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Brown In Bardo: Exploring the Commercial Art of Diving with Jason Brown

British photo phenom Jason Brown continues to redefine the commercial art of diving, all the while thrilling dive audiences around the planet. Where does he look for inspiration? And why is he always seen in the company of a boxer named Rufus? InDepth editor Amanda White chats up the man behind BARDOCreative in search of answers.

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By Amanda White
All photos by Jason Brown

Jason Brown with BARDOCreative’s chief morale officer Rufus, an essential part of Brown’s creative process.

British picture maker Jason Brown has been wowing the dive industry with stunning magazine covers, striking underwater imagery, and creative commercial photography. If you haven’t heard of him or his company, BARDOCreative, he is a man of many talents, who has transported us through time and space to feel as if we are a part of his images. We recently had a chat with Jason to learn a little bit about him and his photography. Dive in!

InDepth: Please tell us a little bit about your background.

Jason Brown: As a kid growing up in the ’80s, I loved tinkering with early 8-bit computers. Like many teenagers of the time, I would spend my days glued to an old TV screen connected to a Commodore 64 in my bedroom. What really changed things for me, though, was the advent of the Commodore Amiga. The Amiga was a revelation, and programs like Deluxe Paint got me hooked on using computers for creativity. It did stuff that was just unheard of back then. You could record and remix digital sound, overlay graphics onto live video with a genlock, and even capture real-world digital images directly into the computer and manipulate them in Deluxe Paint. The Amiga practically invented digital art!

The Amiga got me my first job working in editorial for one of the biggest consumer magazine publishers in the U.K. Working on magazines was a lot of fun, as I would spend everyday rubbing shoulders with some very creative people—writers, fellow editors, designers, illustrators, and photographers. As a completely self-taught photographer, I credit those early magazine days as my best teacher.

How did your underwater journey begin? 

Brown and buddy indulging in some UK beach diving..

If I have one regret, it’s that I wish I’d taken up diving earlier. Like many, I was convinced to sign up when a friend was given a PADI Open Water course for his birthday. I was in my late 20s when I took my first breath of compressed air and some twenty-plus years later, I’m still loving every minute of it. Having switched to diving a twinset fairly early on, I discovered Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) and took DIR Fundamentals (as it was called back then) in 2006 with former GUE instructor Andy Kerslake. Since then I’ve climbed the GUE ladder to Tech 2 and more recently, CCR 1 with Graham Blackmore, one of the best instructors that I’ve been fortunate enough to train with. The switch to CCR has been a revelation. It’s been tough unlearning some deeply ingrained habits, but it’s been so worth it. 

What was your motivation to switch to CCR?

My switch to CCR was driven by a single, very focused desire to photograph the wrecks of Malin Head off the coast of Ireland. Laying in 60 meters-plus, you can do them on open circuit, but to truly appreciate them without running up an obscene helium bill, you need to dive them on CCR. I’m sure everyone has seen photo pioneer Leigh Bishop’s images of the massive 13.5” naval guns on the wreck of HMS Audacious or the Sherman tanks stacked on top of each other on the Empire Heritagethe Malin wrecks are a photographer’s dream! Visibility of 40 meters-plus is not unheard of, so you can really capture the scale of these amazing wrecks.

You participated in project diving before your switch to CCR. Can you tell me a little bit about what projects you were involved in and your role?

One of the first projects that I was lucky enough to be involved in was based out of Portland in Dorset here in the U.K. A team of passionate volunteers set it upon themselves to scour the seabed off Portland and Weymouth looking for uncharted wrecks, many of which had never been dived before. Using sidescan data captured during longs days scanning the seabed, we’d identify marks of interest and would set out to dive them. Sometimes those marks would simply be scrap on the seabed but, with surprising frequency, we’d find stuff of genuine historical interest, too.

Stock footage: Inside the SMS Coln at Scapa Flow.

“What always surprised me was the sheer volume of objects of historical significance just waiting to be discovered.”

What always surprised me was the sheer volume of objects of historical significance just waiting to be discovered. We got to the point where finding yet another Admiralty anchor or a centuries-old cannon was considered routine! Then, of course, there were those days when we’d stumble across really exciting finds. The seabed off Portland is very dynamicit constantly shifts, burying some objects and revealing others. For me, a real highlight was the day we located a large section of hull from a 17th century vessel that had been buried for many years. We were certainly the first people to lay eyes on her since the day she sank! It’s a bittersweet memory too as my buddy that day is no longer with us.

Stock footage: Diver on a vintage wreck with wooden decking located in the waters around the UK.

My role on that project was to record what we’d find underwater through my photography. Photography had two purposes: The first would be to aid in the identification of the objects we’d find. The secondand possibly even more important purposewould be that my images hopefully inspire others to take an interest in maritime history. We even set up a visitor center where divers and non-divers alike could view artifacts recovered from wrecks in the local area and learn more about Portland’s rich maritime history. These days, of course, the focus has switched more to photogrammetry, but I still feel that photography has an important role to play. 3D models are a fantastic visualisation tool, but they can also be rather clinical. Photography, on the other hand, gives far greater scope for creativity.

