Everything begins and ends in the ocean – and the ocean, they say, never forgets. Souls are cleansed, grief is washed away, memories are swept off only to return with every tide. When Umeed Mistry dived into the murky depths of the sea for the first time seventeen years ago, all he took with him was his open mind and endless curiosity. What he found there was everything he ever needed to know about himself. Now a diving instructor, he guides the uninitiated, opening their eyes to every miniscule form of aquatic life. A photographer, he captures brief and wondrous moments of underwater beauty, immortalizing the magical play of sunshine on joyful dolphins, the nervous eyes of a fish peeping out from an anemone. He paints pictures with words and explores the darker corners of his mind in his drawings. He quotes Lord Byron, learns lessons in human nature and sees art in the mysterious lives of insects. His every photograph is a secret unveiled, whispered into the longing ears of the viewer. On a path of regeneration, Mistry writes and photographs, dives and teaches, in the hope that the oceans, that connect everything, will survive this world.
The Fuschia Tree: Let's start at the very beginning. What did you want to be when you were little?
Umeed Mistry: When I was little, I was very shy. With a little cajoling from my parents, rather than staring at the floor when people asked me what I wanted to be, I started telling them that I wanted to be an astronaut. Secretly, I wanted to be a train engine driver more than an astronaut. But astronaut sounded cooler, I don't know why.
One thing I do know is that I have always been fascinated by water. As a kid I was drawn to every bit of water I could find…a fountain in the foyer of a hotel, the aquarium at somebody's house, rainfall, puddles. To this day, when I see water I am compelled to approach it and look in. I want to see what's inside, what little mysteries it holds. I know it might sound funny, but even watching mosquito larvae swimming about in a discarded pot of water instills a sense of wonder in me. Because in my mind I am seeing all the connections – the inseparability between two starkly different worlds; the absolute reliance of almost every living thing on earth on these molecules of hydrogen and oxygen without which many creature's lifecycles would not even manifest; without which the very basic functioning of the cells in our systems would come to a grinding halt. All these aspects of H2O, and everything that it encompasses, both seen and unseen, fascinate me.
TFT: Tell us about how your journey with the ocean and underwater photography began.
UM: My journey into diving began in 1996. I went to the Maldives with my family. In the weeks before the trip I knew that I'd be snorkeling and spending time on the beach, but it never once occurred to me that I'd go diving. The resort we stayed at was offering introductory dives in the lagoon and I decided to try one without thinking much of it. The instructor did some exercises with us in two meters of water, under the jetty in front of the resort. This part of the experience was interesting and fun, but it was the first dive out to the bottom of the lagoon that was the definitive turning point in my life. On that first dive every part of my being knew that I had found the space I wanted to inhabit. I am fortunate to have discovered this calling in my mid-teens and am forever grateful and indebted to my parents for giving me the opportunity.
TFT: Some of us spend our entire lives in search of something – a moment of absolute, life-changing stillness or an experience that will alter the way we see the world forever. We go to great lengths in these quests, and often find what we were looking for in the most unexpected corners of the earth. Do you think you were seeking out something when you stumbled into the ocean for your first dive?
UM: I was not seeking anything on that first dive, and in retrospect I think maybe that's what made that first dive everything it was. I've already mentioned my fascination with water. Furthermore, I had developed a great curiosity and respect for nature, instilled in me through my parents and the way in which they viewed the world. And so I think that the person I had become by the time I had this experience was a person who was simply ready to absorb everything that this experience brought with it. Like the confluence of so many events that miraculously come together for simple things to transpire every day, everywhere in the world, this was one of those moments. Odd as it may sound, I was not seeking anything in particular that day, and yet found everything of myself in that lagoon that I needed to find.
TFT: What is the greatest lesson you have learnt from diving/ teaching/ photographing?
UM: I have been diving for 17-going-on-18 years now, teaching for 11 years and photographing underwater for almost 9 years. There are many things I have learnt in this time. I have learnt that some loud, overconfident adults become fearful, teary-eyed children that need greater care in the water and some quiet, reserved children become colorful, expressive adults in the sea; that nature is neither merciful nor merciless – it just is, and all other "characteristics" are simply our anthropomorphic projections; that some parasites prefer certain kinds of goatfish to other kinds that inhabit the same reef; that parrotfish in the Andaman Islands don't make mucous blankets for themselves at night as much as parrotfish in the Lakshadweep because most of the sharks in the Andamans that normally hunt these parrotfish have been fished out.
