CULTURE & ARTS

Yes, That's A Real Model Posing Underwater With Sharks

Here's how they did it -- all for a great cause.

With shark fin soup continuing to feed the practice of finning -- cutting off the animal's dorsal fin and throwing the rest of it back into the water to die --conservationists still have a lot of work to do.

Theirs is a tough job. In addition to providing the usual arguments that a particular creature is essential to a healthy ecosystem (which sharks are), ocean conservationists have to fight a universal perception of sharks as ruthless, cold-blooded man-killers (which they aren't).

Seeing that perception as a challenge, photographer Benjamin Von Wong decided to see if he could change it by showing how humans and sharks might peacefully coexist. And that's how he ended up weighting down a model in a coral reef in Fiji, snapping pictures of the toothy animals swimming by.

"I wanted to create a series of images that would help break those stereotypes," Von Wong explained in a blog post

The project is a collaboration with Shark Stewards, a San-Francisco-based nonprofit that works for shark conservation in California and all over the world, to promote a petition to help establish a Southeast Asian shark sanctuary and no-kill policy for the animals. In an email to The Huffington Post, the photographer explained how the project came together on donated time. 

With help from the Fiji travel board, Von Wong found a location in the resort Barefoot Islands, which provided food and housing along with a shark expert and team of support divers. The model's dress, made by Indonesian designer Ali Charisma pro bono, was shipped there. The model, Australian free diver Amber Bourke, flew herself in, too.  

In the final images, Bourke appears to float against the coral backdrop, holding a plastic shepherd's hook while wearing the ethereal white gown. Sharks circle her in a sort of utopian oceanscape.

With a background in engineering -- Von Wong quit in 2012 to pursue his passion -- the photographer is particularly suited to creating "pictures people think are Photoshopped," as his Instagram bio claims. Indeed, we suspected he'd done a lot of digital wand-waving, but the photos are actually the result of very careful planning.

Since lighting underwater was only good between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., the team had to shoot on three different days to get the best shots. Even when the sun cooperated, underwater communication proved difficult. Bourke breathed through a mask until curious white-tipped reef sharks appeared, at which point she'd quickly remove the mask and pose for as long as she could. 

As for the terrifying sharks, Von Wong compared them to "squirrels at a park," describing how the animals would scurry away if another diver got too close. White-tipped reef sharks, a common species in Southeast Asian waters, are known for their easygoing disposition, and most never reach more than five feet in length.

In a video describing the project, the photographer neatly summed it all up: "Just like sharks are the shepherds of the sea, we are the shepherds of our generation." 

To sign the conservation petition, head to Change.org.

 

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