“These days, of course, the focus has switched more to photogrammetry, but I still feel that photography has an important role to play.”

In recent years, I’ve started giving something back to the community by sponsoring a number of U.K.-based projects. I’m proud to support the amazing work that GUE Instructor Marcus Rose has been doing with Project Baseline here in the U.K. Hopefully I’ll be able to get actively involved in a few of them, too!

You have no interest in photogrammetry?

Far from it. I honestly think that photogrammetry is a very exciting development, especially for project diving. I just don’t believe that it replaces traditional photography. If anything, it supplements it very nicely. Diving explorers like Ingmar and Richard Lundgren, Immi Wallin, Chris Rowlands, and Kari Hyttinen are doing some amazing things with photogrammetry and have proven its worth as a fantastic tool for visualising wreck sites. I see photogrammetry as an additional skill set that I could bring to diving projects, rather than being a skill I can offer commercially. The key to being a useful member of any project team is to bring skills to the table that both compliment and indeed supplement what they may already have. If you have the camera gear, it makes sense not to limit what you can offer.

Tell us a bit about how you came to name your business Bardo?

Swimming through the veins of Mother Earth in France, 2011

Contrary to what most seem to think, it’s got nothing to do with 1950s French actresses and a whole lot to do with my exploration of Buddhism back in my 20s. It’s actually a reference from the Bardo Thodol (or TheTibetan Book of the Dead as it’s called in the West). Wikipedia explains it better than I could as “the state of existence intermediate between two lives on earth.” The Tibetan text describes, and is intended to guide one through, the experiences that the consciousness has after death in the Bardothe interval between death and the next rebirth. Who knew I was quite so deep, eh?

Very poetic. How did you get into photography? 

My first exposure to professional photography was during my magazine publishing days. Magazines are very visual mediums and need a constant supply of professional-quality photographs, and so I would spend many long days trapped in hot and stuffy photographic studios working alongside some very talented photographers. Seeing how they shaped light always fascinated me, and it’s something that I explore a lot through my own photography.

My own passion in photography started when I inherited my father’s SLR camera. It was a pretty basic camera, but it taught me how to shoot in full manual mode. Modern digital cameras are very sophisticated, but you still need to understand basic camera theoryf/stops, ISO speed, shutter speed, and so on. This is particularly important underwater as cameras will only capture what they perceive to be a correct exposure based on top-side theory. Full manual unlocks full creativityyou can capture the image you want rather than the image that the camera thinks you want.

Some of Jason Brown’s cover story images including GUE’s QUEST magazine.

When I first learned to dive, it didn’t take long before I wanted to take a camera with me on my adventures. Back then, film was still king, so my first attempts at underwater photography were captured on a roll of 36 exposuresmany of which usually ended up in the bin. Shooting film is far more challenging than digital. Compared to the technology available to photographers today, getting a decent image on film was a lot more hit-and-miss.

Do you ever still shoot with film?

I honestly haven’t shot on film for many, many years now. Very occasionally, though, I do like to set myself a challenge. I will allow myself a maximum of 24 shots and go shoot something interesting. Forcing yourself to not “spray and pray” really makes you focus (if you’ll pardon the pun) on each and every shot. That’s one aspect of film photography that I fear we’ve lostthat sense that you’ve only got a very limited opportunity to get it right. In my experience at least, restricting yourself in this way often results in far better photos

“That’s one aspect of film photography that I fear we’ve lostthat sense that you’ve only got a very limited opportunity to get it right.”

You are doing more than just capturing your time underwater, you now work with brands and magazines doing commercial photography and graphic design. How did you get into that?

Photoshoot for Apeks.

Through blood, sweat, and tears. Seriously though, none of it happened overnight, and it required a lot of networking to get my name out there and develop the contacts I have today. Ten years ago I was working in marketing for a travel company, and I would always become disheartened when days trapped in the office would stop me from going diving. In 2010 I made the decision to sack my boss and start working for myself. I really didn’t have a robust business plan; I just knew I wanted to be able to go diving whenever I wanted. Of course, the reality is somewhat different, and I still find myself occasionally trapped by work. Finding like-minded friends who can skip work to go diving is always a challenge, too, and then there are those pesky project deadlines that still get in the way. To be fair, being self-employed does give me a lot more flexibility to do what I want when I want, though. That alone makes it worthwhile.

Does anyone work with you on your projects?

For me, every shoot is a collaborationwhether it’s with your models, the client, or indeed your dive buddy. I always welcome input, and I’m always open to trying something different if I think they have a cool idea. Never assume that you’re the only one with the creative ideas.

You need to learn to collaborate when you’re working with diver models in water. As any underwater photographer will confirm, models can make or break a shoot.  Diving with someone who instinctively knows how to be a good model can make the difference between capturing great images and a wasted dive. Developing that understanding takes time and doesn’t happen overnight. That said, I’m always mindful that I don’t want to monopolize my dive buddy’s in-water time. Often they’ve paid to be on the boat too, and the last thing they want is to spend the entire dive posing for my camera! 