What constitutes a greater or a lesser lesson is debatable. The lessons I've learned about human nature and our relationship with our fears is useful when I’m teaching people to dive. On the flip side, the lessons learnt in how to gauge whether a moray eel is comfortable with my nearness, or whether I am in danger of being bitten, are more worthwhile when I am diving by myself with my camera. Perhaps the one thing that I constantly rediscover or am reminded of over the years is that I know so very little.
TFT: Does your perspective of the ocean and its life change when you are diving with a camera in your hand? How is it different, if at all?
UM: No. My deeper perspectives of the ocean and her children were formed well before I started taking photos underwater. I first took a camera into the water in January 2005 and by this time I had logged more than 2,500 dives. I had already spent hours staring at both the majestic and the miniscule, had already discovered my ability to never be bored on a dive, to always find something that I could marvel at, even in seemingly lifeless coral rubble or sand. This is not to say that I am not constantly learning something new, because I am. But there is no real difference in the way I see the reef and the ocean with or without the camera.
The difference lies in what I do with my perspective and knowledge. When I am leading other people on a dive I do not take my camera. The focus in this instance is to find and point out as much as I can to my dive buddies. When I am diving with my camera the focus is on capturing the beauty and behaviour of the same critters that I would normally point out to people.
TFT: Your every photograph is a piece of art, an intricate and flawless painting. Is your art simply a way of documenting and sharing your experience of the ocean, or is it more about creation and giving expression to your underwater visions? Take us through your process of creation.
UM: Wildlife photographers are faced with situations that more often than not require a quick reaction time. One of the things that separates the very good ones from the good ones is the ability to imbue a personal creative vision in the resulting image. Having said this, I don’t think that I go out into the ocean with a particular look in mind. Underwater everything is constantly in motion and one has to work with this constant change. I think every wildlife photographer would like their imagery to transcend documentation and be a more personally expressive body of work. The reality, however, is that we all end up with a mixture of the two, based on circumstance.
I do believe in preparedness, however, and believe that the more prepared I am for different photographic situations underwater, the more chances I have of introducing a creative vision into a photograph. Above water, this involves studying my photographs and other people’s photographs, and understanding what I need to do to better mine. Underwater, a simple technical example is that I never use ttl modes on my flashes, and instead have taught myself to shoot everything in manually controlled light, allowing me to capture the same scene in many different ways.
TFT: Is there a message or story in your photographs, or an underlying purpose in your art?
UM: I would like to think that my wildlife photography does have a larger purpose than being merely pretty pictures. I started taking photos underwater with the intent of bringing the beauty of the ocean to people who did not dive. So, at the most basic level, I would like my images to inspire a sense of awe and wonder that would instill a curiosity in people to educate themselves a little more about the subject. I believe that awareness and education are the foundations to interacting with the environment in a more sensitive and sustainable manner.
At a slightly more involved level, it would make me happy to know that somebody has read one of my articles or blog posts and has then gone for a walk in the forest or a snorkel on the reef and thought, "Oh, I get what Umeed was talking about! So this is how this little guy’s role fits into the larger workings of this ecosystem."
TFT: Besides your work what is the one thing that completely consumes you?
UM: Fantasy artwork and chocolate! I know this probably sounds quite one-dimensional, but the truth is that diving and photography are so much more than just work, not something I switch off from after 5 p.m. Each of these worlds is vast and I know so little. In the Wonderland realm of visual arts, I am Alice. And so, while lying in bed and waiting for sleep, I might read about colour theory and how it applies to Photoshop. Or I might take a break (get distracted) from writing a blog post about reef fish to look at the composition and light rendering of the drawings that went into the making of the Lord Of The Rings.
TFT: Describe a dive that you will never forget.
