Depths of Field


The photography of Jennifer O’Neil.

By Brett Levine

Most people wouldn’t envision a fall down some stairs—with the accompanying break of a bone in one’s foot—as being the impetus that kickstarted their career, but award-winning underwater photographer Jennifer O’Neil isn’t most people. “I was so angry and frustrated with having to spend three weeks on bed rest that I channeled all of my energy into getting my website in shape,” she laughs. “In less than a month, editors were calling me.”

If this seems like a fairy tale, the truth is a little more realistic. O’Neil has been diving since she was seven years old, so she has more than 30 years of experience in the water. She also has acute senses of spatial and visual awareness, having studied architecture at Auburn University—including with the late Samuel Mockbee at the Rural Studio—as well as having been a photographer for many years.

O’Neil’s first published underwater images appeared in Sport Diver. “The magazine published three of my photographs,” she pauses, “and I think then I realized that I was meant to be doing this, which is what I love.” Now, O’Neil spends part of each year in Bonaire, which she first visited in the early 1990s, and some of the remainder traveling. “I like to travel either to places that I haven’t been that have a unique underwater experience, or to return someplace incredible, like the Maldives.

“There,” she explains, “each year there is an aggregation of giant Manta rays due to an algae bloom. They’re so dense that they may literally bump into you. It is incredible.”

Part of O’Neil’s fascination with the undersea environment stems from her commitment to conservation. Named a finalist in the National Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year competition this past December for a captivating image of a bait ball in Bonaire, she remarks, “That bait ball, which was one of the biggest I’d ever seen, was netted two days later in its entirety. I submitted the image in part because I was mad as hell, and I wanted to be part of a conversation.”

O’Neil recognizes the complex and delicate balance of the environments she documents in her images. “It’s difficult when you hear local fishermen complain that they aren’t catching big fish like they used to. In places like Bonaire, with the bait ball, it’s a great example. The big fish need the smaller fish to live on, so once they’re gone, you’ve got a problem.”

For now, her focus is on documenting the natural beauty of the environment in both videos and still photography. “I started making videos a year and a half ago,” O’Neil says. “I wanted to capture the beauty of what I was seeing in motion.” Now, one of the biggest challenges is what happens above the water; once she begins a dive she regards herself as committed. “I just take a camera, no other equipment. I can’t switch from stills to video over and over. I get in a mindset, and want to focus on capturing the best image. I think that a lot of my approach comes from beginning with film, where you only had 36 exposures. Now, I’ll be done with a dive and have 100 shots, and think it’s a lot. But I can’t imagine sitting down to edit 1,000 photos in Lightroom.

“What I do know, though,” she laughs, “is that when I’m shooting you don’t want to be my dive buddy.”

Instead, it is her long history of and love for diving that informs many of the decisions she makes. “I think a lot of how I work comes down to what I’ve learned from diving over the years—what conditions are good for bait balls, or how it might be unusual to see a whale shark in Bonaire, and why that might be more interesting than an angel fish. Understanding what is out of the ordinary, or what the conditions should be, can really help make a great photograph.”

Other than that, the biggest challenge she encounters is simply “getting to where the good stuff is. When I had to be airlifted out of the Maldives”—another fall left her with a broken leg—“I had to explain to the air ambulance pilot that when I said I had 180 pounds of luggage I wasn’t kidding. Once you have two strobes and a housing on a professional camera, something that feels like it weighs a pound in the water probably weighs 45 pounds on dry land. And, like many regular divers, being familiar with your equipment means that using rental equipment at your destination could be a risk you’re not willing to take.” Still, when you consider that to capture an incredible image you might spend 90 minutes submerged at 95 feet, these concerns seem reasonable enough. What has resulted, apart from some wear and tear, are a series of award-winning images and videos. She has been Highly Honored for  the video Bonaire’s Shallow Seas in the 2017 Windland Smith Rice Awards, and for The Natural Wonders of Raja Ampat in the 2017 Nature’s Best Photography Asia Awards. O’Neil is in fact a big believer in competitions. “Enter something, because it allows you to follow your passion. Recently, someone said that I was wasting my talent because I wasn’t still pursuing the career I’d spent years at university studying. I thought to myself, ‘Maybe I’m wasting my talent, but I’m not wasting my passion.’ I think the most important challenge anyone can face is keeping their mind open to possibilities. I fell, broke a bone in my foot, and built a website. Who would have imagined where it has all gone from there?”

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