What is your thought process like when you’re doing a shoot?

It’s important to understand that every photoshoot is different. There’s no “do this, do that” formula that you can apply to ensure a successful shoot. The first step is to always talk to the client to get an understanding of what they want to get out of the shoot. Some clients have a very clear idea of what they want. The last shoot I did for Apeks, for example, was well-planned by the marketing team in Blackburn. They provided me with a comprehensive list of topside shots they needed to market and launch their then new VX-1 mask. How I executed those shots was up to me, but even then, a good photographer needs to develop an insight into the sort of “look and feel” that best matches the client’s brand.  There’s no point shooting something completely off the wall if it doesn’t fit in with either the client’s brief or their own brand image. Photo commissions aren’t about you as a creative; they’re about satisfying the client’s needs.

“There’s no point shooting something completely off the wall if it doesn’t fit in with either the client’s brief or their own brand image. Photo commissions aren’t about you as a creative; they’re about satisfying the client’s needs.”

Brown showcasing his images at the Sport Diver booth at a diving conference.

Do you have any favorite projects that you’ve worked on? 

Magazine shoots are always fun, and occasionally you get to travel to some quite exciting destinations. One of my favorite trips was to the beautiful island of Alphonse in the Indian Ocean, which was sponsored by the Seychelles tourist board. Three other photojournalists from the U.K. dive press and I were whisked away to a private island catering to the rich and famous. This island was just paradise personified and would normally cost far more than I could ever afford. Being able to spend a week on the island being treated like royalty under the pretense of writing a travel feature was quite a sweet gig!

Due to HSE restrictions here in the U.K., all my paid commissions are topside only. The stuff I shoot underwater is licensed as stock photography via my website, so I get a lot more free rein over my underwater images. That said, I do tend to tailor what I shoot with an eye to future licensing opportunities. 

“What I enjoy is shooting people underwater. For me, what makes an image interesting is human interaction with the underwater world.”

What I enjoy is shooting people underwater. For me, what makes an image interesting is human interaction with the underwater world. It’s that human element that subconsciously connects us to an image. Without a diver, a photo of a wreck is just a shot of a pile of rusty metal on the sea bed. Photography is story-telling, and having a diver in your shot just adds a whole different dimension that invites the viewer to ask questions about what they are seeing. 

Tell us about the InnerSpace piece? What was the assignment? What was the most challenging aspect?

The InnerSpace poster was my panacea to the coronavirus lockdown. Like many self-employed people, the lockdown had a dramatic impact on my business. Virtually overnight, I found myself with zero work, as dive businesses and magazines all shuttered up and closed down for the duration. Not being the sort of person who would busy himself with gardening, I spotted a competition on Instagram being run by camera equipment manufacturer Godox inviting photographers to shoot cool and imaginative imagery at home during lockdown. It gave me the excuse I needed to get into the studio and get creative!

A creative “movie poster” made during lockdown.

Being unable to dive my JJ-CCR due to lockdown restrictions, I decided to create a cool movie-style poster in the studio by combining a stylish sci-fi style shot of the CCR with one of my underwater shots from Dreamgate cenote in Mexico. My long-suffering wife was drafted to model. I set the unit up on a table top in the studio and sat her into it. You’ll be relieved to know that the unit wasn’t functioning and the loop was closed. She still hated every minute of it but tolerated my creative distraction without so much as a complaint. She’s definitely a keeper.

The images were then combined in Photoshop, and the fancy movie text added to complete the effect. I’m pleased to report that the movie poster image seemed to do wellGodox picked it up, and I bagged myself a nice prize. I’m pleased to report that the CCR diver image has also been picked up by Otter Drysuits for a future promotional campaign. All in all, not a bad way to turn lockdown into something positive.

I love the shot of the cave diver looking up towards the light. Can you tell me a little bit about it? What were you envisioning?

Cenote Chac Mool in Mexico, 2013.

I captured that image on my first trip to Mexico back in 2013 at Chac Mool cenoteprobably one of the most famous cenote dives in the area. Chac Mool is best known for the breathtaking light show that appears in the head pool for much of the day. To get the full effect, though, you need to time it just right so that the sunlight cuts through the water at just the right angle. I challenge anyone not to be blown away by the beauty of Chac Mool as the strong sunlight cuts through the clear cenote waters. As a photographer, it’s a dream come true. You cannot fail to capture amazing images in such an environment. The first time I visited Chac Mool, I don’t think I got any further than the head pool. I literally spent 90 minutes just shooting the light beams!

“As any cave diver will tell you, the stream of light that cuts through the water at the end of a cool cave dive is always a welcome sight. Even though it signals the end of the dive, we subconsciously feel drawn into the light as it signals safety and a return to the world.”

