Dancing with Whales: A Storyhunter Takeover by Karim Iliya
Karim Iliya is a professional aerial cinematographer, as well as an underwater photographer and filmmaker, based on the island of Maui, Hawaii. Karim’s focus is on documenting wildlife and marine environments using free diving and drones. Karim’s passion is in documenting whales, elephants, big cats, polar bears, and other threatened animals in an effort to create appreciation in order to help protect our delicate ecosystems on Earth. Karim runs guided whale swimming trips in Tonga, and has been published in the National Geographic for his humpback whale and aerial photography.
Storyhunter: What was this project about and how did you get started with it?
Karim Iliya: As I became more interested in underwater photography I moved to Hawaii to photograph humpback whales. It’s incredibly difficult to get a permit here to do so, and so I looked for other ways. It took a few years to get things set up in Tonga to go and photograph them in their mating waters there. One component is to bring people along to experience coming face to face with humpbacks. My hope is that this will connect people with the ocean and think more about how we humans affect our waters, and what we can do to protect them. A huge focus in my work is in environmental conservation and documenting the natural world in a positive light. The goal now is to expand out and document other whale species like sperm whales, blue whales, minke whales, and orcas to tell their stories.
SH: What was your favorite picture from the Takeover & why?
KI: My favorite photo from the takeover I call ‘Bubble Warning’ (above). It is my favorite photo that I’ve ever taken (and I’ve taken over one million photos by now). I love how regal and stoic the big male humpback is (in the front) full of scars from battle for mating rights. The whales are partly indifferent, going about their business, but the bubbles serve as a warning and to obscure the female and baby whale from my approach. To me, it’s a great example of how beautiful and powerful nature is.
SH: What was the most memorable part of this project?
KI: Hard to pinpoint what the most memorable part is. This is an ongoing project for me that will hopefully last a lifetime whereby I can document different whale species and their behaviors around the world. The first time swimming with whales was incredible. I’ll be in Tonga in a week again and photographing them.
For one to two minutes, my body is weightless, my camera is weightless, and the animals that move around are strange and beautiful. Light beams dance. The world underwater is so dynamic, and my body and brain feel at peace.
SH: Why do you like working underwater and with drones?
KI: The underwater world is a magical place. Only in outer space and underwater are you free to move in any direction you choose. Up or down, it does not matter. It is a strange world that very few people spend time in, and yet it is fascinating and full of mysteries. There are animals that seem to have super powers, like sperm whales that use sonar to navigate in darkness and paralyze giant squid for food. There are colonies of coral that battle at night and jellyfish with bioluminescence. And there are humpback whales that gather together for singing, fighting, mating, and raising their young. They are giants, growing the size of buses, 45 feet long, with fifteen foot tails and fins, and yet they are possibly the most gentle and kind animals in the water. For one to two minutes, my body is weightless, my camera is weightless, and the animals that move around are strange and beautiful. Light beams dance. The world underwater is so dynamic, and my body and brain feel at peace. It’s an incredible place full of surprises and animals that seem to fly through the blue. I also love flying drones. The same idea of being able to explore three dimensional spaces applies, but unfortunately while the drone gets to have incredible views, I am usually squinting at a little screen sitting in the hot sun. One day I’d love to be able to get up where the drone goes and take a camera with me, like I do underwater.
SH: What is it about projects like this that draw you to freelancing?
KI: Despite the struggles, financial difficulty, and uncertainty of freelancing, it allows for a huge amount of freedom both with time and projects. I have friends who only get two weeks holiday, which is unthinkable to me. I spend half the year on the road doing projects, many of them personal projects. Freelancing allows me to photograph whales, fly drones for extreme sports companies, work on documentary films, document interesting cultures in Greenland, Kamchatka, and North Korea all in the same year. It also enables me to build and create my own projects like “Dance with Whales” in which I spend two months of the year taking people on snorkel / free diving trips and running photography workshops to come face-to-face with humpback whales. The amount of variety that comes from freelancing is incredible, and you can focus on what interests you.
Freelancing allows me to photograph whales, fly drones for extreme sports companies, work on documentary films, document interesting cultures in Greenland, Kamchatka, and North Korea all in the same year.
SH: What do you think is the most challenging part of freelancing?
KI: Making money and trying to do eight different jobs. Figuring out all the business aspects, web design, marketing, taxes, emails, editing, outreach, negotiation, graphic design, and all these other skills that have nothing to do with photography or filmmaking. Not having a support team to do these things feels like you are juggling lots of different objects of different size and weight.
SH: What are you working on next?
KI: Next is back to Tonga with the whales! Longer term is trying to get involved with National Geographic and The BBC, and building a team that can do all the backend work so I can focus more on photography and filmmaking.
Follow Karim on Instagram @karimiliya and @Storyhunter for more photos from the Takeover.
Want to get more insights into freelancing and video production? Sign up for our newsletter here!