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Pioneered by Patagonia, lifestyle marketing is all the rage in sports and active lifestyle circles. Meet Luke Inman, the man who’s bringing lifestyle image-making to diving and titillating buyers along the way. He says we need more industry solidarity, and a lot more women divers. Interview by Michael Menduno.
by Michael Menduno
Forty five-year-old British ex-pat Luke Inman has carved out a unique niche in the diving industry working as an award-winning filmmaker and photographer, and a dive shop owner based in La Paz, Mexico. Having graduated from the London International Film School, he has shot film and photographs for The BBC, Castle Rock Entertainment, Discovery Channel and Animal Planet, Lucas Films, the Mexican Tourist Bureau, The Monterey Bay Aquarium, and National Geographic, as well as major brands like American Express and Playboy. He also won an MTV Latin America Best Video award.
Inman is also a passionate diver and dive educator who been teaching scuba for 22 years. In addition to being a PADI course director and Tec instructor trainer (IT), he is an IANTD, RAID and TDI mix and rebreather instructor, a DAN instructor trainer, HSE commercial diver Part 3 & 4, and is now training to become a GUE Fundies instructor. He has owned and operated Cortez Expeditions, a Five-Star Dive Centre in La Paz since 2015,
In the last few years, Inman, has turned his attention to “lifestyle” image making working with diving brands like Apex, Fourth Element, Neptunic, Halcyon, PADI, and others. If you are reading this blog, you have likely seen some of his compelling diving lifestyle images. We asked him to talk to us about his newly found focus on lifestyle and its importance to the business of diving.
InDepth: So, let me get this straight. You’ve recently completed three major diving “lifestyle” shoots and all of them are with women. No men at all. How did that come about? Are vendors just going to focus on women divers now, or is this, in fact, like your new dream job?
Luke Inman: Ha ha! Maybe a bit of both. First Jim Standing, at Fourth Element said that he wanted to empower women with their new line. PADI, whom I have been working with, wanted me to shoot a film for Women’s Dive Day. And then I was approached by Mark Messersmith and Lauren Fanning at Halcyon who wanted me to do a lifestyle shoot to promote their new back plate and colors for women, and or for men who fancy pink and teal. It was equipment-based but there were no diving shots involved.
I’m guessing your pretty comfortable working with that other gender.
It goes back to my early days of recreational diving. I think being small in stature, and always being the youngest, gave me a lot of empathy for the women. I would comment or give an opinion, even as an instructor, and the old, chauvinistic, macho divers would class me with the women. I would get sort of pushed aside. “No, you go with the females. You’re too young, and you don’t know anything.” Of course, the reality is I was already a commercial diver with hundreds of hours before I ever did my PADI open water, much less instructor course.
You had your baptism of fire in high-end lifestyle photography in the surf and snowboarding industry working with Quiksilver. How does that translate to diving? Do you find that lifestyle marketing is beginning to resonate with the diving industry?
Lifestyle photography is something new that has emerged with social media and has quickly become an essential part of marketing and promotion for many companies. I think that the dive training agencies from PADI to GUE are just beginning to realize how important it is in branding, that is promoting the lifestyle rather than just training. And you’re starting to see that with some of the manufacturers like Fourth Element, Halcyon and others as well.
As an example of the power of lifestyle branding, I think we could walk out on the street right now, and find somebody wearing a Patagonia or North Face T-shirt or jacket that has never climbed a mountain. You could also likely find someone wearing a Quiksilver Tee that has never surfed or seen snow. Social media helps with that as well.
Conversely, I doubt seriously that you could find anyone wearing a PADI, or GUE, Scubapro, Sherwood or Poseidon T-shirt, or any article of clothing from the diving industry who wasn’t a diver, because people that aren’t divers just don’t think it’s cool enough. Fourth Element may become the exception.
Why is that?
To me, Fourth Element is the only brand that reaches outside of the dive industry in terms of fashion and lifestyle. They are in like some 200 FatFace active lifestyle stores in Great Britain and that buyer doesn’t care that there’s not even water in some of the photographs. The store buyers just want to know that Fourth Element divers don’t model bikinis for Billabong. Obviously, we go with the aesthetic. So on a very small scale, Fourth Element is a featherweight boxer fighting in the heavyweight division.
Ha! I like that! And I think Fourth Element’s imagery is always James Dean cool. Why haven’t other manufacturers picked up on that?
I think one of the problems is that the manufacturers seem so hell-bent on just producing and selling products rather than lifestyle. You can see that at DEMA [the annual diving industry trade show]. I think that the equipment should almost play second fiddle to the lifestyle and the clothing.