As any cave diver will tell you, the stream of light that cuts through the water at the end of a cool cave dive is always a welcome sight. Even though it signals the end of the dive, we subconsciously feel drawn into the light as it signals safety and a return to the world. My idea for the shot was to create an image of a diver literally being drawn into a welcoming beam of sunlight, drawing them toward the surface like a sci-fi movie tractor beam. Convincing my model to drop out of trim for the shot was probably the biggest challenge. As any GUE diver knows, diving out of trim just feels wrong, but once I’d explained what I wanted to achieve, he was very obliging. I’m still impressed that he got the angle so right!

None of what I capture underwater is shot for a particular client, and so it always pleases me when one of my photos is picked up by a big diving brand. That particular image was featured on a full-page advert and exhibition stand for Fourth Element. Seeing your work being used as the eye candy for a high-profile promotional campaign never gets dull.

How does it feel when you see your finished product being used at a dive show or in a magazine?

It’s always a buzz! I’ve been lucky enough to have my photography featured on quite a few magazine covers over the years, and even now it still makes me beam when I get a cover. Most magazines will tip you off when your image has been selected, and some will even send you a “strictly for your eyes only” preview of the cover layout. Getting a screenshot of a future cover in my inbox first thing in the morning always brightens my day!

The worst thing about getting a cover, though, is not being able to tell anyone for a couple of weeks. Until the issue hits the newsstands, I have to keep it to myself. Even now, I still get some of the better covers blown up to poster size and framed. These take pride of place on the wall in my office and serve as a constant reminder of some of the awesome stuff I’ve been fortunate enough to photograph over the years.

Spotting my photography at dive shows is always very cool, too. Most recently, my shot of the Bristol Beaufighter wreck in Malta was blown up and displayed on a 6 m/20 ft wide light box at the Go Diving Show in Coventry, U.K. You really couldn’t miss it!

Jason highlighting his shot of the Bristol Beaufighter wreck on display at the Go Diving Show in the UK.

Can you tell us a little bit about the shoot for this cover of Scuba Diver magazine with a 17-year-old cave diver?

That cover accompanied a feature that I’d pitched to the magazine about young U.K. cave diver Robert Thomas. It was a perfect fit for the magazine as they were keen to promote young people coming into diving. In fact, that feature was used as the launch pad for a series of articles which ran over several months, showcasing young divers and some of the cool stuff they were doing. Most of them weren’t quite as extreme as Robert who, accompanied by his father, was squeezing himself into tight holes in the ground from a very young age. 

The feature first came about when I accompanied Robert and his father on a caving trip to Porth Yr Ogof in South Walesa beautiful cave located near the village of Ystradfellte, near the southern boundary of the Brecon Beacons National Park. I’d gone along to try my hand at dry cave photography using remote strobes dotted around the inside of the cave. During that trip, the idea of featuring Robert in the magazine had come about. I spent most of the day snapping shots for the potential feature of Robert and his father in this beautiful Welsh cave.

British cave diver Robert Thomas, founder of Young Divers International at the Vobster Quay .

The one thing I didn’t have, though, was any underwater shots of Robert, so we hatched a plan to shoot some on another day. The U.K. isn’t blessed with too many caves that you can dive on a twinset, and even the cool caves like Wookey Hole are jealously guarded by the CDG (Cave Diving Group), so getting access to these wasn’t an option. Although both Robert and his father were CDG members, I was not, and CDG sadly doesn’t recognize other agency certs. To get around this problem, we travelled to Vobster Quay inland diving lake and shot some images there. If you know where to go underwater, there are quite a few little holes that, with a little creativity and some fancy lighting, you can make look like U.K. caves. So yes, I cheated. That cover shot was completely fake, but it really didn’t matterit was an eye-catching image that grabbed the attention of anyone who picked up the magazine.

Do you do the layouts for magazine stories where your images appear? Or approve the finished product?

Magazines have their own designers, and I make a point of never interfering with their creativity. They may be my images and my words, but it’s their magazine and you have to be prepared to let go a little.

“As a photographer, it’s all too easy to get a little too attached to your own work. Different people see different things in a photo, and my opinion is no more or less valid than theirs.”

As a photographer, it’s all too easy to get a little too attached to your own work. Different people see different things in a photo, and my opinion is no more or less valid than theirs. That said, some magazines will occasionally invite your input. Scuba Diver magazine here in the U.K., for example, is really good, and I have a great relationship with both the editor and designer who makes our work look so eye-catching. If there’s a particular image that I’m really keen to have featured, they’ll normally accommodate my wish. Again, though, I don’t push it. Unless there’s a genuine reason why the image is important to the feature, I’m happy for them to choose the images that they think work best.  

Brown featured in a story spread in Scuba Diving magazine

As a designer myself, I fully appreciate the pressures that magazine designers are under. The last thing they need is a precious photographer or writer asking them to make changes unless there’s a very, very good reason for it. Just let them do their job. Occasionally they’ll come up with something that doesn’t work for you but even then, it’s fascinating to see how others interpret your work.

Tell us about your work with EUROTEK and TEKCamp. What sort of challenges do you face with event photography and promotional designs?

