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Interview with Deb Schwedhelm, Air Force Nurse Turned Underwater Photographer

Deb Schwedhelm is a wife, mother, former nurse in the US Air Force and professional photographer who specializes in shooting underwater. Her photographs have been exhibited widely and featured in numerous publications throughout the world. Visit her website here.

PetaPixel: First off, tell us a little bit about yourself and your background. You were a nurse in the Air Force before becoming a photographer, right?

Deb Schwedhelm: I grew up in Detroit, Michigan. After two years of nursing school, I decided to enlist in the Army Reserves. After boot camp and Advanced Individual Training (to become a Unit Supply Specialist), I returned to college and finished my Bachelors in Nursing. I then decided to become an Active Duty Registered Nurse, which I continued to do for 10 years. In 2003, I separated from the military in order to pursue a cochlear implant for my hearing-impaired daughter. In 2006, I purchases a DSLR and begin teaching myself photography — a longtime dream of mine (more on that below).

I’m married to the most amazingly supportive husband, who is an Explosive Ordnance Disposal Officer in the Navy. We have three children (16, 10 and 9 years old), who are very often the subjects of my work. Our family relocates every two-to-three years and we’re headed to Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan this summer.

PP: Alright, on to photography in particular. How did you become interested in taking photos?

DS: I remember clear as day saying (at the age of 27), “one day I’m going to go to photography school and become a photographer”. I didn’t know when or how, especially since I was an Active Duty Nurse at the time — I just knew that someday I was going to be a photographer. While I never attended photography school, I owe the actual start of my photography to rats, maggots and flies.

Yes, you read right! About three months after moving into our military house in San Diego, we discovered that there were rats in our inaccessible attic space. Shortly thereafter, maggots began to fall from our ceiling vents and well … that led to thousands of flies. Terrible and disgusting — the ordeal spanned a two month period, during which time I kept great documentation via (you’re not going to believe this) email updates to my friends. I eventually contacted the out-of-state housing management company regarding the fact that no family should have to pay rent for such a housing situation.

In December 2005, we received a refund for two months of rent. Out of the blue, I asked my husband what he thought about me using this unexpected money to pursue photography and he said, “Go for it!” In January 2006, I purchased a camera, a couple of lenses, a few books and began teaching myself photography and I’ve never looked back! Honestly though, I really owe the start of my photography career to my husband, who believed in me and supported me from the very beginning.

PP: Underwater photography can be really expensive to get into — after all, underwater housings don’t come cheap — so it’s rare that we run across photographers that got right into shooting underwater. Did you start off slow with some cheap underwater gear or did you dive in (pun totally intended) with the expensive stuff first right away?

DS: Well, when I lived in San Diego, I once rented underwater housing to photograph a maternity session in the water. And then when we moved to Tampa in 2010, I decided that I would take the plunge and purchase underwater housing. Having a pool in our backyard and a number of nearby beaches, I thought that if there was ever a time to explore underwater photography, this was it. So I purchased an SPL housing for my Nikon D700 and began exploring what was possible in my backyard pool. That quickly led to exploration in the ocean.

PP: What gear do you use now? Any gear you have your eye on that you haven’t pulled the trigger on yet?

DS: I currently photograph with:

In the water:

  • SPL underwater housing
  • Nikon D700
  • Nikon 35mm f/2

Above water:

  • Nikon D4
  • 85mm f/1.8
  • 50mm f/1.4
  • 35mm f/1.4

Believe it or not, I just pulled the trigger on an 1880 8×10 Anthony wet plate collodion camera, a Dallmeyer English 5D lens and a Dallmeyer English ‘Rapid Rectlinear’ lens. I’m excited to see where this might take me while in Japan.

PP: The story goes that you got into underwater photography by taking pictures of your kids in the backyard swimming pool, when did you realize that this was something you wanted to do in a professional capacity?

DS: I think my big a-ha moment with my underwater photography was the day I took my housing out on a boating trip with friends. It was a whole new world because prior to that, I had only been photographing within the constraints of my pool. A whole new world opened up to me. From that moment on, I kept visiting the ocean as much as I could. There was this aching that I had to keep going — allowing the images to speak and the story to unfold.

PP: You shoot almost exclusively black and white for your professional portfolio, why is that? Are you ever tempted to keep a photo in color instead?

DS: It was just a decision that I made pretty early on with my water work. I felt that black and white best fit with the feel and mood of the photographs. I do keep some water photographs in color; however, they just don’t make it into the From the Sea series.

PP: Alright, we saved this one for after the black and white question. What does your post-processing routine look like? Obviously you don’t shoot with a black and white camera, would you mind sharing your presets/workflow with us?


