Agua Nacida, the latest project of world renowned photographer Hugh Arnold needs to be seen to be believed. Fantastical, ambitious and completely otherworldly, Arnold captures nude models submerged weightlessly underwater, swimming through azure waters in what is one of his most evocative projects to date.
The idea initially came when Arnold was living in Ibiza, an island surrounded by water where daily life is intrinsically linked to the sea. Inspired by this, Arnold set out to create Agua Nacida, a project that would see him shooting in oceans around the world in order to capture the ethereal mystery of the deep blue. Starting his journey in Australia Arnold and his team were initially plagued with difficulties – cold Antarctic currents, jellyfish and the dangerous presence of sharks forced them to move further afield to Fiji and then on to Gozo, a small island off the coast of Malta. The resulting 368 pages of Agua Nacida are breathtaking, and serve as an exploration of nature, sexuality and discovery that will heighten the senses of viewers for years to come.
WHY DID YOU INITIALLY WANT TO CREATE THIS PROJECT, WHAT DREW YOU TO THE IDEA?I always wanted to do a book on nudes, since nude photography is the most intimate and honest you can get. Add water to the equation and you are about as free as you can be. I was inspired by a picture I took in the Seychelles of the model Tully Jensen 20 years ago for a German magazine and more recently an underwater picture of James Blunt in Ibiza for Tatler. After nearly 30 years of doing fashion and beauty shoots and effectively pleasing other people, I wanted to do something that was entirely without compromise: no hairdressers, no make up artists, no stylists and no funding (although tempting, this would have also meant compromise). In a sense it was about going back to my roots, and my own water rebirth.
WHAT IS IT ABOUT NUDES AND THE OCEAN THAT YOU THINK WORKS SO WELL IN A COMPOSITION?
Gravity restricts us above water, but under water it’s almost like a fairytale world. The colours, the light, even our breath – which we can’t physically see above water – add wonderful dimensions. Everything is slowed down and it’s impossible to do anything that literally doesn’t ‘go with the flow’. You can shoot from any angle – above, below, beside – and you can’t get more freedom than that. You also almost have to work in code since the models can’t see you properly or hear you (while you can see them clearly) so there has to be a lot of understanding between you.
WHY IS WATER IMPORTANT TO YOU? HAVE YOU ALWAYS FELT AN AFFINITY WITH IT OR DID THAT HAPPEN AT A CERTAIN STAGE OF YOUR LIFE?
I have always felt my happiest in water! When I was a child both my parents smoked and we worked out that if they gave up and put the money aside we could afford a swimming pool … which unfortunately never happened! I remember once staying in a hotel in the Lake District in mid March and my brothers and sister and I were determined to swim in the freezing outdoor hotel pool.
When I lived in Sydney, I was addicted to swimming. Every day – winter or summer – I would walk down to Bondi beach for the ritual swim. No matter how stressed or tired I was, I would always return home energised. I even used to swim in the unheated Streatham Lido in mid-winter when I lived briefly in London. Swimming is the first thing I do when I arrive anywhere in the world. I couldn’t live without swimming and it’s almost a therapeutic ritual!
THE VIEWER GETS AN OVERWHELMING SENSE OF FREEDOM FROM LOOKING AT THE IMAGES – IS THAT THE FEELING YOU WANTED TO EVOKE?
Absolutely. It’s the last comment I make in Agua Nacida, and I think that sense of freedom is probably something we should all strive for. In a way, nudity is just about the freest, most honest physical form and the closest to nature you get. Combine that with the 3D effect of water and you are truly free.
THE BOOK ALSO HAS A VERY CALMING EFFECT, AND CALM IS ASSOCIATED WITH THE SOUND OF OCEAN. WAS CALM A FEELING THAT YOU WANTED TO CAPTURE, AND IF SO WHY?
`Actually it’s impossible not to be calm once you immerse yourself in water since it takes on its own rhythm. Of course the second you go below the water’s surface you can barely hear the tiniest sounds. It’s an all-enveloping, womb-like world.