Shooting EUROTEK 2016. Becky Kagan Schott discussing Great Lakes shipwrecks .

I’ve been fortunate enough to work on some superb events over the years. I’m proud to be one of the organizers of the EUROTEK Advanced Diving Conference with responsibility for every aspect of the event’s branding and visuals. I’m also the regular event photographer for the Go Diving Show and TEKCamp masterclass events here in the U.K. and have also shot both TEKDiveUSA back in 2014 and the Baltictech Conference in Poland in 2017. Each event comes with its own unique set of challenges, but they all share one thing in commonthey’re utterly exhausting but a whole lot of fun!

The biggest challenge with shooting an indoor event like EUROTEK is the lighting. Using flash photography isn’t really an option, as the last thing you want to do is disturb those who have paid good money to listen to the talks. Problem is, the conference rooms tend to be very dark, so you really need to know how to capture pin-sharp photos in low light and often work with difficult mixed lighting. Using the right equipment is key here. I shoot using a Nikon D4 which offers exceptional low-light capabilities with pro-level fast lenses. You get one chance to get the shot at an eventmiss it and you’re stuck. There is no way to reproduce the shot at a later date.

The 2014 EUROTEK Poster.

What are your plans for the future? Any upcoming projects that you are working on, or personal plans that you can share with us?

Right now, I’ll just be happy to get back into the water. The pandemic that has swept the world has left us all with serious diving withdrawal symptoms! Once restrictions are fully lifted, my first port of call will be my local diving lake to spend a few hours getting comfortable on my rebreather again. I was lucky enough to recently squeeze a couple of shallow open-circuit shore dives in for a magazine feature, but that’s been it since early March. My poor CCR has a thick layer of dust on it!

After that, who knows. I’ve got a soft spot for the caves in the Lot region of France, so a trip across the channel with my camera and as many lights as I can smuggle through the border checks is definitely on the cards for later in the year. I’ve dived Mexico a few times, but there’s something about France that I just love. I suspect the stunning food and wine have something to do with it, as does the breathtaking countryside in that part of the world. If you’ve never visited France cave country, do itit’s truly beautiful.

Additional Resources 

Scuba Diver magazine’s Webinar: Wreck photography with Jason Brown and Becky Kagan Schott

Connect With Jason Brown:

www.bardophotographic.com

www.facebook.com/bardocreative

www.instagram.com/bardophotographic


Amanda White is an editor for InDepth. Her main passion in life is protecting the environment. Whether that means working to minimize her own footprint or working on a broader scale to protect wildlife, the oceans, and other bodies of water. She received her GUE Recreational Level 1 certificate in November 2016 and is ecstatic to begin her scuba diving journey. Amanda was a volunteer for Project Baseline for over a year as the communications lead during Baseline Explorer missions. Now she manages communication between Project Baseline and the public and works as the content and marketing manager for GUE. Amanda holds a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism, with an emphasis in Strategic Communications from the University of Nevada, Reno.

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The Role of Agency When Discussing Diving Incidents: An Adverse Event Occurs—An Instructor Makes a Mistake

Human Factors educator and coach Gareth Lock examines the role of our innate attribution biases and language, in forming our collective judgements when incidents occur—in this case, by considering a student diving injury that occurred during a class. Was the instructor to blame? Was anyone?

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by Gareth Lock

Header Photo by Alexandra Graziano

What do you think when you read the following? Who is at fault? Where do you think the failures lie?

“The instructor failed to notice that the gas pressure in one of their four student’s cylinders was dropping faster than was expected, and consequently, missed that this particular student had run out of gas. The student then panicked and bolted for the surface which ended up with them having an arterial gas embolism.”

It would be normal for the majority of Western-cultured divers to believe that the fault would lie with the instructor, especially as I framed your thought processes with the subtitle, ‘An Instructor Makes a Mistake’. 

The instructor would have had a clear level of responsibility to make sure that the event didn’t happen the way it did, and because the student ended up with an out-of-gas situation and an arterial gas embolism, that instructor needs to be held accountable for the mistakes that were made. 

Financial compensation to the diver might be involved. As for the instructor, specific solutions for ways to prevent future mishaps would be standard. The instructor might be advised to be more aware, to monitor students more closely, and follow standards and/or training.

The problem with this approach is that it can miss significant contributory factors. Over thousands of years, we have developed a mindset that searches for the cause of an adverse event so that we can prevent the same thing from happening again. There are two parts behind this sentence that we are going to look at in this article—agency and attribution.

Agency and Attribution

Photo by Alexandra Graziano.

The first is Agency—an agent is a person or thing that takes an active role or produces a specific effect. ‘The instructor failed to notice the faster-than-normal pressure drop.’ In this example, the instructor is the agent. While we can easily identify the action and agent, we cannot determine from this simple statement whether the instructor intentionally didn’t monitor the gas, whether they accidentally missed the increased consumption rate or leak, whether the student didn’t inform the instructor, or if there was another reason. A reader of this short case study would normally assume that the instructor had some choice in the matter, that they were a free agent with free will, and that a professional with training should know better. This assumption can heavily influence how an ‘investigation’ develops from a blame-worthy event to one where wider learning can happen. 

