0. Michael received the OZTEKMedia Excellence Award in 2011, the EUROTek Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012, and the TEKDive USA Media Award in 2018. In addition to his responsibilities at InDepth, Menduno is a contributing editor for DAN Europe’s Alert Diver magazine, and X-Ray Magazine.

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The Price of Helium is Up in the Air

With helium prices on the rise, and limited or no availability in some regions, we decided to conduct a survey of global GUE instructors and dive centers to get a reading on their pain thresholds. We feel your pain—especially you OC divers! InDEPTH editor Ashley Stewart then reached out to the helium industry’s go-to-guy Phil Kornbluth for a prognosis. Here’s what we found out.

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Helium Technical Diving

By Ashley Stewart. Header image by SJ Alice Bennett.

Helium is one of the most abundant elements in the universe, but here on Earth, it’s the only element considered a nonrenewable resource. The colorless, odorless, and tasteless inert gas is generated deep underground through the natural radioactive decay of elements such as uranium and thorium in a process that takes many millennia. Once it reaches the Earth’s surface, helium is quickly released into the atmosphere—where it’s deemed too expensive to recover—and rises until it ultimately escapes into outer space. 

Luckily for divers who rely on the non-narcotic and lightweight gas for deep diving (not to mention anyone who needs an MRI scan or who uses virtually any electronic device), some helium mixes with natural gas underground and can be recovered through drilling and refinement.

Yet the world’s helium supply depends primarily on just 15 liquid helium production facilities around the globe, making the industry uniquely prone to supply chain disruptions, which this year caused the industry’s fourth prolonged shortage since 2006. The shortage has caused many technical dive shops around the world to raise prices, limit fills, or stop selling trimix altogether, according to an InDEPTH survey of GUE instructors and affiliated dive centers.

Longtime helium industry consultant Phil Kornbluth, however, expects the shortage will begin to ease gradually now through the end of the year, and for supply to increase significantly in the future.

Photo courtesy of Extreme Exposure

While a majority of the world’s helium is produced in just a few countries, a new gas processing plant in Siberia is expected to produce as much as 60 million cubic meters of helium per year, about as much as the US—the world’s largest helium producer—was able to produce in 2020. The Siberian plant ran for three weeks in September, but experienced major disruptions over the past year, including a fire in October and an explosion in January, that delayed its planned opening until at least 2023.

Meanwhile, according to Kornbluth, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Texas closed down from mid-January to early June due to safety, staff, and equipment issues, wiping out at least 10% of the market supply. The plant reopened in June and is back to normal production as of July 10. The supply of helium was further reduced as two of Qatar’s three plants closed down for planned maintenance, a fire paused production at a plant in Kansas, and the war in Ukraine reduced production of one Algerian plant.

With the exception of the plant in Siberia, Kornbluth said virtually all of the recent disruptions to the helium supply chain have been resolved and should yield some relief. And the future looks promising. Once the Siberian plant is online, it’s expected to eventually boost the world’s helium supply by one-third. While sanctions against Russia could prevent some buyers from purchasing the country’s helium, Kornbluth expects there will be plenty of demand from countries that as of now are not participating, like China, Korea, Taiwan, and India, though there could be delays if those countries have to purchase the expensive, specialized cryogenic containers required to transport bulk liquid helium. “Sanctions are unlikely to keep the helium out of the market,” Kornbluth said.

Meanwhile, there are at least 30 startup companies exploring for helium, and there are other projects in the pipeline including in the U.S., Canada, Qatar, Tanzania, and South Africa. “Yes, we’re in a shortage and, yes, it’s been pretty bad, but it should start improving,” Kornbluth told InDEPTH. “The world is not running out of helium anytime soon.” 

THE SURVEY:

To find out how the helium shortage is affecting divers, InDEPTH surveyed Global Underwater Explorers’ (GUE) instructors and dive centers and received 40 responses from around the world. 

The survey’s highest reported helium price was in Bonaire—a Dutch island in the Caribbean that imports its helium from the Netherlands—where helium costs as much as US$0.14 Liter(L)/$4.00 cubic foot (cf) and is expected to rise. At that price, a set of trimix 18/45 (18% O2, 45% He) in double HP100s (similar to D12s) would cost around $360.00 and trimix 15/55 would cost $440.00.

