Swimming with the Sharks: A Storyhunter Takeover with Steve De Neef
Steve De Neef is an underwater photographer and video journalist who specializes in nature, documentary, conservation, and people. He works with scientists, NGOs, coastal communities, and renowned publications to inspire positive change and show conservation efforts to a broader audience. Steve recently took over our Instagram page with images of his powerful underwater and aerial landscapes. We asked him to reflect on his work and his life as a freelancer.
Storyhunter: What was your project about?
Steve De Neef: The images here are part of a long term project that is still ongoing. Over the years I’ve been documenting both the beauty and destruction of our oceans and am trying to see how both affect coastal communities. On one hand, you have a community that greatly profits from the seas bounties like the whale shark tourism in Oslob, Philippines. And on the other hand, you can have a community who has lost nearly all their ocean resources and is struggling to survive, as was the case for many communities living along islands in the Philippines affected by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. I feel it’s important to show people are connected to the health of the ocean — when life struggles, so will the people who depend on it. When marine life thrives, so can the people living around it, whether that is through sustainable fishing or tourism. The ocean provides more than 50% of the oxygen on our planet, we all need it to survive.
SH: What is your favorite picture from the Takeover?
SDN: It must be the whale shark feeding underneath the fisherman in Oslob, Philippines. While I don’t necessarily agree with the practice of feeding wildlife and the ever-growing tourism industry in Oslob, I still find it an unreal scene and it keeps me fascinated. This image was taken before the tourism took off there — I had heard whale sharks were attracted to the bait used by these fishermen and had to see it for myself. On this day there were at least five other sharks feeding just like this. Nowadays it’s a bit of a circus. Sometimes there is over a thousand tourists a day, way too much to be sustainable.
SH: How did you become a freelancer?
SDN: For me it kind of happened gradually, I was working as a diving instructor and teaching photo courses. I slowly started to get more of my work published and to do my own stories and sell them. After a year or two of combining teaching and working as a photojournalist, I managed to turn it into a full time job.
SH: What draws you to the freelance life?
SDN: I love the freedom it gives me, both in when and where I work. I’ve been lucky to travel to some amazing places and cover a variety of stories from climate change in North America to seaweed farmers in the Philippines. It definitely keeps life interesting and you get to meet amazing people along the way. With each new story I get to experience how other people look at life and how they choose to live it. When I’m not working with people and just get to cover a particular animal or region I can get totally immersed in nature, something that’s becoming harder to do these days.
SH: What is the most challenging part about being a freelancer?
SDN: Finding new and inspiring stories that haven’t been told before, then finding the budget needed to cover it. Funding is hard to get and most clients don’t have the budget for travel, diving, and a field day to do it right. There’s not a lot of stability in freelance work which makes it hard to do full time and combine it with a family life.
SH: What was the most memorable part of this assignment?
SDN: Going to Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park in the Philippines was an amazing experience. It takes about nine hours by boat and there is no habitable land so we slept on a boat after diving all day. It’s such a wild and untouched place underwater that it feels like going back in time. There’s no internet and no cell phone coverage so it’s a nice place to get away from everything and enjoy nature.
SH: What’s it like working in water?
SDN: It can be very challenging, conditions always change, you can’t really use tripods and tele lenses so that means you have to get very close to everything you shoot. When it all comes together it makes for some amazing encounters though — there’s not much else that compares to swimming next to a 30 foot whale shark! Another challenge of working underwater is that we are either limited by our breath holding skills when snorkeling or by the air in your tank when diving, it would be lot easier if you could spend hours on end underwater while shooting.
By Jindalae Suh, Writer at Storyhunter