Research has shown that the attribution of agency is subjective and is swayed by a number of different factors including culture, experience, and the language of the observer. Furthermore, the language used and how this frames the event has also been shown to directly influence the assignment of guilt, blame and/or punishment. This is especially the case if the only reports available are based around litigation and insurance claims, as these are purposely written to attribute blame. 

Societally, and developmentally, we believe that the attribution of cause behind an action is important, especially if it is an adverse event because it allows us to identify who or what needs to change to prevent the same or similar events from occurring in the future. In the out-of-gas event above, it might be obvious to some that it is the instructor who needs to change or ‘be changed’!

The Fundamental Attribution Bias

While agency is relatively clear when we describe an event, where this attribution of agency is applied is very subjective. Attribution theory was developed in the 1950s by Fritz Heider in which he described behaviours that could be attributed to internal characteristics or disposition (personality, abilities, mood, attitude, motivations, efforts, beliefs…) or to the influences external to them which were situational in nature (culture, social norms, peer pressure, help from others, organisational pressures, rules, environmental conditions…). For example, a diving student might not perform as expected despite having been given the training detailed in the course materials. This could be because of performance anxiety, lack of confidence, not paying attention to the demonstrations… (internal or dispositional attribution), or it could be caused by an argument they had had at home that morning, mortgage worries, homework which is due, promotion or threat of being fired, or poorly serviced equipment… (external or situational attribution).

Photo by Alexandra Graziano.

This subjectivity is so powerful and prevalent that there is a recognised cognitive bias called the fundamental attribution bias or error. This bias shows that there is a tendency to look for dispositional attribution when an adverse event involves someone else (they didn’t pay attention, they didn’t have the skills or experience), but the tendency to look for situational attribution when the adverse event involves us (high workload led me to be tired, the students were spread far apart, their gauge was in their BCD pocket). “When explaining someone’s behavior, we often underestimate the impact of the situation and overestimate the extent to which it reflects the individual’s traits and attitudes.” As a consequence, it is much easier to ascribe the failure to the individual rather than to look at the wider situation. This aligns with Lewin’s equation, B=f(P, E), which states that an individual’s behavior (B) is a function (f) of the person (P), including their history, personality and motivation, and their environment (E), which includes both their physical and social surroundings. 

Research has shown that culture can strongly influence how agency is attributed. Those from Western cultures e.g. Anglo-American or Anglo-Saxon European, have a tendency to be more individualistic in nature, whereas those from Far Eastern cultures have a more collective view of the world which increases collaboration, interdependence and social conformity. The research also shows that “Compared to people in interdependent societies, people in independent societies are more likely to select a single proximal cause for an event. Western cultures therefore have a tendency to erroneously attribute control and decision to the human actor closest to the event, even if this was not the case. This has huge implications when it comes to litigation and organisational/community learning.

Self-Serving and Defensive Attribution Bias 

When it comes to an adverse event, those cultures that have high individualistic behaviours are more likely to find a way to identify someone other than ourselves as the cause i.e. “the dive center manager didn’t tell me the time had changed, and so I was late for the boat.” Conversely, when we have a successful outcome, we are more likely to look to our own performance and traits (dispositional attribution) rather than the context (situational attribution) i.e. “I had spent time practising the ascents, so my buoyancy was good for the final dive.” without noticing that their buddy was rock solid in the water and provided a very stable platform to reference against. This is known as self-serving self-attribution.

As the severity of the event increases, we mentally distance ourselves further from the traits or behaviours that would have led to this event. “I wouldn’t have done that because I would have spotted the situation developing beforehand. I am more aware than that diver.” This defensive attribution is also known as distancing through differencing.

This is a protection mechanism; if we can shift the blame to someone else because they have a different disposition (internal behaviours/traits), we can convince ourselves that what we are doing is safe, and we carry on with what we were doing in the same way we’ve always done. This might appear to be simplistic; however, much of what we do is relatively simple in theory, it is how it is weaved into our daily lives that makes things complicated or complex. 

Photo by Alexandra Graziano.

Language Matters – Invisible Meanings

The subtitle of the first section “An adverse event occurs. An instructor makes a mistake.” will have invoked a number of mental shortcuts or heuristics in the reader. We will likely make an assumption that the two events are linked and that the instructor’s mistake led to the adverse event. I purposely wrote it this way. That link could be made stronger by changing the full stop to a comma.

Language can have a large impact on how we perceive agency and causality. The problem is that how we construct our messaging is not normally consciously considered when we write or speak about events. As with many other aspects of culture, it is invisible to the actor unless there is some form of (guided) active reflection.