UM: There are quite a few dives that will remain with me until I start to lose my memory. In 2007 the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life getting to know got hit by a bus and died. I took her ashes with me to the Andaman Islands – a place she loved – and went on a dive to release them underwater. I opened the vessel, tipped it over and watched as the ashes mixed with the seawater, like billowing smoke. I was very familiar with this reef and watched all the same creatures – the anemone fish, the fusiliers, the Moorish idol – go about their usual business as though everything in the world was just as it should be. To me everything in the world had fallen through a hole in the ground. I spent the rest of the dive kneeling on the sand with my mask off my face, crying.
I will remember this dive not because of anything special that I saw or that happened. I will remember it because of the ocean itself. Being in the ocean and immersing myself in my diving and photography was the one thing more than anything else that has helped me heal and rediscover myself.
TFT: "There is a rapture on the lonely shore/ There is society, where none intrudes/ By the deep Sea, and music in its roar/ I love not Man the less, but Nature more." You have said that Lord Byron got it right. What it is that draws you into what may be perceived as a lonelier life?
UM: That's an interesting choice of phrase – lonelier life. And perhaps therein lies the difference – alone is not the same as lonely. Interestingly, it seems to me that fewer and fewer people seem to truly understand this. So much so that it is not uncommon to want to spend some time alone and as a result have somebody ask if everything is ok.
As for the actual draw itself, there are two aspects to this. One, I cannot imagine not doing what I love…and that is automatically going to take me away from the cities and out to the islands. And if my commute to work is on a boat out at sea then I’m not complaining! And two, I genuinely believe that everybody should consciously spend time alone. It teaches one much about oneself and gives perspective to all the miscellaneous bullshit that comes with the need to be connected to other people all the time.
I think people who choose to spend most of their time in remote locations surrounded by nature just give a different value to things than people who don’t. Not better, not worse, just different. I give less value to owning a car, a house and an iPhone and more value to spending that money traveling or buying the camera gear needed to further my passion. While I might see the value of being connected to 265 ‘friends’ on Facebook and being able to check e-mail at all hours of the day, I’m not going to let it dictate how far off the beaten track I venture based on a wi-fi connection or a cell-phone tower.
TFT: If we define regeneration as creating a cycle of sustainable living and inspiring conservation, what is your role in this scheme of things?
UM: This is something that I am very fortunate to have come upon. Through a series of circumstances and choices over the last 4 years, I am now based at the research station of the Andaman and Nicobar Environmental Team (ANET). It is a place that brings together an incredible set of people doing incredible work in research, conservation and education.
Over the years I have tried to shape my work as a photographer and dive instructor to complement the work that happens out of ANET. As a photographer I provide ANET with images for all the education material and other publications that it creates. I have helped some of the researchers with photographic and video documentation of their work and hope to continue doing so. In collaboration with a group of researchers, I am involved in the creation of a website that will serve as a comprehensive database of marine species in India’s waters.
As a dive instructor, I conduct the marine part of the island ecology awareness programs that ANET holds for school groups from all over the country. Lacadives, the dive company that I am a part of, is constantly training people from the local communities in scuba so that they may act as underwater field assistants to researchers working out of ANET.
In all of this, as well as in my personal photographic and writing work, the primary driving force is simple – to do anything, big or small, that will contribute towards the conservation of our oceans.
TFT: When you are diving, are you ever afraid? Tell us about some of the emotions that consume you in your line of work.
UM: I have never been afraid for myself while at sea or underwater, despite being in a few life threatening situations. On difficult days at sea, I am sometimes concerned about the people under my supervision, but have always managed to handle the situations I’ve come upon. Touch wood!
The primary emotion that I experience while diving is peace. This varies in intensity. When I’m looking after people in the water I feel this peace, but I feel it through the awareness and concentration that I must have in order to keep people safe in the water. When I am by myself in the water this sensation of peace is all pervading. It begins the moment I deflate my BC (buoyancy compensator) and does not change regardless of whether I have my head stuck under a rock looking at a worm or whether I am floating in mid-water with my eyes closed.
Another sensation that I often associate with diving is awe. It is something I have felt many times underwater. I am in awe of the mastery a shark or manta ray has over its movement in this liquid world. I am in awe of the phenomenal camouflage in the eye of a crocodile fish.
TFT: What would you do if you could not dive anymore?