My workflow:

  1. Upload into Lightroom
  2. Convert to BW in LR and make minor adjustments to exposure, tonal curve, etc.
  3. Open in Photoshop to fine tune BW
  4. Save in LR
  5. Crop
  6. Export

All of my BW images go into PS. I have a homemade action that has evolved over the seven years I’ve been doing photography. It’s a very messy action due to the many adjustments that I’ve made over the years without ever cleaning things up, but it works. It’s one of the few things that I hold very personal.

When I use presets, I use Lilyblue and VSCO presets.

PP: Where do you draw your inspiration from?

DS: As cliché as it may sound, I truly draw so much inspiration from my children. My middle child (10 yo) very much gets me. When I take her out to photograph, I leave with a vision and a plan, but based on her actions, I typically end up dumping any plan that I had and we just mesh with one another. She’ll tell you that I often say to her, “just keep doing what you’re doing.” I also am so very inspired by dance and music. I often joke that I’m going to be a dancer in my next life.

PP: What does your typical workday look like? I think a lot of people imagine that doing something you love for a living translates into a lot of free time, but in my experience it’s quite the opposite. As a mother and a professional photographer both, I imagine your days are pretty crazy!

DS: OMG yes, my days are crazy but they greatly vary from day-to-day. Some of the things that have consumed my time lately:

  • Working on a fine art book that is soon to be published
  • Preparing and printing photographs for selected group exhibitions
  • Preparing and printing photographs for three solo shows
  • Teaching two online workshops
  • Responding to emails
  • Book keeping
  • Marketing
  • Packaging and shipping prints
  • Preparing for a portfolio review
  • Designing business and promo cards
  • Preparing for our upcoming move to Japan (there’s so much to do for an overseas move)
  • Taking my children to soccer, art class, crew practice or horse back riding
  • Dentist, doctor and audiology appointments
  • Help with homework
  • Commissioned family sessions
  • Editing
  • Never-ending housework
  • Yard work
  • Helping my oldest apply to college
  • Answering interview questions 🙂
  • And the list goes on…

PP: Many of your photos have a very ethereal (PP readers hate when I use that word… so let me try another) almost haunted feel to them, while others evoke feelings of nostalgia for the simplicity of childhood. Why do you think that is? And better yet, how would you characterize your photography?

DS: When I talk to people about my work, I share that it truly is rooted in my past, which was rather unconventional and difficult, and my present, as a military spouse. Through my photographs, I’m sharing a story and that story includes a journey through darkness and light. I think that Jason Landry, of Panopticon Gallery, said it best when he shared this after reviewing my work last year at photoNOLA:

As she explained that she was in a military family that has moved a lot, the sea and then images took on a whole new meaning for me. The sea acts as a metaphor to their lives, shifting and moving with the tide, while her children remain a constant, treading and swimming through the changes.

PP: Any advice for up and coming photographers? Anything specific for aspiring underwater photographers? Mothers? Military photographers? We’re getting carried away, but you have a very unique set of experiences!

DS: I’m honored to share some thoughts with others:

Photographers: Work to master your technique — and your artistry. Work really hard. Be dedicated, committed and determined. Never stop exploring, reflecting, learning and growing. Have patience. Know that the journey of photography is not always an easy one, but it is an absolutely amazing one. Be authentic and make genuine connections. Remember to be grateful, kind and giving. Do your best and don’t ever give up!

Mothers: Do your best and remind yourself that doing the best that you know how is really awesome. Know that you can’t do it all. Don’t be afraid to outsource. Learn to say ‘no’. Take everyday photographs of your children.

Aspiring Underwater Photographers: Try out your iPhone with underwater casing or an underwater point-and-shoot prior to purchasing the expensive housing. I’ve seen people do amazing things with both iPhones and P&S cameras. Photographing underwater is not easy and it’s not for everyone.

PP: Where do you go from here? Any projects in the works, or specific goals for your photographic career?

DS: That’s a great question. I plan to shoot as much as I possibly can in the water this summer before we move to Japan. I also might be traveling the US for a few months this summer and may be launching a new project. I’m not quite ready to release my new project but please stay tuned.

I’ll be learning and practicing wet plate collodion. And who knows what amazing opportunities and adventures Japan will bring. With each and every move, I try to embrace all the new location, community, landscape, culture, etc. have to offer. I feel that relocating often has been such a gift in my photographic journey.

PP: Alright, I think that’s all we have! Any final words for the readers of PetaPixel?

DS: I really can’t believe all that has happened in my photographic career. This has been the most amazing journey ever and I’m beyond grateful to so many, who have graciously helped me along the way.

No matter what your personal journey, don’t be afraid to dream and dream big — you just never know what’s possible with a little dreaming and a lot of hard work. Don’t forget the importance of authenticity and don’t ever forget to share your gratitude with those who have assisted you. My friend, Lori Vrba, always says, “It takes a village”, and I so wholeheartedly agree.

[via PetaPixel]

[via PetaPixel]

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