It’s clothing that saved the surf industry. They don’t make any money on neoprene and fiberglass surfboards. The surf industry is a billion-dollar industry because it’s become a fashion industry.
Now I don’t think the dive industry needs to become fashion driven, by any stretch of the imagination, but we do need to add lifestyle to grow. And I think it’s become important to the agencies, because the training is more unified across agencies.
Meaning its harder to differentiate training among agencies? I certainly see PADI moving in the lifestyle direction.
That’s been part of my work as well. I’m responsible for some of that.
On the three lifestyle shoots we’ve been talking about, you used some of your staff as models. How did that come about?
I was consulting with Fourth Element. And I’ll be perfectly honest with you, Jim [Standing] turned around to me one day and he went, two of the girls that work for you have got a lot of credibility as divers. They’re both tech divers. Karla is PADI divemaster. Afelandra is a PADI Ambassador and she’s has taken Fundamentals. They’re both also very photogenic. Do us a favor and don’t charge us too much money, but can you produce something with them within our budget?
And it kind of snowballed from there because we wanted to make sure that the models that we were using were credible as divers. And as I was saying, there also has to be an aesthetic to satisfy buyers outside of the dive industry. So we tried to kill as many birds as we could with one stone and also to do it as cheaply as possible.
And store buyers have been happy with the result?
It’s been very positive. Funny story. One of the Fourth Element reps called on a buyer in the Midwest. The female buyer pulled out the catalog and pointed at a Fourth Element photo and said when are you going to stop using these skinny models? Women in my store don’t associate with this girl. It’s not fair. She’s like a perfect 10.
And the sales rep was like, “that’s Karla. She’s a crossfit champion and a divemaster. She’s got a Master’s degree in fish ecology and regularly dives to 200 feet.” And the buyer was just blown away by this information and said, “why aren’t you promoting this?” Slowly and surely we are; Fourth Element is trying to get that message out.
They’re not just pretty faces; they’re accomplished people in dive world. Do you think it comes through that these are real divers and not just models?
I think that we need to start telling the girls’ stories a bit more, and that’s the beauty of social media. However, what’s very important and does come across is the camaraderie of us all working and shooting together. Everyone is happy and most important, the girls are comfortable wearing the gear because they are divers. With some of the mainstream brands, you can tell that the models are not divers or at least very inexperienced ones.
I really like the idea of showing real people doing real things. But unfortunately, I think we are still at a stage where they have to be very photogenic for it to be a hook. Still the emphasis needs to be on the product, the diving and the lifestyle, and just cool people using the product as opposed to, here’s a pretty girl, let’s slap a jacket on her.
It has to inspire!
It’s very important that we inspire people. We had a young dive master candidate approach us and her whole motivation to get into diving was seeing what these girls do for a lifestyle; you can be a strong woman and still look good. I think that’s helped with Fourth Element making equipment and clothing that can stand up and compete with Patagonia and North Face, although on a smaller scale.
I heard that Fourth Element co-founder Paul Strike showed images from your Ocean Positive bikini shoot at his talk at the United Nations World Ocean Day celebration last year.
I was really proud of that. I’m also proud to have been recognized as a lifestyle photographer, because there aren’t many in our industry!
Are there any unique challenges to making diving lifestyle photography?
Within the diving industry, it’s definitely budget. I have shot a bikini special for FHM magazine. I have also shot for Playboy and of course Quiksilver. And the resources you’re given when you shoot for Quiksilver or Playboy or FHM are completely different than a shoot for Aqua Lung, Halcyon or Fourth Element. [Inman rolls his eyes] It’s very, very different!
Ha. Having worked in Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and in the diving business for more than a few decades, I completely understand.
Another issue that we suffer from is this: if you put a diving image online, even if it’s aimed at non-divers, divers are going to criticize it. Someone is going to notice that the low-pressure hose is not connected properly, or a D-ring is too far forward, or her knees are too low in trim position. In almost all cases, the criticism is from men.
There are somes times when dive world feels like a combat sport.
I would like to see more cohesiveness and solidarity in the dive industry and that’s one of the reasons I think we need more women; because they have a far better approach. Men are competitive and are quick to apply ego. They are quick to attack. “Oh look, look at him, his buoyancy is no good. Or that agency is no good.”
Women tend to be more nurturing and I think we need to nurture one another better. As one of my friends and mentors, Paul Toomer [training director of RAID] has been saying to everyone who will listen, we need to stop attacking each other. It’s hurting the dive industry.