For example, research has shown that there is a difference between how Spanish and English-speaking participants considered the intentional or unintentional actions in a series of videos. In one example, the actor in the video would pop a balloon with a pin (intentional) or put a balloon in a box with a (unknown) pin in it and the balloon would pop (unintentional) as the balloon hit the pin.“The participant descriptions were coded as being either agentive or non-agentive. An agentive description would be something like, “He popped the balloon.” A non-agentive description could be, “The balloon popped.” The study concluded that English, Spanish, and bilingual speakers described intentional events agentively, but English speakers were more likely than the other groups to use agentive descriptions for unintentional events. Another study showed similar results between English and Japanese speakers.



Another powerful bias exists in the form of framing. This is where information is given to another party to influence their decisions and is either done consciously or not. For example, take two yoghurt pots, the first says “10% fat” and the other says “90% fat free”. The framing effect will more likely lead us to picking the second option, as it seems likely it is the healthier yoghurt. If we look at how this applies to diving incidents and agentive language “The diver ran out of gas near the end of the dive.” or “Their cylinder was empty near the end of the dive.” The first appears to put the diver at fault but we don’t know how or why this happened; whereas, the second statement is not personal and therefore allows a less confrontational conversation. Consequently, we must be careful with how we attribute agency as it limits our attention to the context immediately surrounding the person involved. If we want to learn, we have to expand our curiosity beyond the individual and look at the context.

Another example of how language matters and the shortcuts we use is the use of binary oppositions e.g., right/wrong, deep/shallow, recreational/technical, success/error, or deserved DCS/undeserved DCS. While binary modes might work for technical or mechanical systems (work/don’t work), they are not suited for systems involving people (socio-technical systems) due to the complicated and complex interactions that are present. “They didn’t use a checklist.” Is often seen as a final reason why something went wrong, as opposed to asking questions like “What sort of checklist should have been used?”, “When would the checklist normally be used?”, “What were others doing at the time”, “Which checklist? Manufacturer’s, agency’s, or their own?” 

When it comes to these socio-technical systems, we can only determine success or error/failure AFTER the event. If the actors knew that what they were doing would end up as a failure due to an error, they would do something about that ‘error’ before it was too late.

Isn’t this just semantics?

All of this might appear to be semantics, and technically it is because semantics is the branch of linguistics and logic concerned with meaning. “Words create Worlds” (Heschel and Wittgenstein) for the better or worse. Think about how you frame an event or attribute agency because it WILL impact your own and others’ learning.

Look back at the original narrative in the second paragraph, which was purposely written in the manner it was, and consider where attribution has been placed, how it limits learning and what questions you can ask to improve your understanding of the event. We are cognitively efficient creatures, always looking for the shortcut to save energy. However, this efficiency comes at the expense of learning.

In this event, there were many other factors that we needed to consider, many of which would be focused on the limitations of our cognitive system. We CANNOT pay more attention; it has a limited capacity. What we can do is make it easier to prioritise and focus on the most important/and or relevant factors, and we do this by designing systems that take our limited capacity into mind. 

Monitoring four students is going to be at the limits of what is safely possible, especially when other factors are taken into consideration, such as instructor experience, visibility, current, task loading, comfort levels, etc. These factors are readily apparent and their significance obvious after the event, but in real-time with all of the other conflicting goals present, not so. When designing systems and processes, try to apply the key human factors principle: make it easier to do the right thing, and harder to do the wrong thing.

As an example of how this language can manifest itself, have a look at any agency training materials which describe adverse events or incidents, and look to see how agency and attribution are applied, and how little the context is considered. e.g. the following example is from a leadership-level training manual: a supervisor left the dive site before accounting for all of the divers in the group and two were left behind and suffered from hypothermia. The reason given for the abandonment was that the supervisor was distracted. The material then goes on to say that despite the supervisor having normally conducted good accounting procedures, this would not help in a lawsuit as a court would look at the event that occurred not what they normally did. What is missing is understanding ‘how the supervisor came to be distracted’ and what the context was. This would provide a much greater learning opportunity than the normal ‘make sure you account for everyone otherwise you could be in a lawsuit.’ “We cannot change the human condition, but we can change the conditions in which humans work.”—Professor James Reason.

Summary

We have a tendency, especially in Western cultures, to want to find out ‘who did it’ and ascribe blame to an individual agent. More often than not, the agent is the person who was closest to the event in time and space. In effect, we play the game of ‘you were last to touch it, so it was your fault’ but this rarely prevents future events from occurring. In reality, divers, instructors, instructor trainers, and dive centre managers are all managing complex interactions between people, environment, equipment and cultural/societal pressures with sensemaking only being made after the event. 

Photo by Peter Gaertner.

To be able to identify a single cause of an adverse event in diving is impossible because it doesn’t exist and yet this is what the language we use focuses on. We look for a root cause or a trigger event for an accident or incident. The research from Denoble et al, which described four stages (trigger event, disabling event, disabling injury and cause of death) of fatalities misses the context behind the trigger events and yet it is still used in incident analyses. Compare this to modern safety investigation programmes which have moved away from a root cause approach to a more systemic approach, like Accimap or Human Factors Analysis and Classification System (HFACS) that take into account systems thinking and human factors principles/models. 