WHAT DO YOU THINK THESE IMAGES ALSO SAY ABOUT THE POWER OF NATURE?
We are entirely governed by the power of nature: the sun, the moon and, above all, the tides. We humans are so infinitesimal that we barely register above the power of the ocean, so we must submit to it and respect it.
DO YOU THINK NATURE IS SOMETHING THAT IS TAKEN FOR GRANTED BY US IN TODAY’S SOCIETY?
Absolutely. I personally cannot emphasise enough the importance of remaining in touch with nature, the seasons etc. The only way is to immerse ourselves in nature, and to work with our hands, touch the earth and go back to basics. With most of us living in a vacuum in cities, it’s so easy to be out of touch. Nature reminds us of what life is really all about.I think it’s very easy to turn a blind eye to what’s going on, and the threat to bees is a perfect example.
Just swimming around Gozo I gathered so many plastic bags that were floating on the water’s surface, whether they were thrown there or just simply blew there. It won’t be long before the world is full of plastic. You only have to drive through India or the East to see the mountain of plastic in the countryside created by the total lack of respect the average person has for the planet, which is pretty tragic. However, I think that little by little the movement to correct this is spreading, so hopefully it will one day be a globally conscious thing.
LOGISTICALLY, HOW DIFFICULT WERE THE IMAGES TO CAPTURE? WHAT WERE THE CHALLENGES YOU FACED THROUGHOUT THE PROCESS?
You can’t just shoot anywhere since you have to choose the location really carefully depending upon the time of year, the time of the day, the temperature of the water etc. You also need to find a place where you’re not going to be disturbed by other boats and divers.
The weather is your number one friend or enemy. Other things to consider are strong currents and dangers such as sharks and fatal box jellyfish. In Fiji the currents were so strong when the tides were going in and out that I was thrown against the rocks on a number occasions. At one point we were shooting small sequences and having to pull ourselves back towards the boat against the currents with a long rope.
WHERE DID YOU SHOOT THE IMAGES AND WERE THERE ANY OCEANS THAT PROVIDED BETTER IMAGES THAN OTHERS?
You can’t beat the tropical light and coral of Fiji, while the waters off Gozo had plenty of variety. Water clarity is really important but sun is the most important thing of all.
HOW DID YOU GO ABOUT CHOOSING YOUR MODELS, WHAT QUALITIES DID THEY NEED TO HAVE?
I flew to Australia, where I initially intended to shoot, and was very lucky to meet Polina Barbasova on my first casting. Polina told me that she had been wanting to do a project like this for three years and she turned down a well-paid advertising job to work on it. She had been a swimmer for 12 years and a model for eight but had never done nudes before. As Polina explains in the book, “it was a way for me to accept myself completely from inside out. Doing the shoots stripped me of all role-playing and the ego that usually comes with modelling. I was able to express myself in a completely free and honest way”.
I wanted to use two girls for my second shoot and I was lucky enough to use Nika Lauraitis, a close modelling friend of Polina’s from New York. The fact that they felt totally comfortable with each other was a huge bonus. I am still dumbfounded by their capabilities and I’m extremely privileged to have worked with them.
WHAT IS THE OVERALL MESSAGE IN THESE IMAGES, IN YOUR OPINION?
I wanted Agua Nacida to explore the beauty of the human form and to span the symbolic transition from the cocoon of the womb, to carefree childhood, the discovery of adolescence, the sensuality of womanhood and the pain of birth, depicting each stage in the process through physical actions. I realised that I was touching something much more profound than I set out to do because everything that I had done up to this point professionally had included artifice and ego in some form or other. The moment you submerge yourself in water, no matter who you are, the ego disappears and you touch the true essence of your nature. It’s almost like going back to the beginning, being reborn, hence the title of the book – Agua Nacida ie water born.
The images take us on a parallel journey beneath the surface of the sea. Our souls’ hidden waters come from a powerful, pure and deep place that I am only now starting to understand. For me this is just the beginning of a new and exciting path which I can’t wait to continue explori
Agua Nacida’ by Hugh Arnold is available from Merrell Publishers from September £40www.merrellpublishers.com