I think Toomer is spot-on!
I remember Jim [Standing] saying that he went on a dive boat on the south coast without a buddy and had a standup battle with a diver. I won’t say which agency but they were wearing Jet Fins. He wouldn’t dive with Jim because he didn’t have a long hose. “You know, we are both capable divers,” Jim offered, “let’s just go diving.”
I think there’s quite a bit of competitiveness that is ego driven and unnecessary in our industry, which is one of the reasons I like working predominantly with girls. I just did an instructor course that, out of the nine candidates, seven were girls and only two guys. And the whole dynamic was so much more nurturing and about helping one another.
Some estrogen with that gas mix?
I think we need a big injection of the feminine in the dive industry!
Overall the diving industry is pretty conservative. Have you any amusing or unusual incidents where you pushed the images a bit too far, where clients or consumers gave you a hard time.
Hmm, too much cleavage?
Haha. yeah. I also remember one of the images we shot for Fourth Element for Instagram got this huge complaint that we used a sexist image that was belittling to women. It was a photo of a woman in a bikini sitting in the back of the boat checking a gauge. You can’t see her backside, you can’t see anything. She’s just in a bikini. It’s very sporting. The screen grab of this image did the rounds among the Fourth Element women and everyone went, “What? How is that exploiting women?”
Again, I think we come back to the fact, there are quite a few crazies out there. There are a whole lot of people that will bag an image, because it was posted by PADI. I’ve also heard people from other tech agencies reacting to a GUE image with, “They’re the scientologists of the dive world. Don’t drink the Kool-Aid or you will all end up dressing the same.”
Oh yes, I’ve heard that one. However, it feels like things are slowly starting to change.
I think people in the dive industry are finally starting to realize that the competition for GUE isn’t IANTD or TDI. The competition for PADI isn’t SSI or RAID. It’s mountain biking and snowboarding and surfing and everything that is more easily accessible than entry into open water.
Toomer turned me on to that. The cycling market is HUGE! In fact, all of the sports you mention are way bigger than diving, and are generating way more money. However, most of the surface of the planet is water. That’s our conundrum.
The word is solidarity. We need more solidarity and a little bit more acceptance. That’s why I find it really encouraging to see companies willing to collaborate on some big campaigns that went through out the industry. To have, for example, Halcyon say, , we want to be on the Fourth Element shoot, even though Halcyon and GUE have this great relationship with SANTI.
We were inundated with our shoot at TEKDive USA, everybody wanted their products on it, Sub-Gravity, Aqua Lung, and Halcyon. And of course, manufacturers fall all over themselves to get their gear on a PADI shoot. It’s just nice to see that there is an understanding of how all boats float on a rising tide.
What could we do if we all worked together?
I think in the end, it comes down to inspiring people to dive. That’s what I want to do. In his speech at this year’s DEMA show [PADI CEO] Drew Richardson said that PADI and their agency were focused on making diving bigger, making the pie bigger and bringing people into diving. And they are doing it!
Just about everyone that knocks on my dive center door always says the same thing. They say, “I want to do my PADI.” PADI is the brand that’s bringing people in. And I think other brands, like Aqua Lung, Apex, Sherwood, all of the brands, should legitimately be looking at doing that too.
In addition to PADI, I see that you are now offering GUE classes at your store.
I have to say that the two agencies that I have found the most welcoming with less ego and less attitude are PADI and GUE, which is one of the reasons we have decided to focus on those two. I am very happy and content to teach PADI and I can’t wait to start teaching GUE as well.
Ok, I understand that GUE is not suddenly going to sit around a table with PADI and start cross-promoting, but I do think there needs to be more solidarity when people meet on dive boats, at resorts, or when they are working on projects.
Header Image: Photo of Charlotte Holmes by Luke Inman for Fourth Element.
Karla Rodriguez – PADI Divemaster, Masters degree in Reef Fish Ecology, Discovered hybridization in Parrot fish, Tech Diver, Fitness Instructor.
Charlotte Holmes – Former Miss England, MTV UK Presenter, Adidas London yoga and cross fit instructor. PADI Divemaster.
Afelandra Gonzalez – PADI Ambassadiver, Marine Biologist, PADI MSDT, TDI Intro to Tec Inst, GUE Fundies, discovered and named new species of Nudibranch.
Ivonne Arambula – PADI Open Water, Free Diver, Mother, Yoga and Crossfit Instructor.
Michael Menduno is InDepth’s executive editor 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.