A response from Petar J Denoble’s response, Click Here

There are no formal investigation and analysis programmes or tools in the sports diving sector so any data that is produced is heavily biased by personal perspectives. However, that gap will be addressed before the end of 2021 when an investigation course will be launched to the public by The Human Diver. 

This two-day programme will provide an introduction to a systems- and human factors-based approach to event learning and will be based on current best practices from high-risk industries and academia and then tailored and focused on non-fatal events in the diving industry. There will also be a number of research programmes being developed over the next year or so which look at incidents, their causality and how to report them. The methodology will be relevant to fatalities but these investigations are often undertaken by law enforcement officers or coroners.

Photo by Kirill Egorov.

For the diving community, there is a need to look at how adverse events happen, not by attributing agency to individuals, but to look wider, to the system and the context so that we can understand how it made sense for that human agent to do what they did at the time. Ivan Pupulidy covers this clearly in the US Forest Service Learning Review, “In order to change culture, you have to change the assumptions that drive the culture.”

After note: The article was heavily influenced by the work of Crista Vesel whose referenced paper examined agentive language and how it influenced how the US Forest Service moved from Serious Accident Investigation Guide to a Learning Review. The review allowed more genuine inquiry to occur and find out the real reasons why serious events, including fatalities, occurred. You can find Vesel’s paper here: “Agentive Language in Accident Investigation: Why Language Matters in Learning from Events.”

Footnotes:

1. Lexico. Explore: agent. http://www.lexico.com/en/definition/ agent (accessed July 30, 2021). 

 2. Agentive Language in Accident Investigation: Why Language Matters in Learning from Events Crista Vesel ACS Chem. Health Saf. 2020, 27, 1, 34–39. 2020 3. Myers, D. Social Psychology, 11th ed.; McGraw-Hill: New York, 2013; pp 100−117

4. Fausey, C.; Long, B.; Inamon, A.; Boroditsky, L. Constructing agency: the role of language. Frontiers in Psychology 2010, 1, 1−11. 

5. Dekker, S. Why We Need New Accident Models; Lund University School of Aviation: Sweden, 2005.

6. Fausey, C. M.; Boroditsky, L. In English and Spanish Speakers Remember Causal Agents Differently, Proceedings of 30th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society, Washington, DC, July, 2008. https://escholarship.org/uc/item/4425600t (accessed November 13, 2019).

7. Denoble, P.J; Caruso J.L.; de L Dear G.; Pieper C.F. and Vann R.D. Common Causes of Open Circuit Recreational Diving Fatalities. 2008

8. Learning Review (LR) Guide (March 2017); U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service accessed 30 Jul 2021


Gareth Lock has been involved in high-risk work since 1989. He spent 25 years in the Royal Air Force in a variety of front-line operational, research and development, and systems engineering roles which have given him a unique perspective. In 2005, he started his dive training with GUE and is now an advanced trimix diver (Tech 2) and JJ-CCR Normoxic trimix diver. In 2016, he formed The Human Diver with the goal of bringing his operational, human factors, and systems thinking to diving safety. Since then, he has trained more than 350 people face-to-face around the globe, taught nearly 2,000 people via online programmes, sold more than 4,000 copies of his book Under Pressure: Diving Deeper with Human Factors, and produced “If Only…,” a documentary about a fatal dive told through the lens of Human Factors and a Just Culture. In September 2021, he will be opening the first ever Human Factors in Diving conference. His goal: to bring human factors practice and knowledge into the diving community to improve safety, performance, and enjoyment.

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In this article published online on  September 2, 2021, Gareth Lock systematically examines the role of innate attribution biases and language, talks about agency and attribution, and explains why incident investigation may fail to help prevent similar incidents from occurring again. As an example of a failed approach, Lock refers to the paper “Common causes of open-circuit recreational scuba fatalities”, which I co-authored with my colleagues in 2008. While I appreciate Gareth’s work in general and the content of this particular article, I have to point out that our paper never intended to do what Gareth assumes and attributes to it.
1. In our paper, we do not investigate individual incidents. Instead, we attempted an epidemiological analysis based on the reported results of separate incident investigations.
2. We do not claim that triggers are the root causes. We provide clear, pragmatic definitions for all four categories we used in the paper.
3. We never attribute agency in the sense of subjective factors; our only agent is similar to an epidemiological agent, like a mechanical agent of injury (boat hitting diver), CO causing intoxication, and similar.
4. We are aware that there were causes beyond what was reported and that in most cases probably there were multiple causes, and we state it explicitly in the paper.
5. We aimed to identify contributing factors that could be targeted with preventive interventions (which we did not prescribe).
6. We assumed, that although we may never know the primordial cause(s), we still could intervene by preventing the domino effect or by interrupting the chain of events leading towards the fatal outcome. If we were not right in assuming it, why bother with teaching divers all possible corrective measures in an adverse event?I am looking forward to a bright future with much-improved incident analysis methods. I hope that my younger colleagues will have high-quality reports to work with trying to devise the best preventive interventions.

-PJ Denoble