“We have enough to support both open circuit and CCR, but in the near future, if the situation remains, we may be forced to supply only CCR divers,” Bonaire-based GUE instructor German “Mr. G.” Arango told InDEPTH. “We have enough for 2022, but 2023 is hard to predict.”

Not far behind Bonaire was the Philippines, where helium costs around US$0.13 L/$3.68 cf—if you can even get it. Based on the responses to our survey, Asia is experiencing the greatest shortages. Supply is unavailable in some parts of the Philippines, limited in South Korea, and unavailable for diving purposes in Japan as suppliers are prioritizing helium in the country for medical uses, according to four instructors from the region. In Australia, it’s relatively easy to obtain.

Four US-based instructors reported that helium prices are increasing significantly and supply is decreasing. Helium remains “very limited” in Florida and prices in Seattle increased to $2.50 from $1.50 per cubic foot ($0.09 L from about $0.05 L) in the past six months, and there was a period when the region couldn’t get helium as suppliers were prioritizing medical uses. In Los Angeles, prices have reached as high as $2.80 cf (nearly $0.10 L) and one instructor reported helium is only available for hospitals and medical purposes, even for long-term gas company clients who are grandfathered in. Another Los Angeles-based instructor said direct purchases of helium had been limited to one T bottle per month, down from three. 

“Currently, we are only providing trimix fills for our CCR communities,” GUE instructor Steven Millington said. “Possibly this will change, but the current direction for active technical divers is CCR. I agree (and already see) that open circuit technical diving in some regions will go the way of the dinosaur.”

In Western Europe, helium is becoming more difficult and expensive to acquire, 10 instructors in the region told us. Instructors in the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, and Germany reported longer wait times, high price increases, and limited supply. 

Meanwhile, Northern Europe appears to be a bright spot on the map with comparatively reasonable prices and general availability. In Norway, two instructors reported helium is easy to obtain, with no lead time from suppliers. Likewise in Sweden and Finland, though one Finnish instructor told us that in the past year prices have increased significantly.

Three instructors in Northern Africa and the Middle East said helium is easy to get, but is becoming more expensive. The price of Sofnolime used in rebreathers is increasing in Egypt as helium becomes more expensive and more difficult to obtain. Lebanon has minimal lead times, but helium is among the most expensive in all of the responses we received at US$0.10 L/$2.83 cf.

Helium is generally easy to obtain in Mexico, though prices are increasing dramatically and instructors are starting to see delays. In Brazil, prices in São Paulo quadrupled in the past 12 months and by 30% in Curitiba. Suppliers there aren’t accepting new customers and existing customers are having difficulty obtaining supply. Supply is mostly constrained in Canada, with the exception of one outlier: an instructor who has a longstanding account with the gas company and pays less than US$ 0.035 L/$1.00 cf. “I have been hearing of helium shortage every year for the last decade,” instructor Michael Pinault of Brockville Ontario told InDEPTH, “but I have never not been able to purchase it.”

Many instructors around the world said that helium shortages and skyrocketing prices are, no surprise, fueling a shift to CCR for individual divers and exploration projects. “CCR is saving our exploration projects,” GUE instructor Mario Arena, who runs exploration projects in Europe, said. “These projects would be impossible without it.”

Please let us know what helium prices and availability are in your area: InDEPTH Reader Helium survey

Additional Resources

US Geological Survey: Helium Data Sheet: Mineral Commodity Summaries 2021

NPR: The World Is Constantly Running Out Of Helium. Here’s Why It Matters (2019)

The Diver Medic: The Future of Helium is Up in the Air,” Everything you wanted to know about helium, but were too busy analyzing your gas to ask—talk by InDEPTH chief Michael Menduno


InDepth Managing Editor Ashley Stewart is a Seattle-based journalist and tech diver. Ashley started diving with Global Underwater Explorers and writing for InDepth in 2021. She is a GUE Tech 2 and CCR1 diver and on her way to becoming an instructor. In her day job, Ashley is an investigative journalist reporting on technology companies. She can be reached at: ashley@gue.com


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