UM: I’ve thought about this one a lot. A few years ago the idea of not being able to dive was unbearable. But one starts to see that the events in one’s life unfold for us to learn from them. A future scenario of me not being able to dive would simply result in a shift of my curiosity and fascination with nature from the water to land.
This has already started to happen – an increase of land-based wildlife photography since I began in 2005. I know that I am probably better known for my underwater images. But there is magic in the eyes of a housefly (really, there is), in the way a dragonfly beats its wings, in the society of ants and bees. And so there is no dearth of material in nature with which to occupy and enamor a curious mind. I have already begun on a journey into photographing the life that goes unnoticed beneath our feet. I have no doubt that these sorts of journeys will continue even if I have to stop diving. The world is a large place, enough to fill many lifetimes.
TFT: Are you more comfortable in water in the company of sea creatures than on land in the company of people?
UM: Without a doubt.
TFT: Do you write poetry? Do you build sandcastles on the beach (or in the air)? Tell us what you do when you are not underwater.
UM: I do write, but not poetry as such. Right now most of my writing complements my photography…an attempt to further describe the finer details that an image reveals, but which might not be as apparent to somebody unfamiliar with that particular species or ecosystem.
When I am not underwater I continue to photograph on land. As I mentioned earlier, I like to photograph minute, everyday occurrences in nature that most people pass by without noticing. I write about these images on my blog and hope to inspire people to step out and notice the incredible goings-on in their own backyards.
I am a very visual person and so I also draw, although not as much at the moment as I would like to. My drawings, unlike my photography, are not inspired by what is visible to my eye, but more a wandering of my mind. I think a slightly darker aspect of my personality is revealed in my drawings.
I love to travel, to be out and about in nature. When I’m on the islands I enjoy losing myself in the forest foliage after a day of diving and looking to see how many bizarre little insects I can find. When I am on the mainland during the monsoon season I try to make short trips out of the city to deal with the persistent travel and photography bugs.
TFT: If you could live on only four foods (you have these in abundance), including the essentials like salt, water, gin, what would they be?
UM: Gin? Can we replace the gin with a good whisky? If we were talking about four kinds of food then they’d have to be Thai, Chinese, some kinds of Italian food and chocolate. If we’re talking about four foods then I’d go with chocolate, mangoes, coffee and chocolate.
TFT: You're traveling around the world with one book and one song. What are they?
UM: The book would be empty – for me to draw and write in. I like the sound of the wind in the forest and the crashing of waves on the beach. I know that sounds like a line from a movie, but the truth is that I often reject music to listen to the quiet, and if I had to choose between music and silence I would not hesitate to choose silence. Don’t get me wrong – music is an amazing thing, with much power and purpose. I am simply content with the playlist in my head and often sing to myself when I want a song.
TFT: Your most valuable possession?
UM: Integrity. I know that some of the people I have crossed paths with consider me rather difficult and pigheaded. I am ok with this, and prefer it to being swayed by popular opinion, coolness factors or the loudest voice in the room.
TFT: What were some of the jobs you had when you were younger? What would you tell a lost, young practitioner in your field?
UM: While at university I worked for Campus Security and also ran a little café in the common room of the dormitory I lived in. I would tell a lost practitioner in my field, young or old, to buy a compass. You can’t take photos of the fish on the reef if you can’t find the reef. Aside from that, it’s the same old stuff really – follow your heart and think outside the box. Underwater photography is probably one of the most frustrating forms of wildlife photography, and the only way to get anywhere with it is to keep at it. I have flooded housings and lost a small fortune in camera equipment, but it is in my blood, and so I save and scrounge to buy another camera so that I can continue with the madness of it all.
As told to Aneesha Bangera, who is sometimes a writer, but most often just a weird fish wandering.
Happier under water than on land, Umeed Mistry spends his amphibious existence as a dive instructor, wildlife photographer and researcher for ANET.
Every sunbeam, every strain of music, every sapling and starfish is ultimately the regeneration of a previous something, a collection of somethings, taking on new shape. At the most indivisible level we can comprehend, all life is nothing more than atoms and molecules dancing their way through various forms. And if everything comes from something, it stands to reason that everything must go to something as well.Read More
By Aneesha Bangera, Issue 27, Regeneration: Revolving Growth