Photographer Zena Holloway’s images plunge viewers into a watery dream world where subjects appear suspended in time and space
A 20-foot-deep tank, 200,000 gallons of water, five hours to set up, and eight hours to photograph beautiful gowns by the likes of Elie Saab and Oscar de la Renta. Zena Holloway’s fashion shoots will often be an unusual adventure for her models, who have to pose while holding their breath underwater and taking silent direction. The resulting images transport viewers into a world where beautiful creatures are suspended in time and space.
Internationally acclaimed for her poetic works, Holloway started somewhat traditionally. Having received an inexpensive underwater camera as an 18th-birthday present while she was working as a scuba dive guide in Egypt, Holloway taught herself some basics and started shooting sea life before moving on to taking souvenir photos for tourists.
Determined to make a career combining these twin passions, she worked in the film industry in London for a while before getting her first professional commission for Fabergé. The image she conceived, of a model looking in a mirror while picturing himself under the sea, combined the surreal with underwater photography, something that has become a hallmark of Holloway’s work.
“When you shoot underwater you become a vessel for telling stories differently,” says Holloway. “Often you get things out of people—an expression, a gesture—you would not get on land, which I find quite interesting.”
Though she has undertaken some shoots in the open sea, Bahrain-born, London-raised Holloway more often creates her dream worlds in the controlled environment of a pool, and she chooses not to use scuba diving gear, preferring instead to hold her breath in sync with her models.
Editing plays an important role in the final image, and this sometimes means all indications the model is floating underwater (bubbles, shafts of light, the water surface) are removed to create an even more disquieting world. “People look at the image and can’t quite process it—they are not sure what they are looking at. And I like that,” she says.
As a fine-art photographer, Holloway wants to use her work to promote environmental agendas. For her latest series, Flowers for Jeju: The Last Mermaids, she captures the disappearing way of life of the haenyeo, the free-diving women who harvest seafood from the waters around South Korea’s Jeju Island. Holloway’s images are disquieting and intriguing—distinctive yet not always obvious they were shot underwater. Today, most haenyeo are into their later years, but Holloway prefers to portray them as they once were: young and free.
Zena Holloway (1973), the daughter of an airline pilot, fell in love with the water first, photography second. Born in Bahrain and raised between London and pretty much everywhere else in the world, she went on her first dive in England as a teenager. After school, she travelled to Egypt for a holiday but stayed on alone to qualify as an instructor at a local diving centre. It was here that she first took a camera underwater, fascinated by marine life on the coral reefs. Zena then realised that she wanted to spend the majority of her waking hours beneath the surface and by the ocean.
A few years later, Zena saw a film crew carrying a model dressed as a mermaid into the sea to shoot a commercial. With that, her path was set. Using the same unsophisticated underwater camera her mother got her at the age of 18, she decided to chart her own course in an ultra-niche profession. Nobody showed her the ropes; she taught herself. Zena shoots fine art, editorial, celebrities, sport, fashion and lifestyle imagery. Her work deviates from the stereotypical directness associated with underwater photography, as she strives to push the boundaries of her imagination and the limits of creativity. The result is truly magical imagery that has resulted in worldwide acclaim.